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  • Writer's pictureSuzy Costello, workbooks

MFA, April 6-17 2021

Dowse Talk Can you decolonise an art gallery, Researching my Whakapapa, Designing art for series on stitching on tissue paper, Tukutuku Panels.


Can You Decolonise an Art Gallery Dowse Art Museum has a program of speaker sessions and this was a goodie - heartfelt speakers who have worked ceaselessly for more than 20 years within Aotearoa art institutions to raise the profile of Māori tikanga and taonga. This was an honest discussion with Nigel Borell, former curator Māori at Auckland Art Gallery, Puawai Cairns, Director Audience and Insight at Te Papa and Karl Chitham (Ngā Puhi, Te Uriroroi), The Dowse director, as they "interrogated the past, the present moment and potential futures for Māori within the art gallery."

Nigel and Puawai talked about their experiences and frustrations of trying to decolonise the art gallery and affect change from within the institution i.e. a reluctance to share power, a lack of understanding of the mutual benefits to all parties by embracing multiple world views, and the stagnation of progress over the last 20 years. Nigel spoke about the importance of having an inspirational aim and vision for Māori within New Zealand's art institutions that is inclusive of all New Zealanders.

The role contemporary Māori artist's play in decolonising the art gallery space was discussed by Nigel and Puawai; Nigel talked about giving agency to artists and their artworks and referred to Emily Karaka who has explored decolonisation in her art for many decades. Puawai discussed how her engagement with artists has changed the 'ownership' of taonga within the Te Papa collection.

Te Uri O Te Ao, Emily Karaka

This is a link to Te Kore - the exhibition Nigel Borell curated at Auckland Art Gallery, before resigning from his position as curator Māori. It is a powerful evocative exhibition about Māori creation worldview.


Before beginning at Massey I appreciated it would ask me to operate within a bicultural learning environment and to examine and understand my own whakapapa with all its consequential biases. This I felt was both important and necessary and very overdue, not only for myself but also my ancestors.

This is the story of my ancestors...


In County Clare there is a small village called Newmarket-on-Fergus. This is where my mother’s Frawley family have lived for generations. Today, my aunt lives in the stone cottage and two years ago my family and my twin and her husband went to Ireland to lay some of mum's ashes with her parents in nearby Kilnasoolagh cemetery .

A few days later Annette took us to Fenloe cemetery, just outside the village, where many of mum’s relatives are also buried. Placed beside a lake with reeds and swans, it is quintessentially Irish - a quiet, isolated place that feels heavy with age.

This is my youngest daughter sitting in the remains of the monastery built in the year 100-200 AD. At the entrance is a wishing well anointed with rosary beads and beside the cemetery is an empty field.

I took this photo because I was curious as to why there were so few trees in Ireland - all along our travels this seemed to be the recurring pictorial landscape; solitary trees in the distance.

Unbeknown to us at the time however, this field holds the remains of locals who, along with more than a million other Irish folk, died in the Great Irish Famine of 1845-49. The Irish called it The Great Hunger, and what a hunger it was. Within 4 years, 2.1 million Irish men and women would leave their homeland to escape poverty, disease, and starvation. It is said to be “one of the greatest mass exoduses from a single island in history”.

My father’s paternal grandparents were two of many who left Ireland and arrived in New Zealand on steerage passage, too poor to pay. My great grandfather Thomas Dwyer was not much older than 13 when he arrived alone in his new homeland; we suspect his family may have all died.

Meeting in New Zealand, Thomas married Margaret Dinan and together they settled in Oamaru, having 6 children and running a boarding house in Ribble Street for over 30 years. When asked by his son why he left Ireland, Thomas replied "Don't look back son, there's nothing to see".

Because my mother and father met in England; Dad transferring from the NZ Air Force to fly faster and bigger planes and mum to train as a nurse, I had always felt that by the time I came to NZ, aged 5, I was fresh to the country. Only as time has gone on, have I understood I am 6th generation NZ.

My first relative to arrive in New Zealand was my father’s maternal great-great uncle James Rapley and his was not a story of emigrating to escape poverty but rather to bring poverty to others. James was a soldier from Surrey England who came to fight in the New Zealand Land Wars, serving in the 65th Regiment from 1846-1855.

His parents, William and Mary, decided to come to New Zealand to be with their eldest son and his family. Leaving their home in Ockley Surrey with 7 children and a piano, they sailed on the Aurora as paid passengers with access to sunshine and fresh air above deck (unlike my father’s paternal grandparents). Arriving in Lyttleton Port in 1853-4, they and their piano were carried over the Bridle Pass, settling in Papanui Christchurch as farm labourers.

Their fifth daughter Mary married Thomas Blay, from Springston, Selwyn district and their eldest daughter Emily married Henry Taylor.

Their daughter, my grandmother, Bernice Taylor married Terence Dwyer, the son of Thomas Dwyer, the young boy who had left Ireland at 13. It took 10 years of courtship before they could marry as issues of religion, class and race needed to be resolved.

Together they had 2 sons, Bryan and Peter and I am Peter’s daughter.

