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Passing on knowledge

Students at Whatatutu School were treated to a visit by artist and educator Maungarongo (Ron) Te Kawa to learn about whakapapa, art and storytelling, all through the medium of quilting.

Te Kawa was at the school last week to inspire rather than to teach and grade students.

“I'm not interested in making our kids into robots. It's about confidence and whakapapa,” Te Kawa said.

Te Kawa was a fashion designer for 25 years before he decided a change in direction was needed and found a natural fit between fashion and art in quilting. This year he featued in Te Ara i Whiti 2021 with a large-scale quilt installation that towered along the river.

Te Kawa makes “whakapapa quilts” that bring flavour and energy to stories using needle and thread.

“We're finding new ways to tell old stories and hoping to give students new skills.”

He said the quilts can help tell family history at home.

“Even if it's as simple as putting your pepeha on your wall for your mokos to see, so you're not having to constantly remind them where they're from.”

Te Kawa said he was “gifted knowledge from the weavers”, and part of that responsibility is to pass it on.

“For me art isn't about the finished product, it is about the process you go through. I don't even care what it looks like at the end, it's about how the group comes together, the space they make around themselves and the space it comes from.”

Education is a personal journey for Te Kawa.

“I hate the system where they mark kids on their art, I mean, what a cheek.

“It's like marking people on yoga. It's an inner experience and growth. It's mindfulness.”

Although quilting seems like a distant medium from Māori art, Te Kawa says his work is an extension of weaving and carving.

Te Kawa said he is not trying to teach the students how to follow rules, he wants to give them skills.

“It's about connection and where our creativity comes from. I'm not really interested in following someone else's pattern, everyone has their own individual line of focus.

“If I got all the kids to draw a line on the wall they would all draw a different line. It all comes from what they believe, how they breathe, how they stand. What's in their wairua (soul).

“Everyone will draw a different line and it's about accepting that line.”

That acceptance of difference reflects Te Kawa's own expressionist style — where an art is created to reflect the artist's feelings and emotions rather than the reality around us.

“Everything is a gamble. If there's no risk, there's no growth, there's no pay off, so I'd rather do a fabulous, fantastic disaster — which I imagine most expressionists bullshit their way through — than something that hasn't come from a true place.”

KEEN ON QUILTING: Whatatutu School's Riwai Johnstone got busy behind the sewing machine for the quilting workshop.
MODERN MAORI art: Principal Ihipera Whakataka, teacher Parehuia Eparaima and artist Ron Te Kawa show off the students' art. Pictures by Liam Clayton