Of rain capes and Kiwi Feathers: Kahu Ora/Living Cloaks


Fishhead Magazine, August 2012


It’s one of those Wellington weekends, where the wind is whipping the trees outside the window and the cat flap keeps blowing open dramatically, even though the cat is sitting on the couch by the heat pump.  I’m wondering what it would be like to be outside tonight wearing a rain cape, made of flax, the cloak heavy over my shoulders, the rain rolling off the rugged bark like surface, made of hundreds of leaf strips, and splashing on to my feet.

The botanist Joseph Banks, who accompanied Cook’s first Pacific voyage, described the pake or rain capes as resembling thatched houses and they are incredibly thick, often monotone, sometimes stained black. As a Wellingtonian perhaps it’s only natural that the practicality of the Pake captured my imagination.

Kahu Ora/Living Cloaks at Te Papa showcases the world’s largest collection of Maori cloaks and the exhibition is well populated; on both my trips there were plenty of visitors nuzzling their noses up to the glass to admire the delicate feathers of the Kiwi cloak. But the title is pertinent; since the 1950’s there has been a sustained effort to revive the art of weaving and the exhibition features many modern cloaks as well as a live weavers studio where you can see artists in action.

I watched a weaver roll and twist a string of flax along her bare shin. Another visitor asked, ‘Does that take the hairs out too?’

Whilst the beauty, skill and ingenuity of the contemporary weavers are undeniable, it is the past that captivates me.  The ancient art of weaving is a treasure, its highest expression found in the Kakahu or cloak.  Historically women practiced the art form and there are portraits of significant female weavers throughout the show. The cloaks are stunning: plume of Pukeko, the wool of the Samoyed, a robe made from whole dog skins, ears and tails worn inside out for warmth. The Mauri or life force, of each bird, plant and animal is palpable in these cloaks. I can’t fully imagine the world when they were first worn and the Kuri dog was still abundant, the Kiwi not yet our national emblem.

Later weavings incorporated European influences; colored wool and goat’s hair, the iridescent feathers of the peacock.  And by the late 1800’s European dress was widely adopted and weaving on the way out. I’m highly aware that these cloaks were once clothes and can’t help but feel that what we wear now, won’t stand up so well in a hundred years time.

The exhibition takes the viewer on a journey through the inception of weaving, its mythology and origins, before focusing on specific examples of chiefly cloaks and telling their stories.  The black and white photographs of the Maori throughout are just as potent and evocative as the beautiful cloaks they wore and made. Like Guide Maggie – Makereti Papakura  -photographed in a meeting house, her head wrapped in a scarf, wearing a patterned cloak now on display that features triangles of white and brown feathers, bordered with flecks of orange. Maggie was of the iwi Ngati Wahiao and Te Arawa; a famous guide who took the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York through Whakarewarewa in 1901. She went on to study Anthropology at Oxford University, passing away before she could complete her thesis.

Kahu Ora/Living Cloaks is detailed and intricate, you can follow many threads through this exhibition, in weaving aho is the horizontal line and whenu is vertical.  It’s a show where you can cut across the surface, simply marveling at the techniques, or you can dig deep.