Cut, peel, scrape, beat, roll, open–these are the time-consuming processes of Māori aute (paper mulberry, or Broussonetia papyrifera) barkcloth, or tapa, making. This traditional method for preparing natural fibre to make utilitarian and ceremonial objects was once lost in Aotearoa– latterly known as New Zealand–but has now been revived and reawakened by artist Nikau Hindin (Ngai Tpoto hp, Te Rarawa, Ngpuhi).
For Hindin, gaining the knowledge and developing the work has been a slow and demanding process. She began her art and cultural study with a Bachelor of Arts in Māori Studies, Film, TV and Media Studies conjoint with a Bachelor of Fine Art (Honours) at The University of Auckland. During this time, she discovered Māori aute, a practice that by the 1770s was primarily used only for a soft white fillet (head band) or rolled up in ear piercings. It disappeared in the 19th century, perhaps because of scarcity of the trees needed for the bark, but the use of harakeke (New Zealand flax) with similar processing techniques continued.
Image: Nikau folding cloth before doing another pass of beating. Photograph by Seb Charles
Hindin began experimenting with making aute and painting on it. Her fascination grew as she talked to Dante Bonica, an expert in stone tools and traditional practices, and while she researched aute beaters in the Auckland Museum collection. Observing the wooden objects gave Hindin the information she needed to start making her own tools.
In 2015, Hindin met Hawaiian fibre artist Verna Takashima, a fifth generation kapa, or barkcloth, maker, who gave her finely crafted tools made by her brother Solomon Apio, a woodworker. Hindin moved to Hawai’i shortly after as part of her Masters of Fine Arts study. During weekends she studied with Takashima and other kapa makers. Their guidance and deep immersion in the process gave Hindin a love of the challenging and at times painful physical work. The sweat, blistered fingers and aching muscles from beating fibre and scraping with shells were always rewarded by the transformation of raw material into a large bright white cloth–plus the feeling of being transported into an inner space.
Image: Te Wheiao II, (2018) k k wai, red ochre and black ochre, on aute, barkcloth. Ka Whawhai Tonu M tou II, (2020), 44x 38cm k k wai, Tongan koka, ng rahu on aute, barkcloth
Tapa was traditionally made in the Pacific Islands, primarily to be worn but also for practical use—as floor coverings and room dividers, masks, kites and wrapping cloths for sacred objects. More robust fibres and construction techniques replaced tapa and are now used for everyday clothing and interior textiles. However, tapa is revered and continues to be made into formal dress for ceremonial occasions and pieces are hung on walls in people’s homes–signifying culture, identity and tradition. As Hindin learned more about the Mtauranga Māori (Māori knowledge systems)–the lunar calendar, language, genealogy, land, plants and ocean–Hindin developed her personal and political perspectives. She discovered new possibilities for the transformation of her craft into appropriate contemporary art forms...
Extract from the article Between the Bark and the Tree: Nikau Hindin - Pounding the Fibre and Seeing the Stars, written by Valerie Kirk and featured in our current issue, Issue 105 Checks & Stripes.
Follow along with Nikau's bark cloth journey @nikaugabrielle
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