Maungarongo Te Kawa: “We’re in the trenches in New Zealand. We’re at war. Art, music, poetry — that’s how Indigenous people fight back. We don’t have weapons. We don’t want weapons. We have a voice. We have creativity. We have brightness and talent.” (Photo: Seb Charles)

Last month, we featured the vibrant, joyful art of Maungarongo Te Kawa, along with an uplifting (but, frankly, way too short) piece of text that had us wanting to know more about him. So here he is again, having a kōrero with Dale.


Kia ora to you, Maungarongo. I know people call you Ron, but I’ll stick with Maungarongo. Such a beautiful name. Where are you today, bro?

I’m at the Arts Centre in Christchurch, where I’m doing a residency. So, I’m sitting in my studio, which is the big old Globe Theatre. I’ve got the whole place to myself, and it’s all heated. It’s a beautiful day down here. I’m sitting at my sewing machine right now.

I always start with names, so would you tell us about your names and whānau?

Maungarongo Te Kawa. My dad gave me his name. His dad, Maungarongopai Ni Te Kawa, was in the Māori Battalion, and when he passed away at 22, the old people changed Dad’s name to Ni, to honour my pāpā. And I got his name.

We’re a family from Tikapa, a little settlement on the Waiapu River, right at the end, opposite Tikitiki. My name’s been a blessing to me and a challenge my whole life, something to live up to, because it’s not just my name, it’s my whole whānau’s name.

My mum Rangi passed away in 1986 after a long illness. I was 15. We spent our whole childhood nursing her. We didn’t have the teenage years where you could go to parties and play up, because we always had to be there to look after our mum.

I’ve got one brother, Sam, and three sisters — Margaret, Tina and Vanessa. We all grew up at Tikapa. It was amazing to have a mum who followed her heart. Mum loved the Māori Women’s Welfare League, and she was an active member. And she loved making ceramics. She did exactly what she wanted to do because time was short.

And that was a big lesson that I learned from her. Get your priorities right because you just don’t know what tomorrow’s gonna bring. And that’s how I’ve lived every day. No mucking around. If you know in your heart that you need to do something, do it. And don’t worry about anything else because everything else will fall into place. That was the gift that my mum gave me.

My dad worked on the railways as a ganger, laying sleepers for the railway tracks. He was a super responsible human being. That was the gift that he gave me. He taught me how to look after myself and how to look after the people around me. And how to work.

Being an artist, it’s easy to get stuck in your own head. It’s easy to go around in circles if you’re not focused and looking at results. It’s been my edge in the art world because I didn’t go to art school. All I’ve got is energy. At the end of the day, it’s not about where you got your degree or that sort of thing, it’s fully about the energy that you bring to a project.

So that was the gift that my dad gave me, as well as his name, which is about peace. It’s about being focused and bringing peaceful energy into everything you do.

Maungarongo’s grandfather Maungarongopai Ni Te Kawa, bottom left, who was in the Māori Battalion and died at 22, with his brothers and sister. (Supplied)

Were you always drawn to the arts, or is this something that came later in life?

It was since I was a kid. It’s always just been as natural as breathing. I had aunties who taught me to knit and crochet. All the rugs and lampshades in our house were crocheted, and we made our own toys as kids. It was as natural as breathing.

When I was about 14, I started selling stuff that I was making, and it clicked that this was a way of making money. This could be my freedom, my independence. When I left home, the money that I had saved was all from making clothes and selling them to my teachers and my friends. And I managed through school to buy all my own uniforms, buy all my own books, buy myself a little car. For me, art and creativity was freedom, was money, a job.

What about your first sewing machine?

There’s been a few first sewing machines. When I was little, I hassled my dad to teach me to sew. So he went and got a sewing machine at a garage sale for about $5 or something. He taught himself to sew, and then he taught me to sew. Just the basics, just how to make a square bag. And I took it from there.

