Baye Riddell took a while to find that he had a talent for making things from clay. Attractive, useful and valuable things. In the 1960s, in his teens, he’d spent five years at an Anglican boarding school. That was at Bombay, at St Stephen’s School, where an uncle, Awi Riddell, was a teacher on his way to becoming the headmaster at Te Aute in Hawke’s Bay.
Baye survived those years, even though rugby and kapa haka (or boarding school, for that matter) weren’t his forte. Next, he checked whether Otago University suited him (not really). Luckily, he started tinkering with clay and found he had a significant knack, and liking, for pottery. So he was away laughing — and linking up with established potters such as Manos Nathan.
Here he’s chatting with Dale about the way that pottery has shaped his life, and vice versa — and about his new book on Māori clay artists, Ngā Kaihanga Aku.
Kia ora, Mr Baye Pewhairangi Riddell. That’s an attractive but unusual combination of names. I wonder how you came by them.
The story is that, when our tīpuna came home from one of the Treaty signings, they brought back Pewhairangi which is the name for the Bay of Islands. So that’s what I was named. And my parents customised it to Baye with an “e” at the end.
So that’s a reference to the Bay of Islands? It’s a neat name. Now, what can you tell us about your upbringing?
My grandmother Hinekino had 14 children in a little two-bedroom tin whare at Te Puia Springs. And my dad, Michaere (Mick), was one of those kids. My grandmother’s husband William Riddell was a Pākehā, of Scots descent. So we have Scots and Māori ancestry on my father’s side. And my mother, Boronia Kennedy, was brought up in Tokomaru Bay.
I was brought up in the Urewera. Mum and Dad moved over to take a job in Te Whaiti and I was born there. Then we moved back to Te Puia Springs and, because of work in the 1950s, we went down to Central Hawke’s Bay, where Dad was a farm labourer.
We finally settled in Taradale, and Dad worked on the wharf. Then, from Taradale, I went up to Bombay to board at Tīpene (St Stephen’s School) for five years. And after that, I went on down to Otago University for a couple of years to pursue a medical career. But that wasn’t in my DNA.
Eventually, I found my true calling in the arts. We never had arts classes at St Stephen’s. There was just one period a week, in the third form, and that was it. We were steered into either the professional or the technical stream.
I took the professional option and ended up doing science subjects. The other option was the technical stream where you’d do woodwork and geography. I did a bunch of science subjects. I didn’t know what to do with them, but my parents encouraged me to go down to Otago and do a medical degree. I didn’t do too well at that, so I ended up on another path.
Tēnā koe. What about school in Te Puia? Did you have Māori or Pākehā teachers there?
Pākehā teachers. I went to Te Puia primary school for one year. We left Te Puia when I was six. At that time, our teacher (and headmaster) was Mr Earl.
How many in your family, Baye?
Just me and my brother, Dimitri. He lives in Sydney.
How come you headed off to St Stephen’s when it was time for high school?
My Uncle Awi (Riddell) was teaching up there. So that was where I was sent to do my secondary schooling.
How did you find the experience of five years of boarding at Tīpene?
I managed to survive — put it that way. Yeah, it was okay. Every experience, I guess, has its ups and downs, the good and the bad. But you end up tough. And pretty disciplined.
What comes to mind when you reflect on those school years?
The boarding schools like Tīpene and Te Aute were considered to be great for honing leadership skills. And they did provide good training and produced fine leaders. And they instilled discipline into our approach to work, and to life in general.
The social policies of the time were mostly to assimilate Māori into a kind of a middle-class Pākehā culture. And that’s what kind of happened when we moved down to Hawke’s Bay.
But it wasn’t until I got to Tīpene that I began to reconnect with te reo. At Tipene, I learned te reo from my Uncle Awi and Api Mahuika. And from Te Rangatahi books.
