Tails that Bind
Mark Amery encourages a visit to an exhibition at Wellington’s National Library Turnbull Gallery that provides some too-rare joys.
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Tying, streaming, unraveling, flying and dangling. Tell Tails brings aerial life to a myriad of connections to fascinating early Maori Pakeha encounters, through the creation of a rich visual language with cloth, feathers and cord by three established artists.
The artists are the redoubtable trio of Christine Hellyar, Maureen Lander and Jo Torr. And this rather remarkable exhibition is to be found upstairs at the National Library Wellington. Like a sail looking to catch more wind, it stretches out of the awkward, small crypt-like Turnbull Gallery onto the upstairs library floor, and above towards its ceiling.
It is a rare joy. Rare firstly for providing artist responses to paintings, drawings and other printed matter held in the Turnbull (rather crammed in, they are exhibited alongside them). This sort of commission should be commonplace in New Zealand public institutions. It isn’t.
Rare: because we should see new work by these leading artists more often. And rare: because of the strength of the collaboration between the artists unfettered by curators’ meddling. They wind around each other weaving ideas to create rich captivating conversation between the works, sharing ideas, histories, languages and materials.
Tell Tails are small strips of fabric that indicate wind direction and lift on the sail of a boat. In a car it’s a lit indicator telling you something’s switched on, or wrong. These are symbols that tell stories.
Here featured are tails of fabric that tell tales of exchange. An installation by Hellyar of the same title suggests the strength of ties made by contact enabled through the sailing across the oceans. Using the varied language of coiling and twining she illuminates the strength, sophistication and symbolism of making cordage with materials.
The equivalent of tell tails for Maori are trailing feathered wind indicators on waka (puhi) and kites (puhihi). In this work they inspire giant red feather lei, mixed with festive red, black and white ribbon. The exhibition records that while flax was much sought after, the European’s ribbon (of which they bought much) wasn’t wanted.
This is one of the weaker works here, but is held strongly by the presentation below of three beautiful poi-decorated cloth kete on the floor, nestled in folds of cloth and filled with coils of cord, line and rope knotted from varied fibres. The variety of materials and their different plaiting speaks strongly of different cultural histories woven together by ocean contact.
They are an eye-popping sumptuous blend of brilliant reds. Red as whenua, red as blood, red as celebration, red as a sickness passed through the exchange of fabric. Inside the gallery, Hellyar’s ‘Red Cloud’ is a waving field of red dyed handkerchiefs, neckerchiefs and napkins. It is inspired by drawings by William Ellis on Cook’s third voyage of Tahitians wearing European neckerchiefs, and the fact that Cook’s interpreter Omai was given serviettes and hankies that may have led to his and other’s deaths from lung infections.
Form in Hellyar’s work like this has the powerful natural crinkling kinetic energy of undersea flora, alive to currents, billowing, reaching up or dangling down. Another work ‘Cordage Cloud’ drops and trails like a jellyfish. In its hanging fragility and merge of different cordage materials it speaks to the importance of ties that bind. Cords and plaits are made of three strands, symbolising the strength of this exhibition as being one created by the three artists together - the flax elements were provided by Torr and Lander.
Red is a colour that binds works and stories. Maureen Lander is the most adventurous in putting fresh concepts into new forms. ‘Hongi’s Red Cloak – Deconstructed’ was inspired by a James Barry painting that shows Hongi Hika wearing a red cloak in London in 1820. Having seen a red cloak in the British Museum in London, Lander creates a back-story to link them. Then, having made a replica, she takes it apart, hanging up bundles with labels that reveal the complexity of different materials and their processing and treatment with red ochre: “muka extracted using a mussel shell, then rolled on the leg, washed, hanked, beaten (3x) and rubbed between the hands to soften.” Hanging as if to dry, the copper strands crackle in a fiery, wiry confluence of a diversity of line in space.
Tell Tails speaks to the sophistication of weaving work by women. Lander also asserts a more surprising story about the role of a woman. Joseph Merrett’s watercolour, The Warrior Chieftains of New Zealand, shows Hariata Heke with a woven muka garment draped over her shoulder, unlike anything Lander had seen before. Research into the writing of her great-great grandfather revealed it as a sash (rather than a cloak) worn into war. His accounts record Hariata Heke (who had a liking for red) as a warrior who led 700 men into war. Lander recreates the sash with red bobble additions that recall the poi of Hellyar. Next to Lander’s sash are three whimsical, blue bonnets woven by Maureen Lander. Open to the air, and hung like kites they carry red feather tell-tales, poi, and a feather headdress.
Featured in the exhibition are two interesting cameo portraits of Tuai and Tiere, young chiefs all buttoned up in suits as gentlemen, painted darkly by James Barry when they visited London in 1818. In ‘Moemoea (dreaming)’ Torr has replicated the style of the coat and embroidered on its blue back a drawing of a puhihi kite, its long tail dangling cheekily right down the coats own long tail.
The drawing is from one of Tiere’s letters. The wings of the kite stretch boldly shoulder to shoulder. In translating the sketchy drawing, its strident, wavering lines express the boldness and vulnerability of these young men’s journey. The figure at the centre of the kite is wide-eyed and open to the winds of change. Nearby, Torr has hung a large kite made from willow and dressed in red feathers, attached to a bible lain on the ground.
Rare also about this exhibition is that its overarching message isn’t one of colonial possession and indigenous loss. Instead it is of friendship and exchange – the gains on both sides. Like the results on show of the friendship of these three artists you are left with the message that bringing our strands together can lead to a stronger whole.
- Tell Tails, Christine Hellyar, Maureen Lander and Jo Torr, until 14 August, Turnbull Gallery, National Library.