Kōrero Kākahu: Weaving Worldviews

by Matariki Williams

A highlight for me in Kahu Ora is a kākahu that is in the process of being cleaned by Textile Conservator Anne Peranteau. This kahu kurī is from between 1750 and 1840, of unknown provenance, and is made from strips of the pelt of a kurī (Polynesian dog) sewn onto a finely twined foundation of muka (flax fibre).

Kahu kurī of highest prestige were made from whole pelts of kurī sewn together. One of the only known examples, on loan from Puke Ariki, is currently on display in Kahu Ora. Given the value placed on the kurī, other kākahu were made using the pelts in a more economic way, like this cloak sewn from strips of dogskin.

Kahu kurï (dog skin cloak), 1750-1840, New Zealand. Maker unknown. Bequest of Kenneth Athol Webster, 1971. Te Papa

This kākahu is currently on display in a partially cleaned state effectively displaying the difference in what lies beneath the build-up of years. This is notable as it is unusual practice for Te Papa to showcase this process and this photo does not really do it justice. By viewing the kākahu in person you get to see the real difference in the immense amount of work that has been carried out and the unquantifiable value of this work is evident.

The work of Te Papa conservator Rangi Te Kanawa and her whānau background is a very interesting merging of tikanga Māori with the conservation ideals of the Western world. Rangituatahi Te Kanawa comes from a line of esteemed weavers including mother, the late Diggeress Te Kanawa, and grandmother, the late Rangimarie Hetet.

Her inherent knowledge adds to her expertise and understanding of the intricacies of kākahu. Given her upbringing and connection to two expert weavers, it comes as no surprise that Rangi Te Kanawa is also a weaver, a fact that only adds to her connection with the taonga: “I have a huge appreciation of the craftsmanship in this work. Because of my background, I know exactly what a whatu (twining) stitch is. I know how many whatu stitches are in each weft (horizontal) row.” The following video shows Rangi talking more about her background and gives some information about the conservation work she does with her particular interest in the degradation of natural fibres due to being dyed in iron-rich mud.

What these two stories display for me is the merging of two worldviews and the kinds of breakthroughs in understandings that this partnership affords descendants and practitioners alike. This is especially significant when there has been such a huge loss of customary knowledge. Through the hands-on work of weavers and the investigations into the chemical elements of the dyes and fibres of kākahu, we are able to regain some of what has been lost and continue this documentation of knowledge for future generations; something that Whatu Kākahu builds on.

Donna Head, Kohai Grace and Clare Butler. Photograph by Pamela Lovis. Te Papa

Donna Head, Kohai Grace and Clare Butler. Photograph by Pamela Lovis. Te Papa

Last weekend saw the final Weavers’ Studio to feature Ngā Tapuwae o Hine-te-iwaiwa after their month-long residence. It’s been a pleasure walking through Kahu Ora and seeing visitors interact with them and watching weaving in action. Ngā mihi mahana ki a koutou.

Kohai Grace. Photograph by Pamela Lovis. Te Papa

Kohai Grace. Photograph by Pamela Lovis. Te Papa

This week another group will be in the Weavers’ Studio, Raranga Kākahu, Raranga Tāngata, Raranga Whakapapa. This group includes Mark Sykes, who is also a Te Papa Collection Manager Māori, Matthew McIntyre-Wilson who made the pākē featured in an earlier post, also Sorrel Kemp and Hiri Crawford. Come in and meet them from Wednesday.

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