In 1982 Feathers and Fibre, an exhibition of Maori weaving was exhibited at Rotorua Art Gallery. Celebrating a largely overlooked aspect of Maori craft, this exhibition honoured the whakapapa of the craft.
Curator and collector John Perry recalls these times in a personal essay about the exhibition.
Feathers and Fibre
If the truth be known, my involvement with Māori flax weaving, and in particular the humble food gathering kete, goes back to my formative years at the Elam Art School in the early 1960s.
I became a collector of Māori weaving at that time; the first pieces I purchased were four small and one large whāriki from a second hand shop on Dominion Road, Auckland, while I was still a student. With the benefit of hindsight, I now realise that a number of seemingly unrelated events came together in those early years to create an awareness.
In the mid-1970s, I curated an exhibition of Māori weaving at the Auckland Society of Arts. However, it wasn’t until I became the first appointed Director of the Rotorua Art Gallery in 1978 that I could really explore the potential of an exhibition that focused on traditional Māori weaving.
Near the end of 1980, the Rotorua District Council granted me three months leave of absence without pay to travel overseas for the first time in my life. I planned an itinerary that included visits to as many of the major museums and art galleries in the countries I was visiting as I could safely digest. Arriving back in New Zealand at the beginning of 1981, ‘I had a head full of ideas that [were] drivin’ me insane’, to quote Bob Dylan's song ‘Maggie’s Farm’. With a head filled with the many wonderful things I had seen offshore, my passions were fuelled for a long time to come. Included in the raft of new ideas was the notion to curate an exhibition that looked at Māori weaving.
New Zealand at that time was in a state of change, flux and conflict. The country was under the rule and guidance of a National Government directed by Robert Muldoon, 'The Man With The Iron Fist'. Unemployment and inflation were at record levels. The Government was 'Thinking BIG' (a phrase that referred to the interventionist economic policies that resulted in large-scale infrastructure projects) and the nation was divided by the impending Springbok rugby tour.
The National government had created a work scheme in an effort to reduce the ever increasing numbers of people arriving to the ever increasing dole queues. The Project Employment Program (PEP) gave a local authority the chance to employ people for up to six months on specially created projects; at the Rotorua Art Gallery, we took full advantage of that. The employment of Mick Pendergrast, courtesy of the PEP scheme, saw the concept, gestation and birth of the exhibition Feathers and Fibre.
Mick had not been able to get a work permit to take up a position at the Bishop Museum in Hawaii and as a result was unemployed here in the 'Land of the Long Grey Shroud’ – one of the many versions of ‘Land of the Long White Cloud’ that emerged at the time to describe New Zealand society. Mick relocated to Rotorua and became eligible for employment and as they say, the rest was history. With his passion for and extensive knowledge of Māori weaving and the current practitioners, Mick went about bringing together the material required to trace the development and evolution of Māori fibre craft. The exhibition opened at the Rotorua Art Gallery in 1982.
The objects came from a wide range of sources, from public institutions to private collectors, as well as the personal collections of leading practicing weavers from all over the North Island. Feathers and Fibre filled all of the exhibition spaces at the Rotorua Art Gallery, and proved to be very successful, attracting a record number of visitors and generating a lot of media coverage. As a result, we made the decision to produce a publication with Penguin Books that documented the works that had been collected and displayed in the exhibition.
To that end, Mick Pendergrast's PEP scheme was extended. A young itinerant British photographer called John Martin was employed to work with gallery staff member Alex Wilson to document the assembled works before they were returned to their owners. The conditions that we worked in to develop the book were elemental, basic and primitive – an old bathroom in the North Wing of the Bathhouse was converted into a photographic darkroom, and the extensive page layout was done on the floor of the gallery after hours. The format of the publication was based on Tsusumu: The Art of the Japanese Package, a book that had been produced for an international touring exhibition held at the Rotorua Art Gallery in September 1980.
The clean lines and text-free image pages represented a high water mark in graphic design for that time. The finished mock up extended the entire length of the galleries. Penguin Books printed 8000 copies of Feathers and Fibre: A Survey of Traditional and Contemporary Maori Craft, and distributed them worldwide. With the royalties of $1 per copy, the Rotorua Art Gallery commissioned four contemporary Māori artists to produce an artwork for the gallery's collection at a cost of $2000 per artist. G.S.T. was not around in those days, so it made life a lot easier. Sandy Adsett, Robin Kahukiwa, Darcy Nicholas, and Paratene Matchitt all obliged by producing new and challenging works for the Rotorua Art Gallery's embryonic permanent collection.
Time and perspective allows me to look back with pride and fondness at a landmark exhibition, created with scholarship and passion by a band of individuals that came and worked in harmony and understanding. For perhaps the first time in our nation’s history, an extensive and comprehensive survey of traditional and contemporary Māori weaving was presented in an art gallery context, a full two years before the exhibition Te Maori – a show without any examples of weaving – got off the ground.
Poster advertising Feathers and Fibre Exhibition, Rotorua, 1982. Designed by John Perry. All Rights Reserved. Auckland Museum, EPH-PT-7-76