A group of south Hokianga weavers is honouring and demystifying a Māori sail held for centuries by the British Museum of London.
Their work, partly a response to a challenge laid down 100 years ago by a great Māori leader, will feature in Wawata, an exhibition at Kohukohu's Village Arts Gallery, writes Lindy Laird. Photos supplied by Village Arts Gallery.
What might not have changed much in form and fibre since one of the greatest migrations, led by possibly the world's greatest navigators, is behind another journey of discovery.
Te Rā, the hand-woven sail in the Oceania collection held by the British Museum, is at the heart of a Matariki exhibition at Kohukohu's Village Arts Gallery.
Wawata, an exhibition by Pā Te Aroha Weavers, pays homage to the last remaining ancient Māori sail in the world, thought to have been taken back to London by Captain James Cook in the late 1700s.
The intricately made artefact is 4.3m tall and 2m across at its widest point and uses a unique hono, or join, which three Hokianga weavers who travelled to see the sail were keen to study. They also studied features such as the sail's pennant and bunches of notched feathers, the purpose of which are no longer known.
Te Rā is a mystery - no one knows for certain where it came from in New Zealand, or how old it is. There are stories about it possibly coming from a Kupē voyage waka, making landfall in Hokianga.
Not so, said Sunlight. The sail is probably between 200 - 250 years old, and would be from a coastal, not ocean-going, waka. But what the history, it's a connection strengthened by the weavers' drive to learn and preserve the old techniques used on the sail.
Pā Te Aroha Weavers is a diverse collective of artists who have been meeting regularly for the past 30 years at Pā Te Aroha Marae in Whirinaki, South Hokianga.
The museum where Te Rā has been in storage has no information on the rare artefact and there is little to indicate much research has been done before. But in February three Pā Te Aroha Weavers, Mandy Sunlight, Rouati Ewens and Ruth Port, travelled to London to view and document details about the sail.
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The weavers hoped to work out how Te Rā was made, then bring the knowledge back to Aotearoa and use it to recreate a traditional sail. Following the trip, the second phase of the project has been experimenting with techniques gleaned from viewing the sail, some fruits of which will be seen in Wawata .
''For many years we have been discussing bringing the knowledge of this sail back to New Zealand and practising skills needed to begin such a challenge,'' Pā Te Aroha Weavers wrote in an online fundraising plea for their London visit.
''The visit will be an intense focus on researching the details of the sail so we can recreate it faithfully once we are back in New Zealand.
''Almost 100 years ago, Te Rangi Hiroa (Sir Peter Buck) laid down a wero (challenge) to recreate the sail before the knowledge and skills are forever lost. No one to date has taken up this challenge, until now! Our vision is to recreate Te Rā in response to Te Rangi Hiroa's wero.
''We are excited to be on such a wonderful journey of discovery and revival of the skills in re-creating such a taonga.''
The focus of Wawata is aspiration, inspiration and imagining - and emphasising art in practice today and its place in history.
On one hand, the exhibition will highlight the applied, practice-based research of the Te Rā project, alongside which artists will weave, create and display differing tauira (models or methods) as an expressive and aesthetic response to the taonga.
''Village Arts is excited by the historic significance of this project,'' gallery director Marg Morrow said.
''One of our roles is to support not only local arts, but to support the survival of traditional knowledge in raranga and the restoration of this lost art form.''
Raranga is an ancient Māori plaiting technique done with the fingers, used to weave many items, including baskets, mats and, very seldom, cloaks.
Pā Te Aroha has recorded the history-making journey to London through photos and videos and writing for journals. After the Village Arts' exhibition opening event, the trio will discuss the trip and give a PowerPoint presentation.
Wawata opens on Sunday, June 23 at 2pm and runs until July 28. From June 30, Mandy Sunlight will be at the gallery weaving a sail of similar construction to Te Rā, using the native river reed, raupo.
While the weavers did not set out to replicate Te Rā, it is likely a similar sail will result from their research and practical project.
"Our aim is not to produce a replica but to respond to the continuing research and recreate it,'' Sunlight said after the London trip. "It's all about a process.''
She said Pā Te Aroha weavers have always been privileged to have mentors like installation artist Maureen Lander and artist, author and art educator Toi Te Rito Maihi. It was Lander who was originally invited by the British Museum of London to view the sail, but instead offered the research project to the three women.
In London, the group documented every inch of Te Rā, a process from which the museum will also benefit. The women were able to study the sail for five days at its Oceania Objects Store, in Shoreditch, East London.
Those days provided a window into a past world, a connection with weavers from ancient times, and the means to bring them back to life.
With so much knowledge to be relearned, the time it might take to recreate Te Rā was an unknown quantity, Sunlight said.
''Seeing Te Rā is really powerful and emotional but the main focus is reclaiming those lost techniques, bringing them back and disseminating them.''