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.”
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.
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.
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.
‘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.’
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.