Mum was in hospital for months and years on end. So I would pinch sheets from the hospital cupboards and figure out how to make patterns and figure out how to make clothes from them.

It’s tragic that you lost to your mum so early.

Yeah. But we had a mature relationship, and it doesn’t end when somebody passes away. Being Māori, we all know that the relationship doesn’t stop there. In fact, sometimes, I’m like: “Would all you tīpuna just go away? Because I’ve got the rest of eternity to spend with you all, and right now I’m about me. And give me some privacy.”

Because, you know, their voices are what I’d hear in any situation. I can hear their voices so clearly. For example, I was trying to manifest some megabucks, so I decided to ask my uncle and aunty who’d passed away. And I so clearly heard them say: “Don’t you think we would’ve done that for you when we were alive?” They still crack me up.

I feel them closest when I’m on stage or getting a prize. They love the glamour. They are my unconditional champions. But it’s just nice to step back, sometimes, from them all.

Maungarongo with his sister Jan and brother Sam and tamariki. (Photo supplied)

Okay, you’re selling clothes to your teacher and thinking: “Well, fashion could be a way forward for me, fashion and art.” Do you separate them, or are they one and the same for you?

They are very, very separate. Let me tell you about my second sewing machine. There was an art prize in my hometown of Woodville, and five young artists were picked, and there was prize money. I won $2000.

And that’s when I bought my first real sewing machine and my first ticket to Wellington, and I got out of there. I got a job in a little costume hire company and I did correspondence school to get my tohu and to learn, and it was great because I could learn hands-on. My bosses would help me with everything that I needed to do.

But art was something different. When I did my first big exhibition at the Capital Discovery Place in Wellington, it was called Here’s looking back at you, a perspective on racism from a 21-year-old.

And it didn’t get seen by the public because the gallery people hung black sheets over everything and put a big billboard up over the door to block people from coming in. I was really shocked. I didn’t realise I had offended them so much with my worldview.

I’m intrigued by this show that was so offensive. What was it that you said that offended so many people at the time?

Oh, my gosh. I did a big water fountain with Māori dolls that were on the water, sort of like a take-off of the Disneyland fountain. But at the top, there were two sort of concrete cabbage patch dolls which looked like the Statue of Liberty. They had water coming out of their eyes, and they were the crying liberals. And I had a Māori woman statue in a graduation costume, and then maybe about 50 dolls in different jobs and from different walks of life — there was an opera singer, there was a homeless person. I just wanted to represent all facets of our life as Māori that in those days we never saw in the media, we never saw on TV.

And, yeah, that seemed to offend them. I did a huge six-metre papier-mache statue of Hineahuone swimming under the water, and she was surrounded by all different types of fish, but some of them were warrior fish and I had them in little blue polka dot scarves and red polka dot scarves. They just flipped.

And I cut out a whole lot of letters to the editor, some really appallingly racist letters to the editor in the local paper, and I blew them up big and put them into a mirror and had Māori crying faces all around them. It was just highlighting what was acceptable to non-Māori, their view of us, and I wanted to show our view of them and what it felt like to be Māori in the city back in the ‘80s.

So people were offended — and so were you, obviously?

I was more worried than offended. I felt unsafe after that, and I moved to Australia and stopped making art. I thought: “The world can’t handle a young Māori person’s honest voice at the moment,” and I had to stop for my safety and for the safety of my family.

It wasn’t till years later that I started again, and it wasn’t really my choice. It was my customers. I’d moved to Christchurch in my 40s and I had a thriving little fashion business. My customers were mostly Māori women, and they were saying: “Look, I work in an office. I’m the only Māori person in my workplace, and I don’t feel safe. Can you make me something with a tohu on it that represents my kaitiaki or my pepeha or brings in the mauri of my maunga? So that when I’m in these spaces, I know I’m not alone.”

