Why a jacket from a fictional gang is in the national museum

Why a jacket from a fictional gang is in the national museum

The 1994 film Once Were Warriors was a ‘breakthrough’ moment in New Zealand cinema history.

In 2017, a jacket worn by the fictional gang Toa Aoteoroa entered the national collection, and happens to be one of curator Stephanie Gibson’s favourite objects in Kei te Kairauhī: 21 ngā Taonga | Curators’ Choice: 21 Things

The exhibition, sheds light on how Te Papa builds its collections by focussing on 21 recently collected items.

A black leather gang jacket with the word 'Toa Aotearoa' on it
Jacket, Once Were Warriors, 1994. Design by Michael Kane and Pauline Pohatu. Leather, paint, metal. Purchased 2017. Te Papa (ME024268)

Toa Aotearoa

Actor Julian Arahanga, who played the oldest son of the lead characters Jake and Beth Heke in Once Were Warriorsdescribes the film as ‘a breakthrough in terms of Māori film-making … showing a side of our society that … everybody turned a blind eye to.’

The fictional gang Toa Aotearoa first appeared in Alan Duff’s book Once Were Warriors (1990) and was a blend of real gangs in New Zealand, including their rituals and symbols.

Toa definition

According to Māori Dictionary, ‘toa’ means:

  • (verb) to be victorious, win.
  • (adjective) be brave, bold, victorious, experienced, accomplished, adept, competent, skilful, capable.
  • (noun) courage, bravery, champion, winner, expert.
  • (noun) warrior, brave man.
  • (noun) male (of animals, birds, insects and plants).

Perhaps in its use in this jacket, ‘toa’ is a combination of all these things.

The design

Recently, I spoke to one of the jacket’s designers, Pauline Pohatu (Ngāi Tāmanuhiri), who shared her insights into the design process.

Pauline was the wardrobe supervisor and designer on Once Were Warriors (1994) and its sequel What Becomes of the Broken Hearted (1999). She worked closely with Michael Kane – Head of Department and overall designer of Once Were Warriors.

Pauline was one of very few Māori costume designers at that time, and director Lee Tamahori headhunted her for the job.

‘It was hard work,’ she says. ‘They didn’t have a lot of money so whānau came on board to help. We were all very young but it was great to be part of that team.’

Lee Tamahori employed Māori crew and advisors wherever possible, and everything was carefully consulted on and approved. Actor, filmmaker, and mentor Don Selwyn was one of their key advisors.

‘The design process was collaborative – the crew would sit around a table and talk a lot together and bounce off each other on how the gang and each actor was going to look, from moko to clothing,’ Pauline says. ‘They wanted the gang clothing to reference Māori designs, and drew costume elements from many different sources, including opportunity shops, butcher’s aprons, singlets, and weaving.’

A patch on the back of a black leather jacket, the word 'Toa Aotearoa' are stitched on
Jacket, Once Were Warriors, 1994. Design by Michael Kane and Pauline Pohatu. Leather, paint, metal. Purchased 2017. Te Papa (ME024268)

Pauline had just done an advertisement for the Auckland Warriors team, which were about to debut in 1995, so began with their logo for inspiration for the jacket’s patch. Some of the patches worn by the gang members were intentionally distressed and aged for the film.

At the end of the film shoot, Pauline picked the patches in best condition and attached them to leather jackets which had been worn by the actors, and then gave them as parting gifts to producer Robin Scholes, director Lee Tamahori, and scriptwriter Riwia Brown.

Te Papa was very fortunate to acquire Scholes’ jacket in 2017.

Why did Te Papa collect it?

Puawai Cairns, Head of Mātauranga Māori says the jacket is significant as a symbol of on-screen Māori representation.

Once Were Warriors was an important milestone for discussion and scholarship centred around representation of the urban Māori experience on screen,’ Puawai says. ‘The patched jacket, though fictional, provides a focus for discussion on gang culture and identity in Aotearoa New Zealand and the effects of colonisation and some of the symptoms of alienation that came with the often mentioned rural-urban shift.’

two people look at a black leather jacket with a gang patch on the back
History curator Stephanie Gibson and Senior Curator Mātauranga Māori Dougal Austin with the Once Were Warriors jacket, 2019. Te Papa

The jacket is a powerful taonga in the exhibition. It draws you in with its slightly unsettling graphic power and is an excellent example of film costume design.

From a personal perspective, it rekindles memories of when I first saw Once Were Warriors – I left the cinema literally drenched in tears. It was one of the most seminal movie-going experiences I’ve ever had.

Even though it was fiction, it opened my eyes to deep issues in Aotearoa New Zealand.

If you want to find out more about Once Were Warriors, NZ on Screen has excerpts, behind the scenes footage, and interviews about the film.

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