Hiapo Artist Cora-Allan Wickcliffe Is Reviving A Lost Niuean Artform
Traditional maker Cora-Allan Wickcliffe is injecting new life into an artform that has been lying dormant for the last two generations
There is a small red bucket outside artist Cora-Allan Wickcliff’s Henderson home. Nothing unusual about that but what’s floating in the bucket hints to her life’s work. Soaking in the water, like a limp fish, lies a strip of ata bark — Niuean for paper mulberry tree bark.
“Feel this!” Cora-Allan encourages me to dip my hand into the bucket to touch the strip of off-white-coloured bark. It’s slippery and rubbery and around a centimetre thick. “Once it has soaked for around a week, I beat it with this ike.” She holds up the wooden hand tool with rivets on the side that help pulverise the bark. “This piece will expand about five times in size,” she says wandering back through the house to her bedroom art studio.
Cora-Allan, 33, is the only living traditional maker of hiapo — the Niuean artform of barkcloth painting — in New Zealand or Niue, for that matter, where the artform has been lying dormant for the last two generations and since the end of the island’s monarchy in 1900.
It was Cora-Allan’s Niuean grandparents, Vakaafi and Fotia Lafaiki, who encouraged her to revive hiapo, for one poignant reason. “My grandfather asked me to make a very large hiapo, so he could be buried in it.” He passed away last year she tells me, and his wish was granted.
In the past, hiapo was mostly used for ceremonial occasions Cora-Allan explains, or rites of passage, like a son’s first haircut, or as ceremonial gifts for the past kings of Niue. She points to a painted barkcloth poncho hanging on the wall she made a few years ago. “This one will be for my son’s hair-cutting ceremony when he turns 16.”
The AUT graduate, with a Masters in Visual Art and Design and both Niuean and Maori heritage, seems to have found her artistic calling. Her recent work has sparked the interest of top dealer galleries and museums here and abroad. Both Auckland Museum and Wellington’s Te Papa have recently acquired one of her hiapo and the National Gallery of Victoria has inquired about a catalogue of work.
A recent show at Tim Melville Gallery in Auckland was her first sell-out show and she recently exhibited with Black Dot Gallery in Melbourne and the Vancouver Art Gallery as part of the BC (Before Cook) Collective with one of her large-scale hiapo.
She also works as curator and exhibitions manager at the Corban Estate Arts Centre and was recently appointed as the curator for the first show at the Tautai Pacific Arts Trust’s new gallery on Karangahape Rd.
It’s the modern way Cora-Allan is re-interpreting the ancient artform that has spurred such interest from collectors. While her traditional hiapo-making methods are purist — she uses only ata bark and painstakingly harvested mangrove inks for her painting (it takes her two days to harvest enough ink for just a few weeks of painting), she has come to a less traditional and reductive juncture in her painting practice that pares her tapa works right back to modernist botanical drawings.
What distinguishes Niuean tapa from other Pacific Island tapa is the focus on botanical forms alone. Matisse comes to mind when looking at her work.
Her latest work draws out one or two botanical motifs from a larger tapa painting to stark effect, with each element having space to breathe.
Her original intention in working this way was to create a catalogue of drawings for future students. But as a result, she has captured a new generation of viewers.
Her fluid marks are made without brushes, but with pandanus seed pods.
On a recent trip to Niue, while teaching her sister and other family members to paint on barkcloth, she pointed them to the roadside for their brushes.
“Everything you need is right there on the side of the road. The bush gives you any size tool you need.”
While Cora-Allan is honoured by the interest of galleries and museums, she is proud that she hasn’t lost her intention as a traditional maker and still uses her work as a bargaining tool.
“Sometimes I trade my work for cakes or pillow cases. I know the difference between the institutional space and the community space, when I use my work for art, or for community purpose.”
She recently gifted a hiapo to a Niuean woman in Waikato who has just completed her PhD and used it as a cover for her dissertation on hiapo.
“She gave me nuts and chocolate in return. I was happy with that.”