It is with great sadness that I write this memorial blog post. I began writing a memorial post a week and a half ago for Manos Nathan (Te Roroa, Ngati Whatua, Nga Puhi), a pioneering Maori clay artist and one of the pou of Nga Kaihanga Uku – a foundational member of that collective. Before completing that memorial, I also learned that a second pou – foundational member of Nga Kaihanga Uku – Colleen Waata Urlich (Te Popoto, Nga Puhi), had also passed away and her tangihanga held at the beginning of last week.
Nga Kaihanga Uku is the collective of Maori clay workers. It is a national organisation that was created in 1986 by Manos Nathan, Baye Riddell, Colleen Waata Urlich, Wi Taepa and Paerau Corneal. The small group was drawn together, led by Nathan and Riddell, by ideas of manaaki; support for Maori working in the medium of clay, tautoko; to share knowledge and skills and by kaupapa; finding shape, form and an identity for a medium either forgotten or abandoned in favour of other media by our Tupuna.
The first Nga Kaihanga Uku hui was held in 1987 at Tokomaru Bay and a second the following year at Matatina Marae, Waipoua, Northland. The two hui saw the Maori clay workers develop a kaupapa for themselves and for a medium which they described as having a ‘waiata’ of its own. The hui also marked the beginnings of a Maori art movement that looked to the culture for inspiration and created a tikanga and kawa especially for the medium of clay and Maori ceramics.
My association with Nga Kaihanga Uku, Manos and Colleen, came about in 1994 as an assistant art curator at Te Papa. I was invited by Toi Maori and the Dowse Maori Liason Officer Christine Pihema, to write a publication for Kurawaka, the first national Nga Kaihanga Uku exhibition held at the Dowse, then known as the Dowse Art Museum.
Kurawaka celebrated the work of the five foundational members of Nga Kaihanga Uku, all of who were diverse in their approach and expression with clay. Alongside their individual artistic vision, each was also actively developing processes and approaches for clay that fitted a Maori kaupapa or framework. The exhibition catalogue I was charged with writing used transcripts of interviews with the five Nga Kaihanga Uku members recorded at a Toi Maori Mixed Media hui held in Whangara, January 1994. The background about Manos and Colleen and many of the quotes used in this memorial post are drawn from the Kurawaka catalogue and the interviews I undertook with them.
Manos Nathan born in Rawene in the Hokianga in 1948 was of Maori and Cretan descent. The son of Eruera (Ned) Nathan and Katina Nathan (nee Toraki), Manos had a background in sculpture, graduating from the Wellington Polytechnic School of Design in 1970 and in whakairo, Maori carving. His skill in carving evolved from being called home, after travelling overseas, to the far North by his father and Kaumatua Maori Marsden to carve the Tuohu meeting house at Matatini Marae on his tribal lands in Waipoua.
Nathan’s interest in clay developed through his association with New Zealand potter Robyn Stewart. He was attracted to her approach to ceramics. Seeing her pit firing, burnishing and hand building techniques as practices he could adopt and use in Marae based communities using local clays. He also credits Barry Brickell as an influence in his involvement with clay. It wasn’t until 1984 he said, did he begin seriously exploring clays potential as a Maori art medium. The transition from wood to clay he said was easy and there was no barrier to putting designs from whakairo onto clay. Nathan did though want to do more than that, he wanted to create work with a cultural imperative, that would have use and resonance within Maori culture.
…’ I wanted to find things that could be used within the culture …that was the kaupapa; to imbue a non-traditional medium with integrity and to forge a link with Maori custom and values’. 1.
The work that Nathan made included creating Waka Taurahere Tangata, pots in keeping with Maori custom for burying the afterbirth of a child, a Waka Pito, umblical pot, an Ipu Pure to hold water for cleansing related ceremonies and Whakapakoko, figurative works based on the Northern carving tradition of Waka koiwi, funerary chests which Nathan had whakapapa (genealogical) connection with, used to hold the bones of Tupuna, ancestors.
‘These works have their origins in the customary carved figurative forms…
There are references to the waka taua, war canoe, with the forward facing figure of the classical tauihu, canoe prow and the keel line of the waka ko iwi…
‘A departure from the customary woodcarvings is in the stance of these works. Clay has allowed me to explore subtle nuances of gesture and tension in the twist of the torso, tilt of the shoulders and the position of the head…2.
Nathan, met Baye Riddell in 1986 at a Nga Puna Waihanga hui in Wellington. Nga Puna Waihanga was the national body of Maori artists and writers, an organisation that was established in 1973 and which ran from the early 1970s through into the 1990s. Nga Kaihanga Uku evolved from the pairs mutual desire to develop a kaupapa for clay.
