28 Apr 2024

Stitching bling, satin & velvet into Toi Māori with Maungarongo Te Kawa

From Culture 101, 2:30 pm on 28 April 2024

Maungarongo (Ron) Te Kawa

Maungarongo (Ron) Te Kawa Photo: Seb Charles

The Sacred Kumara Garden

The Sacred Kumara Garden 2020 Photo: Sam Hartnett

The large wall hung quilts of takatāpui fabric artist and storyteller Maungarongo Te Kawa (Ngāti Porou) leap and sparkle as joyous dance. They are blankets of aroha for a world that needs it. 

Yet bright colours and animated cartoon figures belie the sophistication of these works. They test the boundaries of both Toi Māori and contemporary art, bringing social concerns to the fore through quilting.  

As communal cloaks or blankets, these works bring comfort and energy. A life force or mauri, for Te Kawa they are the equivalent to “the Matariki stars singing down to Papatūānuku in her most desolate time’. 

The only rule for his work is “that they have to be gorgeous.” 

“To show up in life, to be present, loving, unapologetically Māori and happy is a political statement,” writes Te Kawa. “It pokes its tongue out at the expectations of others.”

“When I look at our carvings from the old people,” he continues, “I see cheekiness, humour, rhythm, defiance, partying, loudness, matakite, cleverness, love, and abundance….

Welcome Home We Love You 2014 Maungarongo Te Kawa

Welcome Home We Love You 2014 Maungarongo Te Kawa Photo: John Collie

"I take all my mamae (pain), anger, and disappointment, and I transform that energy to make the most faithful, funny, dynamic, musical, and modern images of us that I can, using the discarded, unwanted fabrics of society. “

Maungarongo, or Ron to his friends, has been sharing his love and joy widely of late. 

Currently based at the Te Matatiki Toi Ora Christchurch Arts Centre as an artist in residence, he’s currently working on a 3D waharoa, or “celestial star gate” for an upcoming show at Toi o Tamaki Auckland Art Gallery.

A large quilt work hangs at Christchurch Art Gallery.

Te Kawa has also been in residence this year at the cottage of the late revered painter Rita Angus in Thorndon, Pōneke. It will result in an exhibition at Enjoy gallery early next year. 

A touring survey of his work Whare Pora: a sacred space recently opened until 21 July  at Te Manawa in Palmerston North, not far from Woodville where he usually resides. 

Further, Te Kawa is also showing works presently in a group exhibition with his dealer gallery in Tāmaki Makaurau, Seasons, He Kiri Tuna until 18 May.

Hīnātore 2021 Maungarongo Te Kawa

Hīnātore 2021 Maungarongo Te Kawa Photo: Sam Hartnett

Maungarongo Te Kawa spent the last three months of 2023  in Norway and the Arctic Circle.

He ran workshops and toured Te Whare Pora to the Nitja Center for Contemporary Arts in Lillestrøm and the Sami Art Gallery in Karasjok in the Arctic.

It was the result of a  partnership between Tamaki Makaurau gallery Objectspace, who have realised the survey exhibition with him, and Norwegian Crafts. 

Te Kawa’s art career is clearly now at full power but, self taught, it’s followed 25 years working as a fashion designer.

Community workshops remain a vital part of his kaupapa as an educator. As a designer he originally started sewing figures onto clothes to protect the wearer.

Detail from Hineteiwaiwa. Maungarongo Te Kawa

Detail from Hineteiwaiwa. Maungarongo Te Kawa Photo: supplied

This was in response to the Don Brash-led National Party ‘Iwi/Kiwi’ 2005 election campaign. Te Kawa was working at the markets at the Christchurch Art Centre at the time.  

Te Kawa’s work may be full of joy, but his works today are a deliberate antidote to serious concerns. 2022’s 'Payday and the pātaka is full' for example, responded to the Destiny Church’s attitude that gay people were “ruining family structures”. The quilt shows “Uncle Glitterbeard raining love over his family”.

Culture 101’s Mark Amery caught up with Maungarongo Te Kawa in Ōtautahi. 

Waipunarangi 2023 Maungarongo Te Kawa

Waipunarangi 2023 Maungarongo Te Kawa Photo: Seb Charles

Rangi and Papa and their naughty children. 2014. Maungarongo Te Kawa

Rangi and Papa and their naughty children. 2014. Maungarongo Te Kawa Photo: Sam Hartnett