"Craft Is Creative Thinking Made Material": Maungarongo Ron Te Kawa On Connection & Quilting
The ebullient artist is known for his vibrant quilt works, and for hosting much-loved sewing workshops to pass on his skills
My art practice is a meditation on peace. A quilt could easily take 200 hours and there could be up to 12 quilts in a show. That’s a lot of time to work in solitude so I call in my beloved ancestors to be with me. There’s no room for any negativity in that sacred creative zone.
Māori weavers, poets, midwives and fabric artists call this zone Te Whare Pora [the house of learning]. My practice is a meditation on peace and connection. Storytelling through quilting just comes so naturally, I see it as an extension of tukutuku panels, raranga (Māori weaving), and whakairo (pattern). It’s a new way to tell old stories.
I had been a fashion designer for 25 years and I wanted to change careers, but I also wanted to take my amazing clientele with me. I just couldn’t let them go. In a way, I didn’t have much choice, customers were coming to me with elaborate stories and whakapapa that I just couldn’t fit on to a skirt or jacket… so I circled back to the days of making the Aids protest quilts.
I started sewing figures on to clothes to bring safety and protection to the wearer. No one is gonna mess with you when you are wearing a Hine-nui-te-pō [the goddess of death] skirt or a jacket emblazoned with a fierce kaitiaki. It was the early 2000s, Don Brash was dividing the country and my clients were coming to me, they were feeling unsafe in the street and unsafe at work.
My peers were writing plays, essays, books, poems, they were holding rallies, noho, exhibitions and making documentaries. I read a poem by Alice Te Punga Somerville, “This is what I do, so this is what I can do.” I never looked back.
When I was 9 I nagged my dad to teach me how to sew. He went to a garage sale and bought a clunky old sewing machine for $5 and taught himself to sew, so he could teach me. He made me a purple bark cloth drawstring bag to keep my marbles in. When he finished and held it up, I knew a whole new world had opened up, my future was looking bright.
Dad never had a craft hobby. Craft is seen by some as a middle-class genteel pursuit. I’ve never thought like that, thanks to Dad. I now sew in what used to be his double-garage man cave. It took years to get rid of all the car parts, bottles and cutlery.
I can feel his creativity all around me. He drew a plan for the windows, measured it all, cut the bits and put them in place. That’s the same formula for making a dress. A lot of cars came into this garage to be breathed back to life, problems that needed solving in new ways. Those men were crafty.
All my quilts are a love story for my family, the characters in my quilts are deeply rooted in the people I grew up with. When I’m told that I’ve got a great work ethic, I close down. I come from a long line of railway men, freezing workers, farmers, fencers, shearers and labourers. All up before the sun, and no one ever complimented them on their work ethic. I work hard and can get up there with the best of them because that is their legacy. My whānau has deep humble roots.
Sewing is a sacred practice to me. As an artist, I’ve got a responsibility to uplift my people and share. Through sewing, I can connect to myself and make a sacred space to create safely and freely (Te Whare Pora). I can draw in the energy of nature (Hine-te-iwaiwa) and I have my river of champion ancestors near me. That’s what my [sewing] workshops are about.
I’m just providing a safe haven for people to remember the old Māori ways of learning, wherever they are in their creative journey. We come together with no judgement, to share good food, music, creativity and aroha. I’ve had it sweet, so I want to share the recipe.
I’m always listening for a māngai, a voice or a message that might be delivered through a person, a dream, an experience or an inspiration. Then I put it through 'the wairua test’, which means, does it give me a good rongo vibe in my puku? Then I find the story, and I figure out how to lay my story over the top.
The quilt ‘The Natives Must Be In Awe’ took a couple of months to think about who would be in it and how they would like to be represented, it’s their story after all. There were a lot of checks and balances.
In my version of the legend of Captain Cook, the day he turned up in Tairāwhiti was not one of triumph and discovery. If I was there, I would have seen an old filthy ship with guns, I would have seen women in hi-tech catamarans laughing as they circled the bay. Gardeners lifting up their rāpaki in defiance, while a rainbow waka waits unsure. Kaitiaki mark the territory. All the faces and bodies in this quilt are based on real people. Fabulous, triumphant winners.
The actual physical making process is the easy part. In 2007 I found some old coal miners’ cushions made from old threadbare suits. They were put together in a Victorian crazy quilting way. I loved the feel and the weight.
I haven’t met other quilters that use the same process. It’s heavy work, a quilt can weigh up to 20kg. You are constantly picking them up and moving them around, so you need strong arms.
I’ve got piles of fabrics sorted by colour in a colour palette that I can sit with. If any colours are missing, I’ll chop up an old wool coat or velvet skirt and dye the fabric myself. Cut out vague shapes and move them around to get some perspective, where the main focus should be, how to make it pop into life with movement, like a carving.
I draw outlines onto canvas and sew layers of fabric into a background, then make all the components to sew on to that — mountains, birds and people.
From here to the finish line it’s all about pinning and moving ’til everything is in the right place. It’s expressive, I don’t always know what the final product is going to look like. It’s exciting, it’s a gamble, but the bigger the risk, the better the pay-out.
Culture is moving a lot faster in the rangatahi world. Domestic craft used to be about making things for the whare and whānau. The economic reality is that a lot of that stuff is cheap and easy. It’s pretty obvious that kids with craft skills have been taught at home and not in the classroom.
There is a legacy of craft passed down through whānau, in classrooms and marae all over both motu. Young people are weaving harakeke, dying plants, threading and twisting fibres on to tukutuku panels, making tāniko work and knitting.
When our rangatahi get to give creativity a go, they don’t hold back. In te ao Māori, art and craft hold each other’s hands. Whether a traditionally carved meeting house or a crystal light-up waka, the love of the story will inform the craft. I think our creative future is in safe hands.
We used to dress for the sake of style, now we dress to show which class we belong to. I thought I’d always make clothes for a living, but the industry evolved away from what I loved most... individuality.
After the economic crash in 2008, the world changed. Excess and glamour faded out and the consumer wanted less exploitation of the land and workers. I did too. Although I was happy to walk away from fashion, the best parts of it are still pinned to me. Making clothes taught me how to lead a creative team.
Fabric is fascinating, when I touch a piece of fabric, I think of who might have worn it or who might have hoarded it and where. Was it the offcut of a ball dress? Was it the sleeve of an antique coat? How many owners did it have? What did they see? Fabric connects us to the past.
For me, craft is creative thinking made material. It’s what we can make with our hands to put a mark on this world. Craft is the story of humans evolving, learning, growing, while expressing themselves with style.
Originally published in Viva Magazine – Volume Five