The Ockham Lecture series is an annual programme of lectures and panel discussions that critically engage with craft, design, and architecture. Director of Audience and Insight Puawai Cairns recently presented her Ockham Lecture in connection to Tīhāte!, a project in the Objectspace exhibition Pohewa Pāhewa: a Māori design kaupapa which demonstrated how t-shirt design outcome is used by Māori to show affiliations, share protest messages, and commemorate important moments. Puawai is a co-author of the book Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance, along with Curator History Stephanie Gibson, and then Curator Mātauranga Māori Matariki Williams. Here we’re reproducing some of her kōrero from the lecture as well as contributions from Stephanie Gibson and staff from Objectspace, about some of the tees that are featured in the book and why museums collect them as taonga.
Rise of the t-shirt – have you ever considered t-shirts as taonga?
When the book Protest Tautohetohe was published, it was the culmination of many years of collecting a wide range of objects associated with protest movements and actions in Aotearoa New Zealand. It has always been important that these objects were documented in the national collection because they expressed how our country’s democracy worked when communities and groups mobilised to have their voices heard by those in power. But many of these objects are easily overlooked because they’re sometimes small, innocuous, hand-made, or mass-produced items that can hide in plain sight – objects like t-shirts.
As a garment, the t-shirt originated as military underwear. Its acceptance as a valid form of outer clothing in the 1960s coincided with the advent of effective cotton printing technology and the street-based protest movements of the counterculture, while also cheap to produce and easy to print. When you dive into the t-shirt as a form, as a platform for powerful messages, and as a way to record how and what communities and groups believed across time, they become incredible sources of information and inspiration. T-shirts provide a canvas and platform to convey key information about movements and particular causes. They act as wearable billboards, carrying messages and symbols into the wider world. They are a common way for activists to declare their allegiances and identities, and to show solidarity. They are also amazing records of design flair and artistry, usually by unnamed artists.
Since the 1960s, activists in anti-war, peace and anti-nuclear movements, anti-apartheid, mana motuhake and tino rangatiratanga, civil rights, class struggle, feminism, gay and lesbian liberation, and environmental movements seized upon the t-shirt’s potential for message-bearing and resistance, creating an explosion of politicised t-shirts.
Some t-shirts might be made for time-based, one-off protest events. They may be made for longer campaigns and movement-building, creating a sense of community. They can be commemorative, remembering causes and events fought for in the past. They might be sold as fundraisers, as part of the behind-the-scenes work of grassroot movements and campaigns.
The Dakota Access pipeline protest in 2016 triggered a wave of actions in te ao Māori in solidarity with Native American groups, including compositions and performances of haka that went viral, travel to the US to stand alongside the protesters, Māori lawyers who lent their skills to the cause, and t-shirts were created to help fundraise for the protest, like this one created by a Māori group in Aotearoa called Toka Tū (Standing Rock in te reo Māori).
You can read more about this collection item’s history in this earlier blog post: Collecting Challenging Histories – the ‘Manga Kahu’/‘Maunga Kahu’ (Black Power) T-shirt.
Objectspace exhibition Pohewa Pāhewa: a Māori design kaupapa
The question this blog started off with was can t-shirts be considered as taonga? Taonga are treasured and cherished things, held in esteem socially or culturally. After giving a recent talk about tīhāte / t-shirts at Objectspace in Tāmaki Makaurau as part of their recent show Pohewa Pāhewa, I was very much taken by the focus it had on the art and design of t-shirts, as platforms for revolution in thought, design and action. The curators had amassed an amazing array of Māori designed t-shirts from across the country and displayed them as artworks. To complement the kōrero that Stephanie and I have written for this blog, we wanted to also share their work and some of the kōrero that Objectspace have made available online. We hope you enjoy it and take a second look at your own collection of meaningful tīhāte / t-shirts that you might have collected over the years.
Pohewa Pāhewa: a Māori design kaupapa, was an exhibition celebrating Māori design practice and interrogating Western design practice through a Māori lens. Held in the exhibition is a collection of kaupapa that express Māori design as a balance of radical innovation and consideration of critical knowledge gifted by our tūpuna. Grounded in whakapapa, the exhibition shows the fundamental differences in how design practice is approached within te ao Māori and to whom it is in service.
Through the Tīhāte! project we celebrate a ubiquitous and powerful item of clothing, the tīhāte. Cheap to produce, easy to customise, the tīhāte has become a fabric embodiment of ideology, loyalty, memory and beliefs.
Tīhāte designs have been used by Māori to show affiliations, share protest messages, and commemorate important moments. Attend any major event in te ao Māori and there will be an array of tīhāte fiercely proclaiming whakapapa through hapū- and iwi-specific designs. The visual language of Māori tīhāte draws on contemporary culture and from traditional colours, shapes and forms. Tīhāte are worn proudly and often become coveted and collectable items; in recent years many of the most sought-after designs have come from new brands that celebrate modern Māori identity.
This display gave gallery visitors the opportunity to encounter new brands that are experimenting with ways of expressing Māori identity. OUROOTZ is an emerging brand that has created tīhāte focused on different atua, rendered similarly to 90s band t-shirts. Brisbane-based designer Shontai Pene began the series as a way of encouraging Māori to spark new interest and connections with atua, especially those who may live away from Aotearoa.
The tīhāte in Pohewa Pahewa were brought together from across the motu. All were made within the past five years and have tags accompanying each design that share more about the kaupapa they were realised for. The collection at Objectspace captures only a small number of current designs and has grown over the course of the exhibition.
Kaua e wareware ko wai koe, kia a kaha koe ki to whakapapa. Remember who you are, your strength is in your genealogy – Queenie Erueti
Find out more
- Tīhāte! Pohewa Pāhewa Kaupapa Spotlight
- Watch Interview with Bernard Makoare for Pohewa Pāhewa: a Māori design kaupapa
- Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance by Puawai Cairns, Stephanie Gibson, and Matariki Williams, Te Papa Press, 2019