Having long been an admirer of Robyn Kahukiwa’s work, it was serendipitous for me that the opening of her art exhibition Tangata Whenua at The Centre of Contemporary Art Toi Moroki CoCA in Ōtautahi Christchurch happened when I was visiting that city. Tangata Whenua is the first solo exhibition in Te Waipounamu in two decades for Robyn Kahukiwa who is of Ngāti Porou, Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti, Ngāti Hau, Ngāti Konohi, Te Whānau-a-Ruataupare, and Te Whānau-a-Te Aotawarirangi descent.
The exhibition included this painting, He Wkakputanga, 2023 Soveriegn Series, an example of the strong themes of the artist’s work. CoCA writes, “She is one of Aotearoa’s foremost artists, and is acclaimed internationally and known for her strong political commentary. The works emphasise the strength and vitality of iwi Māori. As Kahukiwa notes: Māori are living proof of the continuum of whakapapa, the power of our achievements, and the survival of an intact, dynamic culture.”
Robyn also writes and illustrates children’s books. I was first introduced to her art through her children’s book Taniwha and I have enjoyed her art since then. The book Taniwha became a firm favourite with my children in the 1980s and is still a favourite with children today. While I was designing and weaving flax taniwha samples for my latest book Fun and Functional Flax Weaving, the illustrations in Robyn’s book were hovering in the back of my mind, and I realised the influence this book had on my work.
The images and storyline in the book resonated with weaving taniwha from harakeke / flax and by simply substituting flax and garden for log and river in the text, the story could easily be referring to a flax taniwha. I asked for, and graciously received, permission from Robyn to use, in a slightly changed form, this text from her book, to complement the woven taniwha in my book.
Here’s the text as it is in Robyn’s book:
There’s a taniwha in my river, people say it’s a log, but I know it’s a taniwha.
She’s been in my river a long time. Before I was alive, and before my koro was alive, the taniwha was in my river.
He taniwha kei roto i taku awa, Ki mai etahi tangata he rakau noa iho engari mohio au he taniwha.
Mai ra ano ia I roto I taku awa. No nga wa o nehe ra no tua whakarere noho ai te taniwha i roto i taku awa.
And here’s the text changed to reflect taniwha woven with harakeke:
There’s a taniwha in my garden, people tell me it’s a flax leaf, but I know it’s a taniwha.
She’s been in my garden a long time, before I was alive and before my koro was alive, the taniwha was in my garden.
While the woven flax taniwha in my book have nowhere near the complexity of Robyn’s drawings, there is still a lingering reference to Robyn’s taniwha for me when I see them, and there is in my imagination a fantastical, three-dimensional, woven taniwha waiting to see the light of day. Whether it gets any further than being imagined, who knows. 🙂 The taniwha that I designed for my book range from the simple to more complex designs, with something for all levels and ages of weavers. For example the simple, orange-spotted taniwha sneaking though the grass to the pool pictured above by Robyn’s text is suitable for very young weavers, and the taniwha pictured here with orange wings has a more complicated construction.
I’m pleased I managed to see the exhibition, which runs until 14 January 2024. If you’re not able to see this exhibition, a search online for “Robyn Kahukiwa images” is another way to see the breadth and depth of the artist’s work. Robyn’s works can be acquired through Season gallery, Tamaki Makaurau, who represent Robyn. My book Fun and Functional Flax Weaving, can be purchased directly from me through my secure online shop.
© Ali Brown 2023
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