Ko Tainui te waka
Ko Taupiri te maunga
Ko Waikato te awa
Ko Waikato te iwi
Ko Ngāti Tahinga te hapu
Waikaretuu te marae
Ko Kirsten Lyttle ahau
My canoe is Tainui
My mountain is Taupiri
My river is Waikato
My tribe is Waikato
My sub-tribe is Ngāti Tahinga
Waikaretu is the marae
My name is Kirsten Lyttle
When my family and I left Aotearoa (New Zealand) in 1980 to move to Melbourne, I was eight years old. For my adoptive parents, Australia was home. For me, Australia was the place of summer holidays with grandparents; the place where my parents’ stories began. As a child, I went from being a known entity, a Māori child living in New Zealand, to an unknown exotic other in Australia, where my ancestry became (and continues to be) a guessing game. Given this, it is not surprising that much of my art practice has been centred on issues of post-colonialism and identity politics.
My training is as a fine art photographer. I have a Bachelor of Arts (BA Fine Art), and a Master of Fine Art (MFA) both from RMIT University and majoring in Photography. I also currently teach Photography at Deakin University where I am completing my creative practice-led PhD. Throughout my training I have been taught to never touch a photograph without wearing white cotton gloves: the fingerprints left behind from handling are almost impossible to remove from the surface of a photograph. I continue to teach this as the most appropriate way to handle a photograph. By the end of the academic semester, my students know not to touch a photograph without gloves or else I involuntarily gasp in horror.
However, as a contemporary Māori woman, this practice of wearing white gloves has many negative associations (from blackface to domestic service). Also, gloved hands effectively mute a sense of touch and the tactile, which is very much at odds with Māori-dom. The Māori world, like many indigenous cultures, values the tactile connection with sacred cultural objects. For Māori, taonga (sacred objects or treasures), such as photographs, carvings, kete (baskets) and kete whakairo (woven patterned baskets), are touched, spoken too and embraced. This occurs not only in ceremonies such as tangi (funerals), but in the realities of everyday life. This tactile desire to connect with objects and materials drew me towards Pacific and Māori weaving techniques. All Māori weaving; whatu, raranga and whiri (weaving, plaiting and braiding respectively) are done by hand and without loom. The hand is, and remains, the ultimate tool of Māori weaving.
I began learning how to weave in 2011. Weaving became a way for me to connect to my Māori heritage and Māori knowledge; to repeat, through making, the hand movements of my ancestors. I have learnt how to weave from a wide variety of sources; from friends in my weaving circle (our group is known as Motu Taim, a mash-up of Polynesian and Melanesian words meaning “Island Time”, reflecting the cultural heritage of the group’s members), from Aunties in the Māori community (in Melbourne and in Aotearoa), from books, from online You-Tube tutorials and, most recently from the online course run by the Hetet School of Māori Art. By 2012, Māori raranga techniques began creeping into my photographic practice. First, as the subject of my photography and then later (during my MFA), I began using the photographic print as a material to weave. My current PhD research project continues exploring how the camera, digital processes and practices can be used in the creation of Māori customary art. How the physical photographic surface can be used as a site for the production of indigenous customary art-making. In other words, I am interested in the differing strategies that indigenous artists and their communities can use to make the camera (the tool of so much colonization for indigenous peoples), the photograph and the archive, more indigenous. Not simply to be used by indigenous photographers, but rather, how the camera and its processes can be re-made, from image capture to print production, with indigenous methods and practices.
In my work, the very surface of the photograph is made into a Māori object, using Māori weaving (raranga) techniques. The flat two-dimensional surface of the photograph is, through the process of dissection (literally being cut-up into strips) and re-assemblage (through raranga), being transformed into a three-dimensional Māori customary object. Note, that in the context of indigenous art, I do not use the word “traditional”; it is heavily loaded and occupies a position with the fixed and static. I prefer the term “customary” as this more accurately reflects indigenous methods of making, that have always utilized adaption and change (for example, in the context of Māori weaving, the primary weaving material used is itself an adaptation; Harakeke or New Zealand Flax was used as a material only when Pandanus would not flourish in Aotearoa’s’ soil).
The very terminology of photography reveals an embedded power dynamic; where the photographer stands in a position of power, while the “subject” is shot or captured, suggesting diminished agency. My employed photographic methodology is by contrast, an indigenous one, where getting the shot is less important that the creation of meaningful and respectful relationships. To begin with, I only photograph indigenous women with whom I have shared the koha (gift) of weaving. This koha or gift of knowledge does not involve a financial exchange, but is rather one of cultural connectedness and understanding. My process begins with discussion and time, I sit down with the woman, we talk, we eat, we weave, we share, we collaborate and we exchange cultural knowledge. Sometimes I teach a weave, sometimes I learn. My sitters/collaborators are given agency and control over how they are to be represented. They choose the pattern that their portrait will be woven in. These patterns are derived from kete whakario (Māori decorative baskets),or other forms of basket/bag pattern (i.e., the Samoan Ato, Cook Island Kete po’o, Nuiean kato , Papua New Guinean bilum. etc.) from the ancestral home of the weaver. Care and consultation is taken that the pattern is appropriate to use (ie. not culturally sacred) and is this design is a good representation of the woman’s own cultural identity. In this way, the objective of taking a weaver’s portrait is not a means to an end, but a point in the journey of cultural engagement and reciprocity.
I have called this the series Te Whare Pora (The House of Weaving/Weaving School). It is an ongoing series, in fact, each time I meet a weaver, especially another Māori weaver, I immediately want to weave with them and begin another journey of making their portrait. It is also a series in which I have included a self-portrait, so that I am on equal ground to my sitters/collaborators. For my own portrait, the woven pattern chosen is based on an example of a kete whakario from my iwi (Tainui) made by Diggeress Rangituatahi Te Kanawa and found online, in the collection of the Waikato Museum (NZ). For my next project, I am weaving a kahu huruhuru (feather cloak), the highest prestige garment for Māori weavers, that will be made from photographs of feathers of Australian native birds such as emu using customary kākahu Māori (Māori cloak weaving) techniques.
Brown, D 2008, “Ko to ringa ki nga rakau a te Pakeha: Virtual Taonga Māori and Museums.” Visual Resources: An International Journal of Documentation, vol 24, no. 1, pp. 59-75.
Evans, M, Ngarimu, R, & Heke, N 2005, The art of Māori weaving: the eternal thread, Wellington, N.Z. : Huia, 2005.
Jahnke, R 2011, “Is Ethnic Labelling of Māori Art Cultural Apartheid?”, The International Journal of the Arts in Society, vol 5, no. 6, pp.127 -136.
Smith, C & Laing, R 2011, “What’s in a Name? The Practice and Politics of Classifying Māori Textiles”, Textile History, vol 42, no. 2, pp. 220-238.
Smith, L T 1999, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (Eight impression, 2005 ed.). University of Otago Press, Dunedin, New Zealand.
Te Awekotuku, N 1991, Mana Wahine Māori : selected writings on Māori women’s art, culture and politics, New Women’s Press Auckland, N.Z.
For further information regarding Kirstens’ artwork, see her website.