JADE, ivory, stone, flax, feathers -- these are the natural things that the Maori of New Zealand have used to make their personal treasures, their "taonga." Modern New Zealand artists have taken these same substances and made today's amulets, which can be seen at the Renwick Gallery in "Treasures From the Land: Twelve New Zealand Craftsmen and Their Native Materials."
While only three of the artists actually belong to a Maori tribe, the work here points to Maori roots in style and design, before the British began colonizing in the early 1800s.
The show has a foreign flair, but at the same time, the musky earthtones of these objects are familiar hues. One can take a stone from the earth, but not the earth from a stone.
Artist John Edgar uses mudstone, once crafted by the Maori into adzes and jewelry, and turns it into "currcy" -- some cash to spend in utopia. He calls the stones the "Coins of the Realm." Copper banded, inlaid with glass or abalone, the stones really are keepers, coming with their own boxes and pouches. To make a sort of sacred rock he calls an "Oracle Counter," Edgar pierces a hole in a pebble, then plugs the hole with glass; the magic is that there is no visible joining.
Carvings here with traditional Maori themes are fish hooks and adzes made from beef bones; a whale ivory comb that is a squid with tentacles forming the comb's teeth; a flute made of (gulp) human bone. But Maori artist Paratene Matchitt feels there's more to New Zealand art than just copying "taonga" -- even if it does date back to the 10th century, when Maori tribespeople first arrived from Polynesia.
Matchitt's "Gateway" towers over the exhibit, a wood sculpture covered with carved animals and human forms, the proposed entrance to a Maori meeting house he'd like to build.
His Maori companions in this show are a mother and daughter who weave. The mother, Rangimarie Hetet, age 93, learned the art of weaving cloaks from her mother, who fought the British in the Waikato Wars in the 1860s.
These strange and exotic cloaks, pulled about the neck with a drawstring, are "korowai," worn by men and women to symbolize prestige. Rarely making more than one cloak a year, the weaver twirls flax into threads by hand, and no doubt personally gathers the feathers (parrot, kiwi, pigeon, pheasant) that adorn the cloaks.
Pottery, the biggest craft in New Zealand, is represented here by a sole craftsman, Barry Brickell. But he is one of the country's first studio potters. Not only does he have a sense of humor, calling his palpable organic forms "Anthromorph" and "Embraceomorph," but he also mines his own clay, cuts down pine trees to fire his kilns, then transports the raw materials to his workshop on a railway he built himself.
The back-to-the-earth movement is alive and well and living in New Zealand.