Shona Tawhiao Is Headed to the Met

Shona Tawhiao’s passion for traditional Maori weaving and combining cultures through her work has caught the attention of the Met Museum in New York. Dan Ahwa discovers why

Shona Tawhiao. Picture / Guy Coombes.

If the success of a fashion designer was measured purely on their cultural significance, Shona Tawhiao would be considered New Zealand’s most important working fashion designer today. The Tauranga-based fibre artist and designer has been championing mahi raranga (flax weaving) for many years, combining elements of contemporary ready-to-wear with traditional Maori weaving.

She flies the flag for Maori design with a twist, her point of view on display in London, Melbourne and Paris, the designer a crowd favourite at local events such as New Zealand Fashion Week, Style Pasifika, World of Wearable Arts, Cult Couture and, earlier this month, as part of the Matariki Festival.

She has designed costumes for film, television, music videos and public spaces, and in a world of self promoters and social media darlings, the elusive artist and designer prefers her work to speak for itself. Her latest project is a prestigious three-week artist’s residency at the invitation of the Oceanic Department at the Metropolitan Museum of Arts in New York. We caught up with Shona before she set off for the Big Apple and discovered an artist deeply passionate about sharing her unique designs with the world.

How did your residency come about? What will you be focusing on?
The invitation came from curator Dr. Maia Nuku as she knows of my work. While I’m there I’ll be concentrating on research and development of future works and concepts for New Zealand and abroad.

Why was the invitation appealing for you?
Firstly it’s in New York City, a fashion capital and it’s also the home of hip-hop. The Costume Institute’s exhibition, Manus x Machina is currently showing and I’m really looking forward to immersing myself in that environment. The residency is a great opportunity for me as an artist to learn new skills, gather information and make new connections.

You’ve been involved with several shows recently. What have been some highlights?
Last year involved a lot of travelling with shows in Melbourne, Hawaii, London, New Zealand Fashion Week and a runway show in Taranaki. I’ve tried not to do too much this year, just a few small shows so I could focus more on New York. The highlight this year would have to be building a core crew of models, photographers and a support team where I don’t have to do everything. Presenting work globally and locally is important to the longevity of mahi raranga and my work.

How have you found the way art and fashion exists in the digital space, and the immediacy of social media?
Personally, I don’t like the attention it brings and wish it was only about the work. There have been a few stalkers which has been quite scary, but usually most people are lovers of the work. Social media and the Internet is, however, necessary for art and fashion to be seen globally and instantly.

Do you think fashion is art?
I think my style of fashion is art in a sculptural and wearable form. Avant-garde is much more than bits of fabric sewn together. It’s definitely an art form.

Warrior themes and battle motifs often feature in your work. What about these themes inspire you?
I can’t do “pretty” and I find war, battles and warriors inspiring. There’s so much significance with war in history and culture. It’s a powerful influence in life for all cultures. What a warrior wears into battle is just as important as the weapons and training.

What motivates you after all of these years?
I ask myself why all the time. Invitations to show my work come from all around the globe I think, “okay, I’ll just do this show”, then another will come along. I love weaving and making pieces. My work is always evolving and growing and there’s always new ideas and techniques to develop.

What are your views on how indigenous cultures around the world are being exploited or appropriated by fashion?
Yes indigenous cultures are definitely being exploited and unfortunately there’s not much we can do about it. Designers who have to use other cultures motifs and designs obviously have no style or culture of their own. I hope indigenous designers use their native art and designs first – our heritage is what makes us unique in the world.

You’ve inspired a lot of up-and-coming Maori artists and designers. What is the most important message you’d want to give them from your experience?
Just to be proud they are Maori and use their culture and traditions in everything they create. Being Maori is a positive thing and we are all born with talent. Stay focused and they will achieve anything.

What else are you working on both personally and professionally for the rest of 2016?
I’d like to start working on launching a ready-to-wear collection, and I’ll always be weaving. My new website will be going live soon, which is exciting. I’ve been working with Manawa Web Design to create a mostly image based site. Personally, I’ll be spending more time with my girls and hopefully travelling to Asia next for more inspiration.

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