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Te Papa & Ahu: ngā wairua o Hina

‘Ahu: ngā wairua o Hina – a tapa making wānanga in Tahiti

In 2021, with the Te Papa Foundation’s support, Te Papa acquired a rare book of tapa cloth samples, one of many assembled by Alexander Shaw in 1787. The samples were cut from larger pieces of tapa collected on Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific (1768, 1772, 1776) and represent tapa-making practices from various islands including Hawai‘i, Tahiti and Tonga.

Dr Rachel Yates (former Curator Pacific Cultures) initiated the collecting proposal and one of her key intentions behind acquiring the sampler and bringing it to Aotearoa New Zealand, was to ensure that it would be accessible to Pacific communities. In the first of four blogs about this kaupapa, Senior Curator Pacific Histories and Cultures Sean Mallon introduces the continuation of this project and a wānanga that happened in Tahiti late 2023.

An old book is open on a cushion. There are several hands either turning pages, or holding a magnifying glass while looking at it.
Tutana Tetuanu-Peters and Sarah Vaki from Fatu Hiva, Marquesas Islands examine the tapa sampler book. Photo by Te Papa.

After acquiring the sampler, Rachel then initiated a plan to invite other institutions, experts, tapa makers, and a wide range of people and collectives to engage with the samples.

An in-person wānanga stood out as a key proposal that would align with Mana Taonga – one of Te Papa’s guiding principles. It acknowledges the spiritual and cultural connections communities have to collections and accords rights to those with such connections, to participate in the care of their taonga and to speak about and determine their display or other usage by Te Papa.

Sixteen people are standing outside in a group and smiling or looking at the camera.
Participants in the ‘Ahu: ngā wairua o Hina (‘Ahu- the spirit of Hina) in the gardens at Te Fare Iamanaha – Musée de Tahiti et des Îles. Photo by Te Papa.

To this end, Te Papa invited a small group of tapa makers to a wānanga in Tahiti to engage with and respond to the Alexander Shaw tapa sampler in late September 2023.

Te Papa was inspired to base the wānanga in Tahiti because of its geographical and cultural proximity to Hawaiian and Pitcairn Islands tapa makers. It is also the location where the European gathering of the historical tapa samples began in the 1700s.

The wānanga was convened by Te Papa with the support of Embassy of France in Wellington and in collaboration with the Musée de Tahiti et des Îles who hosted the event. It was titled ‘Ahu : ngā wairua o Hina (‘Ahu- the spirit of Hina).

Two people are inside and holding up a banner that says Ahu-Ngā Wairua o Hina.
Isaac Te Awa (Curator Mātauranga Māori, Te Papa) and Liviana Qaranivalu (masi maker, Fiji) hold up a banner she made for the wānanga. Photo by Te Papa.

Pauline Reynolds, a scholar of Tahitian descent devised a five-day artist’s programme on Te Papa’s behalf. Pauline is an established researcher with strong professional ties to both museums and is respected among tapa practitioners in the region.

She worked closely with Isaac Te Awa (Te Papa Mātauranga Māori curator and fibre/mixed media artist). Together they led the tapa makers in the creation of two contemporary samplers representing their responses to the 1787 sampler through their current practice.

They invited each maker to contribute six pieces (two lots of three) representing past, present and future. These formed two ‘bundles’ of ‘ahu/tapa. One of them returned to Te Papa and the other was presented to Te Fare Iamanaha – Musée de Tahiti et des Îles as a record of the creative project and our institutional partnership.

Tapa beaters and cloth, on a stone anvil which is sitting on a coconut leaf mat with pandanus phalanges decorating it.
Tapa beaters and cloth, on a stone anvil and coconut leaf mat with pandanus phalanges in the workspace of Tutana Tetuanu-Peters and Sarah Vaki from Fatu Hiva, Marquesas Islands. Photo by Te Papa.

At the beginning of the project, Pauline spoke of how “These bundles will be symbolic of the bundles of cloth gifted by our ancestors across Te Moana Nui a Hiva (in all its variations) to those who came to our shores, including those presented to Cook and his men, which were later cut into small samples for the Shaw books. These bundles will be representative of the knowledges from each of our island groups, and symbolic of the immense generosity of our tūpuna; and perhaps carry a message of love to those who come after us”.

Tapa cloths laid out on mats in front of a building surrounded by palm trees.
Tapa bundle presentations at Te Fare Iamanaha – Musée de Tahiti et des Îles. Photo by Te Papa.

The wānanga was a rare cultural exchange between the makers, ensuring the ongoing vitality of the practice through connection to the cultural treasures of the past, supporting making in the present, and building collections and knowledge for the future.

In the coming weeks look for a series of three blogposts highlighting key elements of the project; from the 1787 tapa sampler, to the artists’ creation of a new sampler, and reflections on the project from our colleagues at the Te Fare Iamanaha – Musée de Tahiti et des Îles.