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AWMM exhibits Te Rā & Te Rā Ringa Raupā

Te Rā on display for the first time in Tāmaki Makaurau, Teao News, November 2023

Dr Kahutoi Te Kanawa with Te Rā, the only known example of a customary Māori sail, at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. (Jason Oxenham / NZME).

An exhibition opening today at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum presents a truly unique cultural taonga on display for the first time in Tāmaki Makaurau.

Te Rā, the only known customary Māori sail in existence, is on a two-stage tour of New Zealand on loan from the British Museum, where it has been mostly in storage for more than 100 years.

Dr Kahutoi Te Kanawa, the Auckland museum’s curator Pou Ārahi, Māori, was in awe when she first encountered the sail on a research trip to the British Museum in 1997.

“I was there to study some cloaks [and] I just saw the tail end of it, which is the bottom piece, and I wondered what it was,” she said. “In 1998, I was a demonstrator for the Māori exhibition [in which Te Rā was on public display for the first time] … a whole lot of questions arose around its significance in terms of navigation and whether it was an ocean sail or just used on the awa [river].”

At nearly four and a half metres long and featuring a complex three-way pattern Te Rā is woven from harakeke. (Jason Oxenham / NZME).

At nearly four and a half metres long and featuring a complex three-way pattern woven from harakeke, Te Rā is a testament to the skill of Māori weaving and serves as a reminder of the rich history of Māori sailing and navigation.

At the Auckland exhibition, Te Rā is accompanied by two sails recreated by Te Rā Ringa Raupā, a group of skilled weavers mentored by weaver, installation artist and researcher Dr Maureen Lander.

The group was formed in 2009 in response to a challenge from Māori scholar Te Rangihīroa (Sir Peter Buck) who, back in 1922, challenged Māori weavers to study, reproduce and revive the unique weaving knowledge found within the sail.

The complex three-way weave and sail loop detail of Te Rā. (Jason Oxenham / NZME).

“There’s a lot to learn from Te Rā,” Te Kanawa said. “The weaving, the feathers [and] how they’re placed; the loops. Everything that goes with it, all the different indicators of the knowledge system that is imbued in Te Rā.”

The sail is known to have been made in the late 18th century and marks and signs of wear show it was used before it was collected in Aotearoa and taken to Britain.

Feather detail on the sail. (Jason Oxenham / NZME).

“The arrival of Te Rā to Aotearoa, and now to Tāmaki Makaurau … allows us to connect with a little-known aspect of Māori history,” Auckland Museum chief executive David Reeves said.

“[It] is a timeless taonga that has the potential to inspire new interest in the knowledge and application of Māori weaving and sailing. After being away for over 200 years, the exhibition of Te Rā is a rare and valuable opportunity to experience the beauty and significance of this taonga.”

Bringing Te Rā home involved many people, including the research group Whakaa rahia anō te rā kaihau! Raise up again the billowing sail!, led by Dr Catherine Smith, Dr Donna Campbell and Rānui Ngārimu who, with Joe Harawira, accompanied the sail on its return journey in January this year.

Te Kanawa said Te Rā was having a taste of home after so many years away.

“There’s been a lot of excitement. It’s been a long time coming. Having Te Rā back in New Zealand, it’s like a dream come true.”

Te Rā: Navigating Home is at Tāmaki Paenga Hira Auckland War Memorial Museum from Saturday, November, until Sunday, May 26, 2024.