Bringing ancient taonga to 21st-century eyes

Dr Ngarino Ellis (Ngāti Porou, Ngāpuhi) unearths historical Māori art to inspire and enrich contemporary art practice.

"My twin sister and I were raised in the art world — our mum Elizabeth was an art teacher, and is now chair of several art boards including Haerewa (the Māori Advisory Board at Auckland Art Gallery), and our dad Robert is an artist and taught at Elam for almost 40 years.

"When I graduated with my BA/LLB my first job was practicing as a criminal lawyer, but it was scatty, unsatisfying work, and within a year I had enrolled one day a week to do an MA in Art History. The next year my wonderful mentor, the legendary Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, asked me to become a tutor for her Māori art history classes.

"I asked, 'how am I going to help my people if I'm here in academia and not in the law courts?' She said, 'you can still help your people up here'."

It's really lovely to spend time with taonga who don't usually get anyone to mihi to them, to sing to them, just to be with them.

"And Ngahuia was right: I feel that I do help Māori by working as an art historian in lots of different ways.

"For example, I sent a copy of my PhD on Ngāti Porou carving 1830–1930 to carver Hone McClutchie who was restoring the meeting house at Te Horo marae near Ruatoria. He had my PhD draft on the trestle tables outside the wharenui, and everybody was looking at it, reading, getting ideas and being inspired.

"That, for me, makes this an important job. With photographer Natalie Robertson, I turned that PhD into a book called A Whakapapa of Tradition (Auckland University Press, 2016), and that is also used by contemporary artists and especially carvers for reference and inspiration.

"In early 2018 Natalie went to the unveiling of whakairo at the refurbished Tikapa Marae her ancestral marae — where the carver Lionel Matenga had also used our book. People are pleased that we published a book with high production values that is a pleasure to use."

He had my PhD draft on the trestle tables outside the wharenui, and everybody was looking at it, reading, getting ideas and being inspired.

"Part of my work in making past art visible is bringing our taonga overseas into the conversation. We have to make it as easy to write about a cloak in Stockholm as one in Wellington.

"An estimated 16,000 Māori treasures are overseas, many of which left our shores before 1840. So there are forms and types of Māori art there that we no longer have examples of here.

"It's important to open up the archives and inspire our artists — on my 2018 trip to Europe, the UK and the US, I posted pictures and video of taonga on social media, and carvers and moko artists were talking about what I was finding, which was exciting."

It makes me so angry that Cook's men asked him to sit for a drawing when he was injured by a material he’d never come across before.

"When I go to museums and archives overseas, it's really lovely to spend time with taonga who don't usually get anyone to mihi to them, to sing to them, just to be with them.

"One of the highlights of my research career so far was seeing a drawing that I had been talking about in lectures for 20 years, of a man called Te Kuku who was from Te Rawhiti in the Bay of Islands, which is where I'm from.

"It's in the British Library, where I spent a day in April supported by members of Ngāti Rānana, the Māori group in London, looking at the collections of Captain Cook."

An estimated 16,000 Māori treasures are overseas, many of which left our shores before 1840.

"We went into the conservation area and I saw him and it was overwhelming. I cried. I did a karanga to him, just quietly. When he was drawn he was injured, he had a British musket ball in his leg. It makes me so angry that Cook's men asked him to sit for a drawing when he was injured by a material he’d never come across before.

"I love making global connections — at the Metropolitan Museum in New York I saw a waka huia (treasure box) and thought 'I've seen this before!' What I had seen was another piece by the same, unknown artist in the Pitt Rivers Museums in Oxford, England.

"So we're piecing together stories of Aotearoa that have been fragmented around the world."