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I have read Dinah Hawken's poem There Is No Harbour which describes her family history in the early years of Pākehā settlement in Taranaki. These are her comments about writing the poem -

‘The completion of the poem has not led me to any sense of resolution. It has led to something less measurable, perhaps more valuable—greater clarity, particularly of the depth of injustice Māori have endured in Taranaki. At the same time it has strengthened my attachment and my gratitude to my great and great-great grandparents, whom I know as essentially good people. And it has led me back to Parihaka: to profound respect for Te Whiti and Tohu, the art of leadership, the art of passive resistance, and their refusal of human war.’—Dinah Hawken

I have yet to make sense of mine.

Links -

The Frawleys of the Weavers Road
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(i) Conceptual Theme

The conceptual theme for the series The Space That Binds Us explores how culture binds us together.

The nature of stitching involves weaving one thread over another and is symbolic of the binding together of people. Stitching is a shared craft between people (especially women) all around the world and within their homes. This lends an authenticity to the project, as culture also is learnt within the home. Materials used will be viscose thread and transparent tissue paper or washi paper (yet to decide). The process will extend the earlier grid stitching I did in the first half of the semester.

In his essay Cultural Definition, Vedin analyses three features of culture: "the world of culture as a social reality, the content of world of culture as a system of social values, and the realization of world culture in human activities".

(ii) Prime numbers

Each culture holds a uniqueness particular to it. Shared social values and social realities within a culture bind together a group of people within the context of a larger composite group of peoples. This cultural uniqueness, of being the only one of its kind, is analogous with prime numbers i.e. a number that is divisible only by itself and 1.

I would like to include prime numbers in the art project to symbolise and celebrate the uniqueness of each culture and the value to humanity of having many world views.

Prime numbers between 1-100:

Wikipedia - "A prime number is a natural number greater than 1 that is not a product of two smaller natural numbers. A natural number greater than 1 that is not prime is called a composite number. For example, 5 is prime because the only ways of writing it as a product, 1 × 5 or 5 × 1, involve 5 itself."

There are lots of theorems on prime numbers that are complex and over my head but are discussed on the Wikipedia page. Below are some examples illustrating the illusive patterns within the series of prime numbers. The first is a diagram of the Green–Tao theorem that shows there are 'arbitrarily long finite arithmetic progressions consisting only of primes'.

Green-Tao Theorem, Wikipedia -

The second and third images are the Ulam spiral, constructed by writing the positive integers in a square spiral and marking the prime numbers. When this pattern is continued into infinity, diagonal columns of prime number clusters appear!! I am hoping this randomness may encourage chance variations in the stitching patterns.

Ulam (prime) Spiral, Wikipedia -

(iii) Colour Palette

I will remain with the shades of indigo to light blue, and include a blush pink and yellow to represent the moments of dawn and dusk. I would like the thread to drape down from the artwork and scrumble on the floor in a symphony of colour, enveloping people in its iridescent beauty! My justification for this colour scheme? that humanity's myriad of cultural worldviews are seeded within the shared space of the Earth's troposphere.

These are the colours I have selected from the Textile Design embroidery threads (L-R): #1643,1243,1166,1843, 1642, 1176, 1029, 1674, 1219, 1260, 1818

(iv) Composition

I will use either acid free tissue paper or fine washi paper because of their transparency (is there a harakeke paper fine enough? or Irish linen?). Paper orientation will be landscape, a subtle nod to Geoff Park's essay on pictorial landscapes, which references site. There will be reference to the grid (punctured holes), horizon line (as in Kelcy Taratoa's work) and exploration of pattern making discussed in Brett Graham's work. It all seems like I am making it very complex and adding too many references in the work but hope they are simple underlying concepts that don't clutter the art.

(v) Installation

I imagine the works hanging from the ceiling in such a way that people need to navigate their way around them (almost like a maze). This activation of the space (between each other, the works and the site) is an enactment of culture as a living breathing entity that binds people together.


As I have been stitching the thread works they evoke memories of encountering woven Tukutuku panels in marae. The tukutuku panel I love the most is Poutama (Stairway to Heaven) pattern. There is something very powerful, and almost magical, about the way the patterns emerge. Tukutuku panels are latticework woven using reed materials (eg. kiekie, raupo, kakaho, pingao) patterned with dyed and undyed strips of harakeke and kiekie leaf and yellow pingao. The panels decorate wharenui, usually positioned along the walls between the poupou and epa carvings.

In 2014 forty-three tukutuku panels, created by 60 weavers under the guidance of Rotoiti weaver Christina Wirihana, were gifted to the United Nations (2014). The panels are permanently installed in the UN headquarters in New York.

This beautiful tukutuku panel is the image Te Ao Hurihuri (The changing world), woven by James and Catherine Schuster (2013), Te Rōpū Raranga Whatu o Aotearoa (National Collective of Māori Weavers in New Zealand). Photograph © Craig Robertson, Full Frame Photography Ltd.

Te Rauru meeting house at Whakarewarewa



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