Janet McAllister on the arts

Janet McAllister looks at the world of the arts and literature.

Janet McAllister: Sacred practice of creating art

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Rei Mihaere says a karakia before carving begins. Photo / Supplied
Rei Mihaere says a karakia before carving begins. Photo / Supplied

I'm not sure how often absurdist dance-theatre writers and traditional whakairo master carvers express similar ideas about art practice. But that is what happened last week, although the artists have probably never met.

The first artist is Jo Randerson, one of my favourite theatre practitioners for her wit, originality, deep ideas and occasional well-targeted outrageousness.

She was giving a talk at the Tempo Dance Festival about her successful Hullapolloi collaboration and mentioned that historian Karen Armstrong has - like several others before her - suggested art should be treated like religion.

Although Randerson didn't go into detail, Armstrong sees art and religion as practices which explore beyond what can be explained rationally, as being complementary to reason rather than denying it, and as giving expression and meaning to the inexplicable.

Randerson herself sees the rehearsal room as a sacred space. This means, for instance, mobile phones should be turned off and all concentration given over to particular creativities.

I was reminded of this when Rei Mihaere talked to me about the tapu nature of whakairo carving at the Atamira Maori in the City expo a couple of days later.

Mihaere, Ngaitai-affiliated, is a master carver with Te Ranga Kura Whakairo in the Waikato, and contributed to the 21m Pou Kapua totem outside the TelstraClear Pacific Events Centre in Manukau.

(Mihaere also does carvings for 21st birthdays - instead of receiving keys, Maori often receive waka paddles, carved with iwi designs and symbolic animals, which represent "steering with direction and purpose" as he puts it.)

Because whakairo is tapu, the large carving demonstration area at Atamira was surrounded with low barriers so carvers were separate from spectators. Mihaere explained that until 1998 Te Ranga carvers wouldn't carve in front of an audience, because the first non-carver to see a finished work was supposed to be the person receiving it.

Then the tikanga evolved because promoting well-being, traditional knowledge and an active lifestyle through carving demonstrations became more important.

The tapu nature of whakairo also means karakia are said before a totara is cut down and every morning before carving starts. "It means the team is safe," says Mihaere. "If your head is not in the right space [when carving], then you go for a walk, otherwise that wairua [spirit] starts taking over."

For Mihaere, clearly, toi whakairo is an explicitly spiritual practice, they are one and the same, whereas others may only see similarities between art and religious practice. That's a significant difference but, in both cases, art-making is being approached deliberately, carefully and with reverence and veneration that go far beyond merely ensuring safety or productivity.

Such a formal approach is one way of showing that some activities - whichever activities one finds particularly meaningful - deserve a special respect, even (or particularly) in this electronic-overload age. Theatre-goers usually ensure they won't be interrupted by ringing phones. The Japanese tea ceremony or even the rituals of rugby goal kickers before penalty or conversion attempts are similar - a way of clearing the mind and focusing on the meaningful task at hand.

Here's to deliberately cleared moments of enjoyable concentration - art-making or otherwise.

- NZ Herald

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