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Last chance to see: Legacy at the Dowse Museum

Last chance to see: LEGACY: The Art of Rangi Hetet and Erenora Puketapu-Hetet

Dowse Museum, Lower Hutt

Until October 30

Reviewer: Max Rashbrooke

The next ten days are Wellington’s last chance to see one of the most interesting, complex and important art shows of the year, LEGACY: The Art of Rangi Hetet and Erenora Puketapu-Hetet, at the Dowse Museum in Lower Hutt.

The show celebrates the work of a married couple who were masters of their respective arts, carving and weaving, and whose artistry, embedded in their lives, connected them into generations of Maori craft.

Erenora grew up in the Lower Hutt suburb of Waiwhetu, where her father, Ihaia Puketapu, had a dream of building a meeting house “where both Maori and Pakeha could come”, inspired by the teaching of an older relative, the prophet Te Whiti.

According to her daughter, Lillian Hetet, Erenora met Rangi while in Rotorua studying nursing, at a party held by the master carver Hone Taiapa, who was passing on his skills to Rangi.

The two were thrown together again when Erenora returned to Waiwhetu and Rangi came down to work, with Taiapa, on the carving for Ihaia’s meeting house, which became known as Arohanui ki te tangata (‘goodwill to all the people’). During the 18 months he spent working there, they “courted and fell in love”, Lillian says.

Deepening their artistic connections, they then moved for a time to Te Kuiti, where Erenora learnt weaving from Rangi’s grandmother, the master weaver and national icon Dame Rangimarie Hetet. (The tutelage continued over many years and in different locations.) Rangimarie “must have recognised mum’s eagerness to learn”, Lillian says. Learning to weave – an exceptionally long, slow and complex task – was no small commitment, and unusual for a young mother.

Erenora and Rangi’s entwined commitment to their work meant that Lillian and her siblings grew up in an environment rich in arts and crafts. “You’d be sitting around at night, and dad would be in one corner with his sketchpad or with a carving,” she says. “By the time I was five I knew the smell of paint and oil and wood. I knew the word ‘patina’.” She even remembers her sister Veranoa, now herself a weaver and teacher of weaving, “nibbling on a bit of flax”.

This multi-generational immersion in Maori art is clearly on display at the Dowse. Over several rooms, the exhibition showcases Erenora’s kakahu (cloaks) and other weaving, Rangi’s carving of taiaha, waka and other items, and a host of interrelated, sometimes surprising objects. One unexpected highlight is the stunning set of 1970s dresses that Erenora wore when she entered the Mrs New Zealand competition in order that it have at least some Maori representation. The long cloak-like dresses have classic 70s sleeves but also beautiful kowhaiwhai patterns designed by Rangi; in one of the photos from the competition, the looks of surprise on the faces of the Pakeha contestants is evident.

That’s just one example of the way that Erenora and Rangi drew on traditional forms but also, as the exhibition notes set out, re-imagined Maori art for today. Perhaps the most striking part of the exhibition are the kakahu, which exemplify both the long lineage of the show’s works – multiple generations of Hetets have woven them, often working together – and their innovation, utilising paua and other materials and drawing on the styles of modern western fashion.

The kakahu, Lillian explains, are not static objects like those often found in museums. “These are living bodies. These … are things that have gathered stories over the years because of the people who have worn them.” These striking creations, shimmering with kiwi feathers (kahukiwi) or tasselled with darkened strips of flax fibre (korowai), have been worn by such figures as Sir Paul Reeves and Prince William, both lending mana to and drawing mana from those wearers.

One of the exhibition’s other revelations is its engagement with political issues. In addition to drawing on centuries of Maori traditions and concepts, the works also tackle current and recent controversies. Erenora in particular was a political animal, Lillian says, and her weaving references major events in Maori politics, including laws passed to promote Maori development, the Sealord fisheries settlement, and other, more troubling recent developments.

Politics, in one sense, is never far away. Stepping for a moment out of the role of the semi-anonymous reviewer, I have a personal connection to this show: my great-great-great-uncle, Charles Wilson Hursthouse, was the father of Rangimarie Hetet. As Lillian noted at the exhibition opening back in June, Charles had a complex life that involved being the government's translator during its invasion of Parihaka in 1881, an act that, among other things, helped suppress Maori customs and crafts.

It therefore felt appropriate, in some small way, that my family and I were there for the opening, witnessing a show that celebrates the renaissance of Maori art in the 20th and 21st centuries. Erenora and Rangi saw their art as being open to all, relevant to both Maori and Pakeha, and in describing the exhibition, Lillian cites the phrase 'hei painga mo te iwi' – for the betterment of the people, broadly understood. It's a hugely generous exhibition, packed full of beauty and surprises, and I urge anyone who hasn't seen it to get there during its last days.

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