Thursday, July 15, 2010

Seeing and looking on a sunny afternoon

It's been an absolutely gorgeous day in Wellington. I had to go into town this afternoon and finished with time to spare, so I went down to the waterfront. The harbour was calm enough to reflect the few white fluffy clouds -an astonishing rarity for Wellingtonians. I walked round to the coffee shop at the bottom of the Herd St building where you can sit looking out at the sea and the boats - on a good day it's the best spot in town - and had a magnificent mochaccino, large, hot, strong and cheap.

Then I made a bad mistake. If there's print around I read it, so I picked up a fashion mag, the Australian Madison, and started leafing through it. It had a photo shoot featuring one of the thinnest, scrawniest, most appallingly anorexic models I've ever seen. I got out a pen and wrote "Anorexia rules" up the length of her white satin trousers. I should have just sat there, enjoyed my coffee and gazed at the harbour instead.

I had time to walk round to Te Papa to see "Paperskin: the art of tapa cloth", drawn from the collections of the Queensland Art Gallery, the Queensland Museum, Te Papa, and a private collector. It's magnificent, and it's free - please go if you can.

But while you're there, please keep in mind one thing that goes almost unremarked and definitely unexplored in the exhibition as it's presented to the public: these amazing designs and beautiful textiles were mainly made by women, often working in highly organised groups. Here and there the makers are mentioned, in connection with particular pieces, but that's all.

There's a video of a cloth being made by women in the Eyelights gallery, which has more pieces on display, including some contemporary ones (a wonderful wedding dress, for example) that do have their maker's names attached. But generally there seems to be no real attempt to explore the highly gendered making of these beautiful creations.

Exploring further after I got home, I found the on-line catalogue for the exhibition. (If you can't go you can look at the barkcloth here - the pieces are superbly photographed.) The various essays in it say some very interesting things which there is barely a hint of in the exhibition itself.

The Preface by Nicholas Thomas, Director of the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Professor of Historical Anthropology, Cambridge University, makes the point that barkcloth has only recently been seriously studied, and explains why: it was made by women, and it was seen as merely decorative. In other words, he is saying that part of the point of this ground-breaking exhibition is its recognition of a neglected art form created mainly (and in many Pacific cultures, solely) by women. All the more reason, surely, to bring this out in the exhibition itself.

The essay by Maud Page, Curator, Contemporary Pacific Art at the Queensland Art Gallery, gave me part of what I was looking for too. Copyright rules forbid me from quoting it here, so I've simply linked to it. She writes about how groups of women in Papua New Guinea see their work, what it means to them, and the freedom different makers have to interpret the same landscape differently. She quotes Australian writer Drusilla Modjeska, who spent time with these artists: "When a woman comes into her vai hero (wisdom), it is not simply that she has learned the iconography, but that she lives it so fully that it forms, and informs, her relationship with the cloth."* And she discusses how groups of women far from home, for example Tongan women in Sydney, lacking traditional materials, feel compelled to get together in order to carry on making a form of cloth with whatever is to hand.

There seemed to be enough room on the walls of the large Visa Gallery to have got across some of these insights. Without them, the makers seem to be largely invisible.

*Drusilla Modjeska, ‘This place, our art’, in Omie: The Barkcloth Art of Omie, [exhibition catalogue], Annandale Galleries, Sydney, 2006, p.16.


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