So I began to get a handle on te reo. Kapa haka as well, although I was never much good at that. Of course, there was also a strong rugby culture at Tīpene, and the 1st XV players (who didn’t include me) were the elite.
I’m guessing this is about the time when there were efforts to maintain our Māori artistic traditions. And we had guys teaching Māori art design concepts in our schools. Was this when your interest in art was triggered?
I was always interested in art. When I was a child, everything used to come in brown paper bags. In those days, we didn’t have plastic. So, I used to cut the brown paper bags into squares and draw on those. We didn’t have drawing books or anything fancy like that. But that interest didn’t get developed at secondary school. That came later on.
When you see our young people comfortably incorporating elements of our traditional design, like the koru, it seems to flow naturally from them now. And it’s been a 70-year journey, hasn’t it? In fact, most New Zealand art is now affected by Māori artistry and design.
It wasn’t always so. Mainly, the perception of art, even in the late 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, was through a Eurocentric lens. And what was considered art sort of emanated from Europe through Gauguin, Picasso and Monet and all those European artists. And there were some influences that came through to our contemporary Māori artists.
But there was a bit of a push to define a Māori voice within a contemporary context and, with new media, everything from glass to metal to plastics and whatever else was starting to be used.
And there was not only perhaps a battle with the European mainstream art movement in New Zealand or art scene, but also with the traditional Māori practitioners who’d say: “That’s not real Māori. That’s not Māori art.” So, it hasn’t been that straightforward or that easy.
And getting Māori art symbolism stories accepted as art within the New Zealand art scene hasn’t been easy either. One of the most significant influences was the Te Māori exhibition that went over to the States in 1984 and was hailed as a milestone exhibition. And that wasn’t defined or seen as just Indigenous primitive craft but as art by prestigious galleries in the US. It had a big impact in changing the perception of art in New Zealand.
You mentioned going to varsity and chasing a medical career, but that was a goal that didn’t work out. What did you turn your hands to before you focused on art?
Well, after leaving Otago, I did a whole lot of odd jobs. I moved to Christchurch, and I worked at all sorts of stuff, like on the New Zealand Railways. I worked on the loading yards down there in Christchurch. And in photo processing fields, making photo stencils. I worked in factories too.
Basically, I was just surviving in Christchurch. It was freezing in the winter. And smoggy. And I used to get asthma and stuff. I’d ask myself: “What am I doing here?” I went back home for a hui once and it was so warm that I decided to move back to Tairāwhiti and live on our whānau land. Become self-sufficient and all that hippie kinda stuff.
I had a friend there that I used to play music with. I’d go round to his place, and I was over there one day when he was throwing a pot on the wheel.
He’d just started taking lessons. And, when I looked at what he was doing, I was captivated. So I asked him to show me how to do it. And, after five or six months, we had an exhibition together in Christchurch. Then I built a kiln at North Beach in Christchurch and started firing pots. Next, I packed up and moved north. Eventually, in 1979, I settled back in Tokomaru Bay, and I’ve pretty much been there ever since.
I see that you use clay almost exclusively from your own whenua.
Not exclusively. It depends on what I have in mind. Sometimes commercial clays are better. And sometimes I blend clays.
I dig my local clays from my whānau land up at Te Puia Springs. And, when I do that, I really feel connected to my tīpuna, because they’re providing me with a gift to work with. There’s that link.
And also there’s the satisfaction of taking a lump straight from the earth and making something that you can fire and use to eat or drink out of, rather than going to the Warehouse or buying something that’s been made in China or wherever.
Instead, this has come from your own whenua and from your own whakapapa. And, over the years, as Māori clay artists, we’ve naturally been drawn into making things like whenua pots, for example, for all the stages — from birth right through to death.
At birth, people have asked us to make whenua pots for returning the whenua or the placenta back to their kāinga, their tūrangawaewae, or their whānau land. And this was a tradition, like in my grandmother’s day when pretty much all her 14 children were born at home and on the land.
