Lifting the cloakNiels Reinsborg
20/06/2012 11:08:00 a.m.
Edited by Awhina Tamarapa, Te Papa Press, 200pp,
Reviewed by Niels Reinsborg
The product of a wananga of the National Maori Weavers Collective, and the impetus for a stunning new exhibition at Te Papa, this book opens the storeroom doors of the national museum’s collection of kakahu (Maori cloaks), the largest collection in the world.
Beautifully illustrated with over 300 photographs, some historic and others taken by photographer Norman Heke, Whatu Kākahu is so much more than just another coffee table book on Maori art. Five chapters, each written by an expert contributor, detail the history and significance of weaving, the materials used, with images and graphic diagrams of weaving techniques.
Forty rare and precious kākahu from the museum’s collection, some more than 150 years old, are featured specially, with details of age, materials and weaving technique with quotes from master weavers and other experts, stories of the cloaks and details of their often remarkable provenance.
Included is a rare dog skin cloak acquired by an early Wellington settler from a Te Atiawa chief in around 1842, and the cloak which saved the life of an early Wellington settler in 1840. Thomas McKenzie had taken shelter in a house being built by the Maori of Pipitea pā in Thorndon, unaware that while under construction the house was deemed tapu, or out of bounds.
When McKenzie was discovered, local Maori enraged by his intrusion, were about to strike Thomas, but Ruhia Pōrutu, wife of the son of local chief Te Rirā Pōrutu, threw her kākahu over him. This act saved Thomas’ life, as in Maori custom throwing a kākahu over a person symbolises protection.
Whatu Kākahu was the brainchild of Arapata Hakiwai of Te Papa who wanted to bring the kākahu held at the museum out of their storeroom drawers. He made the suggestion to Te Roopu Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa, the national Maori weavers’ collective who during a three day conference in 2007 chose some of the book’s themes based on their importance to the weavers who had gathered. The result is a book which is a taonga in itself and a celebration of the mātauranga, science and art of Maori weaving.