20 Nov 2015

Aute: Making Māori Tapa Cloth

From New Zealand Society, 2:30 pm on 20 November 2015
An image of the aute being beaten.

Beating the aute. Photo: RNZ/Justin Gregory

Nikau Hindin sits, legs folded, the centre of attention, as the sounds of mallets thwacking recreates a lost taonga.

It’s been more than a century since the art of making Maori tapa cloth was last practised, but Hindin is passionate about its revival.

“I believe that if you are following in their [our ancestors] footsteps, you’re probably going in the right direction.”

Hinden, of Te Rarawa and Ngapuhi descent, is a Bachelor of Fine Arts student at the University of Auckland, and she only re-discovered the lost practice by chance.

It was a chance remark heard in Hawaii that led artist Nikau Hindin to the lost Māori practice of making tapa cloth.In 2013 she went on exchange to the University of Hawaii at Manoa and attended classes in Hawaiian Studies under Faculty Head, Maile Andrade.  It was while Andrade was teaching a roomful of students how to beat kapa (Hawaiian tapa cloth) that he casually mentioned that Māori used to make their own.

And I was like, ‘What? I didn’t know that! I’d love to continue this practice in Aotearoa when I go home.

An image of artist Nikau Hindin.

Nikau Hindin. Photo: RNZ/Justin Gregory

Māori who migrated to the islands that became Aotearoa/New Zealand brought both clothes made from bark cloth and seeds to grow the paper mulberry/aute trees that they were made from. But the cooler, damper climate here meant the trees struggled to thrive and when other materials became available in the 1840’s, the slow, labour-intensive practice of beating aute died out. Because of the perishable nature of the cloth there are no surviving examples of aute and only a small number of the hand crafted wooden beaters used to work the fibre in its raw state still remain. When Nikau returned home in 2014 determined to revive the practice of beating aute, her first job was to make her own tools.

Nine of the surviving aute beaters are kept in the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Hindin wrote the Museum a proposal, offering to work with it to develop her own set of tools as the final part of her Fine Arts degree. Auckland Museum agreed and awarded her the inaugural Sir Hugh Kawharu Scholarship, allowing her access to their precious beaters. Using them as a guide, she began work crafting her own.

Each of her heavy wooden beaters were carved from pohutakawa and kauri wood, using only traditional tools. The wood was first cut using a toki or adze, then shaped with pipi shells. Hindin used hoanga (sandstone) to grind the beaters and carved the deep, regular grooves on each surface by scoring them with shark’s teeth.

An image of artist Nikau Hindin holding one of her hand-crafted wooden beaters, used to work the wet fibre.

Nikau Hindin holds one of her hand-crafted beaters, used to work the wet fibre. Photo: RNZ/Justin Gregory

An image of the wet aute, placed on a wooden anvil prior to beating.

The wet aute is spread on a wooden anvil then beaten gently. Photo: RNZ/Justin Gregory

Making aute begins with peeling the bark from the tree and then soaking it for some time. It is then laid on a wooden anvil and slowly beaten into wide strips which are eventually worked together into a sheet. Hindin has been documenting every step of the process for her degree and on her blog she gently complains about the quality of the aute trees here in Aotearoa.

‘The (mulberry trees in Hawaii) are specifically grown for making kapa. The plant that I’ve been using hasn’t been told it supposed to turn into bark cloth. So this is why I’ve got this new generation of plants and I’ve had quite a lot of interest from people who I trust and who I know will look after these plants and harvest them properly, so that these can be really good quality plants to produce good material.’
Making aute would have been a communal experience and at each of the wananga, Hindin sought to replicate that kaupapa. As the group beat the cloth together, talk, laugh, share knowledge, experience and food, she has found herself being both teacher and student.

‘My friend showed me how to peel off the bark with your teeth. He’d seen his tipuna do it in Rarotonga. I’d been doing it with my fingers! At the end of the day it’s what you leave behind. It’s not necessarily the outcomes that you manifest because as we see with aute, the fibre has disintegrated. It obviously doesn’t last long but the knowledge associated with it that is the taonga as well.’

An image of a student working on a strip of aute.

A student works on a strip of aute. Photo: RNZ/Justin Gregory

Once she has secured a supply of good quality bark, she then wants to turn her attention to making a manu aute, or kite, and to find answers to the question of how Māori might have decorated their bark cloth.

‘But I’m not at that stage yet! I’m still in the beating phase!’

Recently Hindin held a public performance of aute beating in Auckland’s Aotea Square. Sitting barefoot on a series of whariki (mats) she and a group of students and friends worked the fibre into a sheet, rediscovering as they did so some of the protocols around the practice.

‘You can’t bring food onto this area’ says Ana Hera, a friend of Hindin’s and a participant in all the wananga aute. ‘It’s a sacred practice. That’s just respect for the environment and where the materials came from. When Nikau is beating the tapa, she’s trying to embody one of our ancestors.’

As Nikau Hindin moves forward in her practice and continues to rediscover more about aute beating, she is finding the experience deeply satisfying, both as an artist and as a Māori woman. She says it is all about looking forward into the past.

‘Being Māori I feel more connected to my tīpuna when I replicate their movements. Even if that’s just talking Te Reo Māori or doing Kapa haka or relearning the practice of traditional navigation. All of these things help us to reconnect to our tīpuna.’

Find out more about Nikau Hindin and making aute.

This story was broadcast on Friday 30 November 2015

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