But, with the urban drift in the 1950s, people began to move into urban centres, to the cities and towns, and our women started giving birth in maternity hospitals. And so the placenta was disposed of then by the hospital staff — and the practice of returning the whenua to the land kind of dissipated.
But with the revival of our taha Māori, that practice has been resurrected and people are wanting to take their whenua back to reconnect that child with their whenua, with their whakapapa. And so they’ve wanted vessels in order to do that.
In a sense, we’ve been able to do that, and it’s often become a part of a ceremony with karakia and so forth. And they’ve wanted containers for the whenua during that ceremony.
It’s something that’s still evolving because a lot of our people are now in urban centres and, when they have the child, they might take the whenua home. We’re not going to put it in the deep freeze with our kai, so what should we do with it?
Recently, when a moko was born in a similar situation, we’d put the whenua in a big pot and plant a tree on top of it. And we were able to keep that whenua until we could take it back to our whānau land and bury it properly with the tree.
It’s a tikanga that’s still evolving, but certainly people have asked for those sorts of vessels to be part of that ceremony. Sometimes the pots to contain the whenua are not fired, so when they go into the ground, the whenua inside will break down and dissolve back into Papatūānuku.
And, of course, we’ve been asked to do other things like make a waka pure or waka noa — pieces or vessels for when we come out of an urupā or a meeting house after a tangi. So we can wash and sprinkle water and so forth.
And my whānau asked me to make a headstone for my grandmother. So we’ve made headstones. Or ash pots for people who’ve been cremated. We’ve been asked to do those sorts of things, and adopting them into our rituals has come naturally.
We haven’t tried to force it. It’s just evolved. But there’s been a more common everyday use of incorporating clay into our culture with us being asked to make dishes and bowls for dining halls in our marae. So that’s become widespread. It’s great.
Because the act of creating, some would say, is God-given, the product, the creativity is sacred. Is the clay sacred as well?
Well, sacredness is something that each person bestows or acknowledges. Like you might have people mass-producing cups, mugs and bowls in a factory. There’s not much sacredness bestowed on an item in that process. Whereas, if I was to karakia when I dig the clay, and karakia before I begin work, I’m acknowledging the sacredness of that creative act.
And I also think of it in what I tell students. It’s like that whole creation thing in taking something from Te Kore, which is the place of potential, and bringing it through Te Pō, which is a place of conceptualisation.
I often liken it to lying awake at night, with all these ideas buzzing through your head. And then you get into the daytime and you start working on those ideas and making them physically tangible.
Bringing them right through Te Kore, ki Te Po, ki Te Ao Marama. That’s the model that I present to students as the creative process. And it is, as you say, sacred. Tapu. That whole creative process. But it’s what we choose to bestow upon that process that infuses that sacredness into an object.
Another thing that’s intrigued me is that, for the most part, clay or ceramics are gender neutral. And in Māori art that’s slightly rare. Our wāhine and men have both been able to partake in the uku, the pottery?
When we first got together as Kāinga Uku, most of the influences in New Zealand pottery were from Europe or from Asia. From Japan in particular. And when I was working in Christchurch, the main influences came from people like Bernard Leach, who’s a British potter, Michael Cardew, and several Japanese potters.
I wasn’t comfortable with putting, say, Japanese calligraphy on my work. That didn’t feel right to me anyway. So I began to put on Māori designs. I have to say, though, they were very clumsy at that time, because I didn’t have the knowledge or the skills.
In the Christchurch pottery circles or fraternity at the time, everyone had nicknames. And I was known as The Native. It was all friendly. And I embraced it. Loved it.
But it marked a departure from the mainstream kind of veneration. And it marked a different perception within New Zealand pottery when we got together in Tokomaru Bay for our first gathering as Kaihanga Uku back in 1987. There we asked ourselves what we wanted to do and how we should go about that.