‘When you work with our people your art is with the people. When you take yourself away, it can become too esoteric, it doesn’t belong to them and they won’t relate to it. I was determined that the foundations were laid so that people could see linkages with tradition.’ 3.
Nathan and Riddell, not only linked the Maori clay workers together through Nga Kaihanga Uku, in 1989 they gained a Fulbright scholarship and both travelled to the South West of the United States and made connection with First nations potters and clay workers there. Together they instigated ongoing exchanges with Indigenous peoples in North America and Nga Kaihanga Uku and later made connections in the Pacific with Indigenous peoples that had a clay tradition.
Manos Nathan is remembered as artist Emily Karaka wrote on facebook shortly after his passing, as a ‘Gentleman, Rangatira, Artist…and friend…’ 4.
Colleen Waata Urlich born in Te Kopuru in 1939, was a self taught artist who developed an interest in clay and ceramics while completing an art major at Auckland Teachers College. Her development continued from that time with the encouragement of Alec Musha, a Maori ceramic artist working in the 1970s.
Initially Waata Urlich began creating wheel thrown and glazed pots and produced domestic ware, but as she evolved her practice she abandoned those techniques and the creation of those forms of ceramics. She instead developed a ‘lower tech’ approach to making, and began using local clays dug from her papakainga, which connected her work to the tribal landscape she belonged to, mixed with Otago clays and Waipoua river sand. Like Nathan, she was committed to creating a cultural framework for clay and Maori clay artists and wanted her work to have significance and relevance within Maori culture.
‘I came from …wheelwork and glazing. You can make mugs…casseroles and lovely bowls but it wasn’t a Maori art form for me. The naturalness of clay wasn’t there.’ 5.
Instead of continuing to make one off ceramics that could be used domestically, Waata Urlich began working with cultural concepts and in series. One of the first series she created were Waka kakano. Her Waka kakano remembered and referenced the era in Maoridom that she grew up in where there was communal planting, Marae gardens and where seeds were ‘kept and set aside for the next planting’. Her Waka kakano evolved from seedpods to ‘special containers’ that like waka huia (carved feather boxes) could be used to hold taonga, prized possessions. Other series included figurative works in the form of kaitaki or guardians drawn from within Maori culture, often female deities and kumete (clay bowl forms) that could be used on open fires.
A later series, which became a signature within Waata Urlich’s practice, were large vase or urn-like forms that looked back at our Pacific origins and the tradition of Pacific ceramics in the form of Lapita pottery. Waata Urlich’s works translated the rectilinear patterns punched into Lapita pots that made their way onto tapa, into tatau design worn on the body and feature in Pacific and Maori weaving. Waata Urlich applied the patterns as a painted design element in her work. Her use of the Lapita patterns connected the 4,000-year old Pacific ceramics tradition with the present.
‘Those Proto-Polynesians, known generally as the Lapita Peoples, introduced…an artistic legacy, originally in the form of distinctive patterns on ceramics. All Polynesians are inheritors of that legacy and each Polynesian nation has contributed to the continuing evolution of that artistic heritage. In Aotearoa that design legacy is particularly evident in the women’s art of weaving…
‘As contemporary Maori clay workers we are repositioning ourselves, claiming that part of the Lapita legacy which relates to clay… 6.
Waata Urlich was not only active in Nga Kaihanga Uku, she was the founding curator of Toi Nga Puhi, the largest exhibition of Nga Puhi arts. In December 2014 she was recognised in the New Years honours list and made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to Maori art. Colleen Urlich was a whaea to the many who had connection with her, was an artist, educator and a matriarch and who, like Nathan, will be greatly missed.
I have curated a small exhibition that will showcase key works by Manos Nathan and Colleen Waata Urlich held in the Te Papa art collection. The exhibition will highlight key influences in their practice and show the legacy, as foundational members of Nga Kaihanga Uku, the national Maori clayworkers collective, that they have left. The exhibition has been curated as a small tribute to both of them for the Te Tauihu, Upfront space of Nga Toi, Arts Te Papa – the signature set of changing art shows on level 5 of Te Papa. Nga Kaihanga Uku will be open from 20 January 2016 and on exhibition for around two months until 13 March 2016.
1. Megan Tamati-Quennell, Kurawaka exhibition catalogue, 1995, p.8
2. Artist statement, Manos Nathan, Spirit Wrestler Gallery webpage http://www.spiritwrestler.com, [9 September 2015]
3. Megan Tamati-Quennell, Kurawaka exhibition catalogue, 1995, p.8
4. Emily Karaka, Facebook, [3 August 2015]
5. Megan Tamati-Quennell, Kurawaka exhibition catalogue, 1995, p.4
6. Colleen Waata Urlich, artist’s statement, Nga Toko Rima, 2003