That’s what kicked it all off. The stories they brought to me to tell on their clothing — whether I’m screen-printing or sewing them on or painting them on, it didn’t matter. The important thing was that they had something that represented that they were never alone in these spaces.

That changed my career. I knew I’d been tapped on the shoulder to go down that path and uplift our people.

What did you do while you were in Australia? Was it art or fashion-focused?

Fashion. I went to Canberra, and I had a little clothes shop for 10 years. I created a family, and we had a dance group and a hair salon. We put a stage into the shop where we had performances and poetry, and there was costume hire and retro clothing. We sold hair products and make-up. It was in the ‘90s. So everything was sparkly and happy. And it was a real sense of whānau and what we could do for each other.

Most of the people who worked there were at university or school, and it gave them an income and a place where we could all grow together in what we were doing. I came back to Aotearoa in 2000 because my nieces and nephews were growing up without me.

The whakapapa quilts are “a metaphor for wrapping somebody in their story, and from their ancestors wrapping them in their aroha and mauri and letting them know that they’re not alone.”

Seeing a big burly Māori man doing crochet and fashion might catch a few people by surprise. What sort of reactions do you get?

I’ve never had any problem. People have just made space for me. It’s almost been too good, because being an outsider and being male, you get pushed to the front all the time. Even though you may not be the best, you don’t have the most resources, you don’t have the most talent, but you’re always being pushed to the front when there’s probably other people — maybe women — that deserve the limelight more. I’m very aware of that. I try not to take advantage of the situation.

Tell us about your quilting.

I do big sparkly quilts. I’ve got an exhibition at Te Manawa in Palmerston North until the end of July. Then it goes to Gisborne in November. It’s called Te Whare Pora.

How did you get into quilting?

I was doing a flag-making workshop at Rehua marae in 2005 for Paula Rigby, who’s the CE of the national weavers. I walked into the marae and there were all these kaumātua who had done whakapapa quilts, and I thought: “This is what I want to do with the rest of my life. This is what I want to learn. This is what I want to teach.” So I just put it out to the universe.

The Māori midwives came and put a whole lot of mātauranga into what we do. The Māori contemporary dancers came, and I spent five or six years with them, and they put a lot of knowledge into the quilting. And the weavers came from Palmerston North, and I worked with them for a year. So I managed to develop something where I could help other people tell their stories and hold space for them, because it’s quite a vulnerable thing to dive into your whakapapa.

The quilts started off as something that would go on a bed, but then they became something to go on a wall, and then they grew to three storeys high. They’re a metaphor for wrapping somebody in their story, and from the ancestors wrapping them in their aroha and mauri and letting them know that they’re not alone.

I run a course up in Woodville, and the premise of the course is that, in a hundred years, your mokos will want to go to court and take this quilt as a legal document. So put in your story, put in where your parents’ jobs were, how you got here, how many generations you’ve been here, where you got your water, where you got your eels, what your kaitiaki is, what your grandmother’s kaitiaki is. Put all of this information into the quilt so that your mokos can turn up in court in 100 years, roll it out, and say: “This is our story. This is our canoe. This is how many generations we’ve been here. This is our maunga. These are all the jobs we did.”

It’s different stuff for different people, the whakapapa quilts. It’s what the people need, and stepping into that space when they tell you what they need. Do they need a learning aid for their home that they can just hang up and the kids can instantly see their pepeha so it doesn’t have to be repeated? Or does somebody need to be wrapped in that story and that love?

Maungarongo during his residency at The Arts Centre, Te Matatiki Toi Ora, Ōtautahi / Christchurch.

Tell us about the residency you have now.

This residency is beautiful because there are three other artists on it. Being an artist can be really lonely. Being a fashion designer, you’re also on your own. Usually, I’m in a shed at home in Woodville, sewing night and day for weeks on end, and the only person I get to talk to is probably the woman at the pie shop. Being here, I’m around other artists, I’m around dancers and performers and singers and carvers and weavers. It’s been really beautiful. I’m gonna miss being here and going back to my regular routine.