So we formulated a kind of a three-stranded plait. The first strand was that we’d work with clay from a Māori perspective — although it was up to each individual to interpret that. And we’d have a gender mix of tāne and wāhine.
But, if you look at other cultures across the world, you generally have either male or female working with clay, men or women. Like in Africa, generally it’s women. In Asia, it’s men. In the Americas, it’s generally women. But, for us as Māori, we didn’t want one or the other. We wanted the whole whānau. So that’s what’s happening.
The second strand of the three-strand plait was that we’d share whatever we had. We would share knowledge and resources like our kiln building and our clays.
The third strand was that we’d make connections with other Indigenous cultures that had ceramic traditions. So, over the years, we’ve built up a big network of uku clay — muddy brothers and sisters everywhere.
It’s been fantastic to celebrate Ngā Kaihanga Uku. It’s been going now for 30 years now and we’ve sadly lost some of the early contributors and best exponents.
In the beginning, there were other founding members. There was Manos Nathan and Colleen Urlich and me. But also there was Hiraina Marsden who’s also passed away. She was one of the early ones. And there was Papaarangi Reid, who was also doing some work until her medical career took priority.
Manos was my bro — and a big influence. Colleen Urlich too. And a little bit later Wi Taepa and Paerau Corneal joined us. So us five were regarded as the five ngā toko rima, the founding members. Te Reanga Hou, the next generation, came mainly through the tertiary institutions.
We began to do workshops in places like the Northland Polytech and Toihoukura. And Te Wānanga o Aotearoa and Awanuiārangi began to develop Māori arts programmes and curricula, so our younger ones began to go to those institutions to get qualifications that would help them in their arts careers. The whole emphasis began to be on having a tohu so that you could get the jobs and advance your careers.
A lot of those ones developed clay skills through the workshops that we ran in those institutions. And you had people like Dorothy Waetford, Carla Ruka, Rhonda Halliday, Amorangi Hikuroa, Yvonne Tana, Dave Cameron and others who came through those programmes and have become artists in their own right.
It’s hard to get out from under the old fullas when you’re trying to establish your own identity. But they’re making beautiful work with their own concepts, their own signatures and so forth.
And they’re now the main part of Kaihanga Uku. Sadly, Manos and Colleen have now departed. Manos and I had been tossing around the idea of a book about a decade or so ago. And we’d considered various possible writers to write the book.
But then Manos became ill with cancer, and then, in the latter stages of his illness, not long before he passed, he said to me: “Oh, bro, I think you should do this book.” So, to put his mind at ease and give him peace, I said: “Okay.” And I started writing it about three years ago, just before the first Covid lockdown. That lockdown was a good opportunity to start writing.
And that culminated in the launch of Ngā Kaihanga Uku at Te Papa just the other day. The whole project was underwritten by Toi Māori. So I want to mihi to them — and to Gary Nicholas for his help too. It’s the fulfilment of my pledge to Manos.
Well, I want to take my hat off to you. I’m more about mana than money, but I’ve got to ask whether you’ve made more money or friends from your 50 years of work.
Let’s say I’ve made a lot of friends and enough money. And we’ll leave it at that. Or put it this way: I’m still alive.
When you’re working on a piece, it’s just one stage in its journey. Who’s to know where that piece may go, generations from now? If it survives.
Well, some pieces are commissioned. People may want pieces made for them to depict a story in their whānau. But it has to relate to whatever I’m doing at the time. I don’t just make something to go with the curtains in their living room, the lounge or whatever.
It needs to be in the style of work and concepts that I’m working on. People do commission a work at times but, on other occasions, I just start with an idea. I’m generally working on themes, and they can develop over years and years. Or decades.
And, finally, Baye, is there something else that you do apart from the work on the wheel each day?
Oh, I love playing music and I write songs. That’s another form of relaxation. I love guitars, drums and so forth. I’m an honorary life member of our local blues club. So, for me, music is a favourite option.
(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
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