Vitality and diversity in ceramics

CONNECTED: Uku Rere: Nga Kaihanga Uku exhibition curator Anna-Marie White, left, with artists Wi Taepa, Paerau Corneal and Baye Riddell.
CONNECTED: Uku Rere: Nga Kaihanga Uku exhibition curator Anna-Marie White, left, with artists Wi Taepa, Paerau Corneal and Baye Riddell.

The first major survey of contemporary Maori ceramics to tour the country is currently showcased at the Suter Art Gallery. Judith Ritchie finds out about the exhibition.

It is a rarity to have access to an exhibition that exudes the unconventional, giving clay liberty while referencing Maori and international indigenous influences. Representing a 27-year survey,Uku Rere: Nga Kaihanga Uku & beyond is a seven city touring exhibition by five influential Maori artists; Baye Riddell, Manos Nathan, Colleen Waata Urlich, Wi Taepa and Paerau Corneal. It has been brought to Nelson by Pataka Art Museum and Toi Maori Aotearoa.

Pataka has a long tradition of curating ground-breaking exhibitions of contemporary Maori art. "The exhibition showcases the remarkable vitality and diversity of the individual practises of the five influential artists," says Pataka director, Helen Kedgley.

"Over the last 27 years these artists have redefined and expanded ceramic art - imbuing it with indigenous concepts and a deep commitment to Maori culture. "

The five artists are connected by their membership of Nga Kaihanga Uku, the national Maori clayworkers' association co-founded in 1986 by Riddell and Nathan.

"The artists came together with the shared idea of making artworks in clay anchored in kaupapa Maori," says Kedgley. "Since then the organisation has developed a co-operative style of working and has provided a strong, nurturing environment for sharing knowledge and skills."

While each artist has created a distinctive body of work, they have over the years continued to meet up, exhibit together, share and support in a collaborative way.

The Suter Art Gallery has been eager to bring this collection of impressive ceramics to Nelson. Curator, Anna-Marie White, has timed the show for maximum exposure at one of the gallery's busiest times of the year, giving locals as well as international visitors access to a rare collection of ceramic works.

"We've been keen to have an exhibition from the collective for many years because we are a clay town," says White. " This gives people access to one of the most interesting movements in Maori art. I'm really hoping this will resonate with people."

White says Uku Rere is loosely translated as a living clay, a form that is coming into being like teasing out something that has its own entity. In this sense the show reflects five different styles of work, yet there are visual links as well.

"These artists are truly collaborative," she says. "The reason for working with clay, not a traditional Maori artform, is papa tuanuku, the earth mother, so the artists show great respect when harvesting the clay, it is to them a living thing."

Works are linked by being hand built, rather than thrown, and reflect a confidence and strength inherent in the collective as well. Individual variations of scale, texture, colour and form reflect each artists personal interpretations and influences.

"These artists have sought out other cultures when learning new techniques," says White. "Some also sell their work with a huge following in Sante Fe in America, where there is a massive market for indigenous clay art."

Manos Nathan is the son of a Maori father and a Greek mother and works in clay as well as wood, stone and glass.

This heritage, combined with extensive travels to Crete, America and Canada where he has worked extensively with native American clay artists, are evidenced in his pieces. His Maori ancestors were carvers so when he chose to transfer his carving skills into ceramics he felt it was important to convince them of the medium's spiritual integrity. He did this by creating ceramic vessels with ritualistic functions such as waka taurahere tangata, containers for placenta.

Paerau Corneal has a passion for expressing and acknowledging the mana wahine (female authority) of Maori women. Both traditional and contemporary in style, she uses a coiling method to create large solid female forms, firmly grounded on the earth. Textured and shapely her female forms celebrate the female place in our world.

"I consciously moved away from the sexual gaze on the female form," she says.

"The figures are symbolic, often flat-chested with one breast lower than the other, with exaggerated proportions and extensions. The work becomes about the form over the feminine."

  • Uku Rere: Nga Kaihanga Uku & beyond, The Suter Art Gallery, Te Aratoi O Whakatu, 208 Bridge St, Nelson, to April 13.