New Zealand artist Nikau Hindin practices the lost Māori art of aute—making and painting cloth made from tree bark—and bringing her cultural knowledge from museums to real life. Photos and Interview by Tara Rock.
For Māori artist Nikau Gabrielle Hindin, the long process of creating her painted artwork starts at the source: in nature. Nikau practices the traditional Maori art of aute [pronounced ow-tay], making cloth from harvested paper mulberry tree bark, which becomes a blank canvas for her fascinating paintings.
After years of studying aute and kapa (the Hawaiʻi version of New Zealand aute) under Native Hawaiian practitioners and at the University of Hawai’i, she’s been dedicated to taking her cultural knowledge from museums into real life by sharing her artistic process to a new generation of cloth makers.
Teva Explorer Tara Rock caught up with Nikau at her uncle’s home in Mānoa Valley, Oahu where Nikau first learned her craft. “Nikau just so happened to be on Oahu as a host artist for the Honolulu Biennial international contemporary art exhibition around the same time I was returning from New Zealand. She explained to me that Mānoa sits at the base of the dragon, or the Koʻolau Mountain Range, and where we were standing was the heart of the dragon. It made my time with her feel extra special,” Tara says.
Tara spent a day with Nikau to learn how practicing aute brings her closer to Māori culture and her environment, and why it is important to uphold indigenous practices for the next generation.
Tara Rock photographs Nikau as she beats the tree bark into flattened cloth, or “aute” using handmade wooden tools. Pictured: Original Universal in GC100 Boomerang.
TARA: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What do you do with your days?
NIKAU: Kia ora! My name is Nikau. I come from the far northern area of the North Island from a place called Motukaraka. Motukaraka overlooks the beautiful Hokianga Harbour where our waka [canoe my ancestors arrived on] named Ngatokimatawhaorua sailed into all the way from Hawaiki, our mythical motherland. My dad lives up in Motukaraka and I grew up in the city, Tamaki Makaurau (Auckland) with my mum who is a clothing designer.
I am an artist. I live with my partner, Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes on the East Coast in Turanga, Gisborne, right next to the beach. It is important for me to be close to nature because my art relies on natural resources like plants and the earth. I have to be in tune with the environment.
With my days I write, research, cook, garden, beat aute, paint on my aute, reply to emails, apply for grants, take photos, swim, surf, hike, practice yoga, train, and teach. Right now, I have an Art Fair coming up so I’m trying to catch up and knuckle down to do some painting.
Several strips of bark are fused together to create a larger piece of cloth which is painted on, using a paint created from red earth.
Pictured: Original Universal in GC100 Boomerang.
What is the difference between being Māori and being “from New Zealand”?
Being Māori is different from being ‘from New Zealand’ because my ancestors came to Aotearoa [New Zealand] many generations ago. With that comes a certain relationship and responsibility to the land and sea. We have a dense history with not only our island but all of Oceania. Māori can trace our ancestry back to the start. It is important to know your roots: Māori and non-Māori. I have a Māori father and Pākehā [New Zealander of European descent] mother. Both of their ancestries are important to me but because I live in Aotearoa and the ties to this place are strong.
Indigenous peoples will always be significant to their ancestral homelands because their value system aligns with the environment and specifically, the land their ancestors lived on for thousands of years. That is a long time observing and recording the different patterns of the tides, plants, bird life, stars and seasons. As keepers of this very special and significant knowledge system—now more than ever, if we want to save Mother Earth—it is important to uphold, practice and nourish indigenous practices. Everything comes around—after a mass prohibition and annihilation of indigenous knowledge, people have now realized that it is the only sustainable way forward. It is time to live it, breath it, and practice it every day before it is too late.
Pictured: Original Universal in Bright White.
How does your culture define who you are?
I guess it comes down to the stories you are told when you are little—how this frames your perception of the world around you and how you see yourself in that world. I was lucky my mum insisted that I go to a full immersion Māori unit in elementary. All the subjects were taught in our language and from a Māori world view. You grow up learning every element personified as a god, like Earth Mother, Sky Father, Tanemahuta God of the Forest, Hinemoana Goddess of the ocean.
On top of that, you learn that you are genealogically connected to these elements! It was easy to comprehend these stories because they carry myth messages specific to this land and I could relate. I could see it in action around me. All the characters in these stories have brown hair and brown eyes and they look like me! As a young Māori girl, I think I felt very supported by nature, and I had an understanding that it was our job to care for it. I also had very creative teachers and a very creative mother. We were always making things with our hands and using our environment to do so.
Artist Nikau Gabrielle Hindin displays her finished artwork.
Tell me about your art and what makes it so special?
I am a contemporary artist with a revivalist agenda to reawaken Māori aute. Not much is known about aute in Aotearoa, except for traces found in our language, some old stories and the 15 aute beaters in our museums. My mission to relearn Māori aute was inspired by my experiences sailing and learning about the revitalization of waka haurua (double-hulled voyaging canoes). As a cloth maker, I am interested in the collective production of material and sharing of knowledge. Beating aute puts us in direct conversation with our ancestors’ practice through tools, movement, and sound.