What about Norway? I was a bit amazed that a Māori artist had a residency in Norway, and I wonder if Māori art is something they’re familiar with, or were you seen as some eccentric artist from the south?

I was the first experience of Māori art for a lot of them. But, there was an openness. They knew who we were, they knew our stories, they knew Jacinda, they knew Kiri Te Kanawa. That was about the limit. But a lot of them came up to me and said: “I think I was Māori in a past life.” A lot of them said that. I think they respect our freedom to be who we are.

The work that I made in Norway is currently at a little gallery here in Christchurch called Te Whare Tapere. It’s run by two amazing Māori women, Ngaio and Juanita. One’s a dancer and one’s an academic. There are six quilts in the show that tell different stories that Sheridan Waitai gifted us from Ngāti Kuri. I finished them while I was in Norway. It’s about the kuaka bird that flies between Aotearoa and the Arctic Circle.

At the opening of his exhibition Te Whare Pora: A Sacred Space, at the Sami Museum, Karasjok, Arctic Circle, October 2023.

Being in Europe “made me realise why the Māori art market is so hot. Because we have something to push back against, an opinion and something to say, and a chance to change the world and a chance to make the world better.” Pictured at the opening of his exhibition at in Norway, which ran from October 2023 to January 2024. (Supplied)

I believe you took the opportunity to travel around Europe while you were based in Norway. What impact did that have on you?

Well, in New Zealand, we’re not the most complimentary people, right? So, to get over there and see my work up against the best in the world, I thought: “Oh, I’m okay. I’m all right. I can keep going. I can take a risk. I can go in any direction I want to go in.”

So I’m making a big 3-D sculpture at the moment, which is the first time I’ve ever done that. I’ve had volunteers come in every day for the last three weeks. I think we’re about two weeks from finishing, and it’s going to be in the Auckland Museum. I would not have had the confidence to attempt this sculpture if I hadn’t gone to Europe and looked at what they were doing.

Plus, it made me realise why the Māori art market is so hot, because we have something to push back against, an opinion and something to say and a chance to change the world and a chance to make the world better. Whereas a lot of the European art was the Renaissance, Jesus, or looking out the window at the landscape or a bowl of fruit. It was sanitised.

We’re in the trenches in New Zealand. We’re at war. Art, music, poetry — that’s how Indigenous people fight back. We don’t have weapons. We don’t want weapons. We have a voice. We have creativity. We have brightness and talent.

It really motivated me, just seeing how sanitised the European art was and how feisty Māori artists are, from music to poetry to television.

“Don’t look outside for any sort of reassurance. Just take 100 percent radical self-responsibility for what you’re doing.” Maungarongo in Norway. (Supplied)

So you’ve done 3-D sculpture. Is there something else you want to do that you haven’t already done?

Oh, heaps. I’ve got a list. I want to make an animated movie. I want to do a documentary. I want to do 20 huge four-storey quilts. I want to do a big waka hourua. I’ve been working towards that for the last six or seven years. I’ve been bothering carvers all over the motu. I want to do a celestial sparkly waka. That would be the icing on the cake.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists? What would you say to those who wonder if art could be part of their future?

Don’t let anything stop you. I spent eight years on the concrete at the markets. I worked 100 hours a week, and I was at the markets every weekend from 6am to 6pm. There were no opportunities for me, so I created my own. I met every single customer who bought my stuff. It was really hard, and I felt like I was the only person in the world backing myself.

Don’t look outside for any sort of reassurance. Just take 100 percent radical self-responsibility for what you’re doing. It might not be glamorous to start off. I’ve got friends who want to be singers, and during the day they’re out on the street busking, and then at night they’re singing in cafes. And they’ve got hardly any money, but that’s not going to stop them from being on the true path that they know is there for them.

(This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

© E-Tangata, 2024

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