Among the Museum’s collections are elaborate Kiribati suits of armour, called te otanga, and other distinctive weaponry. For Kiribati Language Week, we spoke to artist Chris Charteris about studying these objects to find out how they were made, how he plays with form, the utility of artworks, and making things the hard way.

Can you describe how you set about starting an object – do you find something first, or do you start with a reference? 

It can work both ways. In relation to Tungaru – The Kiribati Project (2014), it was the reference first – the concept comes first, and then I go about looking for things to make.  

Certainly one of the concepts was community, and that's in relation to te ma, the fish traps. That was produced in a group situation, and te otanga [Kiribati suit of armour] was also a group project. That was a way of doing things that is very much a part of the Kiribati culture, but it's not always the way I'll work. But many hands make light work, and that’s certainly something that helped manifest big things. 

'Bwebwerake - To grow, to evolve', 2014. Chris Charteris. AWMM. 2015.21.1. More information ›

What were some of the challenges during the making of Te Otanga

The first challenge was that we actually didn't know how to make it. It was a pretty cool project because myself, Lizzy Leckie and Kaetaeta Watson ended up traveling around the world researching te otanga in various museums and spent a lot of time in Auckland Museum too, picking through the collection there. The ones that were not in good shape were especially useful. The ones that were falling apart were probably some of the best things to look at because then we could see how things were constructed.  

Basically there was no one – not even back in Kiribati – who knew how to make te otanga, not that we could find. But through going about research and talking to people, we started to work things out. One big contributor, Mwemwetaake Ataniberu, an elder and part of our project, he worked out this particular needle (te tu) that was used to make them. That was a big breakthrough, and a lot of work came out from that, finding out about these needles and how they were used to construct the armour.  

So the needle was like a missing link? 

Yes, that's a good way of describing it. It was a big part of creating Te Otanga, which was a good learning curve all-around. We produced two te otanga: the first one was more contemporary, and that is in the Cambridge Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology. That first one was made from nylon fishing line, and it was good practice to work out a technique. The second one, which we still have in our possession, was more traditional, and that's using the coconut fibre string, te kora.  

What sort of equipment or tools or materials do you use - was there ever the temptation to use an alternative material? 

It did occur to us because we made the first te otanga out of contemporary materials, precisely because it was easier to source. But when we're talking about trying to make an authentic thing, the challenge was really quite major. Ours was the first one to be made with the traditional materials in the traditional way in quite a long time – I think the last one was made in the '60s. 

Te bwai ni buaka, war costume. AWMM. 1935.119, 21940. More information ›

We have 10 wi ni bakoa in the Auckland Museum collection from your Bwebwerake – To Grow to Evolve work, which was part of the Tungaru exhibition. Can you define Bwebwerake and say what ‘to grow and evolve’ means in that context? 

Wi ni bakoa translates as "shark’s teeth" or a "shark’s tooth pattern". They're sort-of imitations of functional shark’s teeth swords that were in Auckland Museum, and when the work was displayed, it was displayed with the ones that I had responded to. By themselves they can look like quite random forms, but they were actually based on specific swords in the collection. 

I think Bwebwerake - to grow and evolve in that context meant using those genuine articles as my starting point and then (in a kind-of Kiribati way) finding something that I could use in my own environment that could emulate the same aesthetic, even that sort of energy of the shark's tooth thing. They’re used to inflict damage without killing someone. These fan palms, which grown around [my home in Kūaotunu, Coromandel] are perfect replicas of the sharks' teeth swords in a way. I look at those and I think “jeez, imagine if they'd had those in Kiribati! They wouldn't have gone to all that trouble!” The pattern also appears in weaving, along the edges of mats and things that have a serrated edge.  

Because of the way I am, I do try to stretch things out conceptually to a universal degree so I can get my head around them. That also allows other people to relate to things from a wider perspective too. 

'Bwebwerake - To grow, to evolve', 2014. Chris Charteris. AWMM. 2015.21.1. More information ›

Sometimes objects are reimagined eg: the motorcycle helmet and the swords and itutu, and other times they seem to be quite faithfully recreated, eg: te otanga. Do you process those developments in tandem?  

In some ways they're related, but those different projects are quite separate developments. There's either the intention of producing something that's as genuine as you can make it, in terms of material and technique, and then there's my random approach to emulating something and making it in a way that produces a similar result but with a completely different technical background.  

Take the helmet for example: we have made the pufferfish helmets quite traditionally, so we've been through that process of trying to do things that traditional way, and from there I'm able to have a bit more freedom to do it in in a this-day-and-age way with what I’ve got, with new materials. 

You can do things as a contemporary maker by using modern materials, but I think researching how things are done traditionally – and even having an attempt at making them – is such a good grounding. That way you understand what really had to happen in order to bring that thing into being. It's important to look at both ways of doing things. You learn how to make something by hand, and then you can get a machine that can help you do it faster. But it's good to know how to do it by hand first. 

What sort of equipment do you use?  

That varies a lot. I'm generally a stone carver, that's my main job, and that involves diamond tools and quite serious equipment. But in terms of the Kiribati objects, I have had to make tools in order to make some of these objects; I had to re-shape things. 

The artist wearing his Kiribati Eco warrior's helmet; a similar helmet is in the collection of the Horniman Museum & Gardens. Photo supplied by the artist. More information ›

Do you see your work as existing on a linear timeline or as more of a web? What does it feel like to create objects that would be recognisable to your ancestors? 

It is part of a continuum, but one that doesn't always run in a straight line. It's very much a part of a continuum of how things evolve culturally. When you use the word 'traditional' - what that means is always evolving as well. If my ancestors looked at some of the stuff I was doing today, they'd recognise what I'm doing, but they'd probably have a good laugh. "What's the point?" They'd say, "why are you doing this at all?" Because now, there's no reason.  

When we were in Kiribati and I was showing my family photos of my work, they really were a bit perplexed about why I would make stuff that doesn't have any function. What's the point? There, it's all about function, like a sharks' tooth sword: they were developed for a reason and to make them now is quite irrelevant. 

Going to Kiribati in 2012, hardly anyone had ever seen te otanga, or even knew about that part of their history. They’re only just re-emerging as part of their icons in the culture now. For two or three generations, not many people knew anything about the suits of armour. 

Te bwara n tauti, helmet of porcupine fish. Kiribati. AWMM. 1935.119, 21915. More information ›

You found out about your Kiribati heritage relatively late, as prior to that you’d been told you were Māori. How did that then affect the idea you had of your identity?  

Connecting with my heritage has had a big effect on my work. I discovered the right to play with those forms and aspects of culture that I might not have delved into without connecting to that part of myself, Kiribati community and family. It certainly gave me permission to explore what it means to be of Kiribati ancestry, in my quirky way, as a maker.  

I’ve been able to collaborate with people, especially Kaetaeta Watson, Louisa Humphry and Ueen Kiribati cultural group, who are very much grounded in their Kiribati heritage, and to be guided as well. I really couldn't have done it without a lot of help from my mentors who were there to support what I was doing, who gave me the courage to give it a go.  

Because I've been a maker for most of my life, connecting with my Kiribati heritage hasn't altered the way that I make things, and I've learnt a lot through Māori practice about taonga and how you affect things by putting your heart into what you're doing. That something that I'll continue to do, regardless.  

Reel necklace, hei rakai. 2014. Chris Charteris. AWMM. 2015.61.17 More information ›