This work is important because it’s not just about my agenda to revitalize aute. The practice of doing anything in the same way as our ancestors are beneficial on many levels. Working with aute requires an understanding of my relationship with the elemental world, which determines what materials I am able to work with. Plants and earth pigments come with their own highly nuanced protocol that has taken years to understand. Considering the political, environmental and social impacts of over-consumption, working with natural materials is a conscious decision to not only reduce waste but also enrich and reconnect with the environment.
“I bought Teva sandals for my first deep sea canoe voyage not so long ago because they are grippy, secure and I didn’t want to wear jandals [sandals] on the deck! They are so comfortable, I wear them everywhere now.” Nikau wears the Original Universal in Bright White.
Can you explain the process of aute and the tools you use?
First, you have to grow the plant. If you are lucky enough to harvest someone else’s tree, you need to know which ones to cut. You cut the aute plant from its base, then you peel off the bark from the stalk—it is about 3-6mm thick and 10 cm wide. I take the outer brown bark off by peeling it. Then I clean and scrape the fibers and beat it out. The bark expands almost quadruple! It is unbelievable. Then I either dry it or soak it to soften it and beat it all over again, depending on what you want to make: a piece of clothing, a wall hanging, a bed cover, an ear adornment or a kite.
Tell us a little about the process of creating your artwork and paintings.
There are so many elements that go into creating a piece. This piece is made from three plants, beaten together. Each plant was cleaned and beaten separately too. I mixed the red earth Kōkōwai or ‘ālaea and created the gradient. It took me five years before I started painting on my pieces because it is so resource and time-heavy you really want to make sure you know what you are doing. I didn’t want to make a piece that was a fluke and then never be able to make it again! I had to make sure I could do it.
Niho Taniwha [the triangle patterns] represent the continuation of lineage, genealogy. It can also mean other things depending on the artist’s intention. It can refer to mountains used by navigators as landmarks during inter-island voyages. This piece I’m holding is called “Te Wheiao” which refers to the the space between the Great Night and the World of Light. It is the time between darkness and light, a period of chaos, potential, dawning and a phase we can probably all relate to during different seasons of our life.
“This piece I’m holding is called “Te Wheiao” which refers to the the space between the Great Night and the World of Light.” Pictured: Original Universal in Bright White.
You’ve said that “we are the culture creators” and “we are tomorrow’s ancestors.” What did you mean by that?
Our culture doesn’t exist behind the glass cabinets of museums or in the outdated tropes of Hollywood movies. Our culture is alive right now. Living and breathing through our creations, our actions, and intentions. It is important to wear the timeless fibers of our ancestors and practice our language, our songs, and our dance. We are the culture creators of today. The ancestors of tomorrow.
Can you give an example of incorporating modern approaches to your art?
I use video to document my practice and create video installations with my aute. I also use social media to share this practice with my peers and community as well as learn from other fiber artists across the Moana [ocean]. A key component of my practice is sharing, teaching and passing this knowledge on so that there will be a new generation of cloth makers. It is important that our people keep using their hands and the environment to make things. Personally, I learn a lot from plants.
Nikau wears a necklace by artist and her friend, Pati Tyrell and cloth that’s in the first stage of beating.
What are you doing now with your art? What do you hope to achieve in the coming years?
I am trying to teach other people how to make aute. It is a big investment in making the tools and growing the plant. It is a lot. I want to connect with schools who have gardens and can learn how to grow it properly. I’m also trying to define for myself what Māori aute, barkcloth looks like, how it acts and what its function is today for the community. I have a few shows this year [in Auckland, New Zealand] that I’m working towards: one at Te Uru Gallery Waitakere and one at the Maritime Museum. I’m excited and nervous at the same time. It is scary because it is so new and I have nothing to replicate or use as guidance. I have to really focus and let it come.
Lastly and more importantly, what is your favorite ice cream flavor?
I have sooo many. I love Banan when I’m in Hawai’i. I love Little Island Chocolate or Vanilla Bean—they’re made from coconut cream by a local business and SO good. If it’s your standard Tip Top scoop ice cream, I like Boysenberry and Cookies and Cream… which has big chunks of Oreo in it. New Zealand ice cream—you can’t beat it. Then if I’m in America I like anything with chunks of peanut butter in it. Special mention: swiss dark chocolate Trinidad Moevenpick is amazing.
Pictured: Original Universal in Bright White.
*Special Note from Tara: “It’s been my mission to be conscious of indigenous cultures when I travel. I’m always looking for ways to give back to the community in some way and hope it will be an example for more people to do the same. After seeing the lack of indigenous representation in the South Island during my last trip to New Zealand—and loving Nikau’s art, I decided to donate my time and budget to Nikau as a working artist so that she can keep on creating and sharing it.”