Wi Taepa's exhibition Retrospect, at the Sarjeant's i-Site gallery, June 22-October 13 looks back over 30 years of the clay artist's substantial and ever evolving practice.
The show is signposted, downstairs, by a work, Waka ipu 1999, that former director of the Sarjeant, Bill Milbank, purchased for the Sarjeant Gallery.
Taepa, who has many links with Whanganui and the Sarjeant was thrilled to have his exhibition shown by the gallery and moved by the positioning of this piece. He said the waka vessel could be an appropriate symbol for the Gallery's redevelopment project and the Sarjeant's journey towards its successful completion.
The vertical grooves he carved into the clay waka ipu (canoe vessel) are derived from early Māori waka construction methods to help the waka move freely through the water. Without these, the water clings to the sides of the waka and slows its progress. The ridges help disperse the water and make the waka's passage quicker.
"I carved the grooves [in such a way] so that when the waka goes through the water it breaks the water. If the grooves were long ways the water would stick to the hull and make the going harder.
"This is the way they used to do it in the old times. Because of the timing with the Sarjeant looking for money, I hope this is a sign of good luck for them. The grooves would represent all the things that are happening to facilitate the Sarjeant's waka moving on towards the redevelopment goal," Wi Taepa said.
He says his work is "all about tikanga – you've got to do it right. The way you treat the uku (clay)." In creating his works he honours the materials and where they come from, saying that unless he does it right, they will explode in the firing.
He likens the respectful treatment of materials to the ways people should live in relation to the environment, the earth, Papatuanuku, where uku comes from.
Many of his works explore these themes.
Taepa grew up in the years following World War II. He experienced the changes from farming villages, Maori kāinga, to urbanised centres. Nuku Puta from the Kauhuri Cultivation series (1994) looks like a mound or pot from which shoots are sprouting.
"It's the separation of Rangi and Papa, the earth. There they [ancestors] all are squabbling and pushing and pushing because they know that there's light and this is where they actually push them apart. It's all got to do with growing. We all need light."
Taepa has developed his own experimental ways of working. Some pieces he says have evolved out of teaching others, such as the Untitled ipu 1995.
"I was cleaning up after the students had finished and they had left glazes around. So I poured it all into one pot and mixed it up and sprayed it on. This is what came out [of the firing]. I do a lot of experimenting. I just look at things and go for it. You have to let some things happen by chance."
Some of his works are very large, such as Parautanga plough, and require a custom-built method of firing.
"I build the kiln around it with kaowool, a ceramic fibre material used on spaceships. And then I use gas and control the temperature with dials. If you look up about old ploughs in New Zealand there were ploughs specifically invented to plough the land contours here. It wasn't like in the US or England where there are long flat [spaces]. We had hills."
Taepa descends from a line of Te Arawa master carvers and is recognised as a senior Māori clay artist and a significant figure in contemporary New Zealand ceramics.
Retrospect his collection of key works has shown at the Auckland Art Gallery and at Pataka in Porirua. An informative booklet accompanies Retrospect and can be purchased at Sarjeant on the Quay.
Do you have a story about the Sarjeant Gallery that you would like to share? If so, please contact relationships officer Jaki Arthur on email@example.com or 06 349 3268. To learn more about the Sarjeant Gallery's current exhibitions, the Sarjeant Collection, the redevelopment project and our interim relocation, visit www.sarjeant.org.nz.