People and Places

How Nikau Hindin is reviving an art that hasn’t been practiced in a century

Nikau Hindin is learning the art of patience as she single-handedly revives the almost-lost Māori practice of making barkcloth

Nikau Hindin (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) is reviving the ancient art of making aute (Māori barkcloth or tapa cloth) – a skill that, up until now, hadn’t been practised here for over a century. She is based in Gisborne, where she gained her masters of creative practice at Toihoukura, the School of Māori Visual Art & Design, following her honours degree in fine arts at the University of Auckland.

What is aute?

‘Aute’ is the name of both the paper mulberry plant and the finished barkcloth. When the aute plant is 18 months old, it’s cut; I make an incision in the bark and peel it off the stalk. This leaves the white, sappy inner bark, which I scrape and beat with shells and wooden beaters. It expands into cloth more than three times its original width, which can then be worn or stored to use later.

When I want to create a piece, I soak it for a few weeks to ret (ferment and soften) the fibres. Then I beat all the little puka (pores) together. Once dried, I soften it and paint on it with natural pigments. It’s time-consuming and took a long time to learn. There are lots of chemical reactions going on in the bark sap so if you aren’t careful it can discolour or go mouldy.

How did you learn a craft that hasn’t been practised here for over a century?

It was difficult but I referenced the Māori aute beaters at Auckland Museum when I made my tools. I also consulted Dante Bonica at the University of Auckland, an expert in stone tools and traditional practices.

Eventually I met my kumu [Hawaiian for teacher], Verna Takashima, in 2015 at a museum symposium. She gave me some fine tools made by her brother, which helped a lot. In 2017 I moved to Hawaii as part of my masters, and in the weekends I learned intensively under Takashima as well as other master kapa makers.

What do you love about the process?

I love how physical it is: I sweat, my muscles ache, my fingers get blisters from the shells. But when you unfold the barkcloth, it is three times wider and bright white – the transformation is so rewarding.

Working with nature, I’m governed by the timing of the plants and the seasons. I’m here to document the stars, the patterns of the environment, and to learn from these things, not destroy them. The second part is more harmonious; beating aute is very meditative. I have to have a clear mood. In a world fuelled by instant gratification, it requires patience. I love painting too – the textures and smells and the simplicity of the natural pigments.

I love how physical it is: I sweat, my muscles ache, my fingers get blisters.

But when you unfold the barkcloth...the transformation is so rewarding.

How did you set about building an art practice around aute?

I started in 2013. It took about five years before I was happy enough with the quality of the cloth to start painting on it. Building an art practice around plants requires lots of planning and patience. It means that I harvest in the summer and paint in the winter. Until my little aute plants are big enough I’ll go back to Hawaii or other Pacific islands to harvest plants.

I document a lot of my process and pieces on Instagram. Instagram is a powerful tool for artists and I communicate with barkcloth makers from all over the world. People who want to purchase my works can see them and message me directly. My community keeps me accountable and motivated to keep on making.

Tell us about the patterns you paint on the aute.

The lineage of my patterns comes from the tukutuku and tāniko weaving designs. I do a lot of research and calculations for every star map I create. I did a series that documented what time the stars rise and set during rākaunui (full moon), over six moon cycles. This helped me to understand the seasonal changes of the stars and visually see it as a pattern.

I like the idea that my compositions are predetermined by the declination of the stars and the times they rise and set. This is knowledge our ancestors would have known like the back of their hands and used to navigate to Aotearoa.

If we wanted to realign ourselves with the timing of the environment, and the natural timing of our own internal environment we could observe the maramataka, Māori moon calendar. I’m on a journey to understand how it all works. No doubt it will take me a lifetime, but I use my paintings to help me memorise this knowledge. It takes such a long time to make the cloth, I think it should take equal time and care to make the marks on it.

What are the biggest challenges of being an artist in Aotearoa?

I’m grateful for the wāhine artists who have laid the path in front of me like Robyn Kahukiwa, Rosanna Raymond and Lisa Reihana. It was hard at first to commit to becoming an artist because I didn’t see myself or my value system anywhere in the New Zealand art world. But this is changing; I’ve had such a positive response to my work and I think people are starting to care about how an artist makes their work and its potential for cultural transformation.

Acknowledging indigenous peoples is becoming more important as we face more climate disasters. Indigenous cultural practices are based on thousands of years of observing the natural world and are in line with protecting the environment. I’m being lifted up in this new wave of awareness.

What does Māori art mean to you?

For me, art isn’t just about the things we hang on our walls. It is how we move through our world and what we create; whether our art eventually becomes landfill or returns to the earth to regenerate it. To appreciate Māori art merely for its appearance is a superficial exercise. The key is to understand the Māori concepts entrenched in the artwork and this land.

What advice do you have for people who want to learn more, or start collecting, indigenous art?

The main thing to understand is there is no separation between art, tool, religion and nature. Everything is connected. Cultural practices come with their own protocols and rely on relationships with knowledge holders that have been nurtured over time. The materials we use are sometimes rare (plants, pigments, whale teeth, bone, special hardwoods) and the strategies for obtaining them have most likely taken years of development.

If you are investing in a piece of artwork grounded in traditional knowledge by an indigenous artist, realise that the treasure you are acquiring contains knowledge passed through many generations. This same knowledge has faced the threat of extermination but has miraculously survived and now lives on through our traditional practices.

@nikaugabrielle

This article was first published in Your Home and Garden. Follow YHG on Instagram, Facebook and sign up to the fortnightly email for inspiration between the issues.

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