Cora-Allan Wickliffe in conversation with Lana Lopesi.
Lana Lopesi: I first met Cora-Allan Wickliffe (Ngāpuhi, Tainui, Alofi, Liku) close to 10 years ago now, when we were both coming through our respective art school programmes. She was completing her Master’s in Visual Art and Design in performance from Auckland University of Technology, with no barkcloth in sight. Today, however, Wickliffe is often acknowledged as a hiapo practitioner – hiapo being Niuean barkcloth. The practice, which involves beating, preparation and painting as well as deep research, has seen Wickliffe receive a number of accolades, including the Creative New Zealand Pacific Heritage Artist award in 2020 and a McCahon House Artists’ Residency, which Wickliffe will complete in the second half of 2021.
Hiapo-making, as with all barkcloth-making, is both time intensive and culturally charged, so when Wickliffe destroyed a piece of her own hiapo on 5 July 2020 in front of a gallery of people including Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, there were audible gasps.
Unbeknownst to everyone in Tautai Gallery celebrating the opening of Moana Legacy, Wickliffe – who both curated and was exhibiting in the show – had something up her sleeve. Standing to give what others thought was her curatorial speech, Wickliffe donned a blue crushed-velvet cloak, stood in front of her work Our Last Supper with You Revised (2020), dipped a brush into black paint and proceeded to paint over the hiapo she had made over the lockdown.
A month or so afterwards, Wickliffe wrote about the performance, saying that she wanted to create something that audiences would remember. I sat down with her to ask more about that evening and what exactly it was that she wanted remembered.
Cora-Allan Wickliffe: That performance was me wanting to move my own practice – as well as the conversation and perception around tapa cloth – on.
I’ve had to research the crap out of everything, just to find little nuggets of information. Through those processes there is this responsibility of handling, recording and keeping the knowledge, and that performance for me was based on providing insight into how it feels to be me as a maker bringing back an art form. The patterns on that cloth will now have to be remembered by whoever was in the room and saw it first.
Covering the cloth was me asking the question: What did you remember? Do you remember the patterns or what just transpired here? The performance was me sharing the responsibility of remembering that piece and those patterns. What hit me unexpectedly was that everyone gasped, and I could feel it. I also didn’t know it was going to look like that, so after my first brushstroke I just had to go with it.
At the opening, Makerita Urale had told me to speak from the heart, and even though she didn’t know what I was going to do, those words helped me a lot. The performance was coming from a good place and was not meant to be a big art move – it wasn’t some big Banksy gesture. It was just me trying to resolve what I want to say in my practice.
In that moment, you were an artist in the show and not the curator.
I transitioned into the artist by putting the cloak on.
You’re in a similar transition more broadly now. You’ve left your curatorial role at Corban Estate Arts Centre and you’re a full-time artist. Is that something that you see being permanent going forward?
Mama Maryama [from the Pacifica Mamas] was telling me about the things she had done to help Pacific people in her life and she asked me, What are you contributing to? I know that I want to be a full-time artist when I’m older – and it feels like a dream to be doing it now – but I wonder if there’s something that I could do for others now while I’m young and have energy.
I wrote a personal manifesto in my transition period. I was really struggling in the first part of January this year, because I went from making art just when I could, to this being it. I had a breakdown, realising that I was the business. It became a question of: What do I want to say? And that’s where the manifesto came from.
I think I take it way too seriously: the cloth, its lineage, what it means to our community and the protection of it. I am 100 percent into the idea of wanting to educate others about it, but I also want to protect it, so it’s not a free-for-all. Makers like Robin White have altered the way tapa cloth is seen as an art material, and that affects how my work is seen and can be sold. It affects the price point on my work directly, because it is part of this barkcloth ‘genre’. Someone who is not of Pacific lineage selling work at high prices challenges its value and perception to and within the art market. I wonder how it affects the makers on the island, in terms of how they sell, and if they are able to have a successful business. That for me is important, and what I’m interested in fighting for. Because the hiapo is our bread and butter. I think people get confused that you can make a living off of making barkcloth. But people have been doing it for centuries in Fiji, Sāmoa and Tonga, so continuing the idea that our arts and crafts feed my family is something that I always acknowledge.
Do you make hiapo or do you make art?
I make hiapo first, and that transcends everything. It then becomes a conversation of art, or how hiapo fits into art spaces and discourses. When my grandpa died, we had hiapo everywhere, it was spread out so everyone could look and spend time with it during the services – that is how we see it within the Niuean community. But now every time someone gets a piece of hiapo from me, they frame it. It’s rare that I see it lying in a baby’s cot, or on top of someone’s casket. It’s those times that bring me joy, because it’s returning the cloth in a way that speaks to the community’s need. The recent work I’ve been making uses hiapo as a methodology or a form to insert Niuean knowledge and culture into more conversations, whether that be in contemporary works or the hiapo itself.
I am a fast maker – we laugh about it. It all comes from my gut. I don’t ever sketch anything out with pencils, I literally will just go. I’ll go in the studio and might come out with 40 drawings or might come out with only 20 lines done – it depends on how I’m feeling. It’s like a fever. Making work is a way of thinking through everything. It’s all a part of being a better hiapo practitioner.
Is it a love of material?
It’s a love of thinking about being better. Because I know that every time I use a paintbrush, it might help me get better at doing a pattern, or better at creating symmetrical hiapo. Everything comes back to how good I am at making hiapo. I don’t want to learn how to do other things, I just want to get better at making art. I have overworked a bunch of stuff – I know that I’m not great with contemporary materials in terms of visualising what the end result should be. But with hiapo, I have it on point. I don’t think I’ve ever made a mistake.
In saying that, I still feel like a baby fish! I still feel very daunted when a piece is on the ground. I try to impress my nana a little bit.
You’re accountable to your nana in a different way.
For her, it’s not just that I’ve become a representative of a craft that is important, it’s also about being a good granddaughter. I feel very responsible to my community, but I welcome the weight of that.
I know you as a mum; and I have worked with Daniel, your partner, as part of BC Collective; and I know that your kids play a role in your work. So let’s talk about family.
I couldn’t do what I do without Daniel looking after the kids. But also, I wouldn’t work this hard if I didn’t have family and I know that 100 percent.
It’s a family practice, in a sense.
And it’s a family business. The first time I sold a big piece of hiapo, I bought my dad a fridge. I have always thought of art like a business, and I take it very seriously that my family will be fed and get the benefit of my work. It’s not just for the importance of connecting to culture. We buy a lot of art, because I believe in the ecology of art, and giving back to the artists and the spaces in which we share. I have traditional pieces that I save for some moments, and then I have contemporary hiapo with traditional motifs that I will share in whatever way I feel good about.
I wrote the manifesto to talk about that. I’ve been questioned before, like, What do you think about people buying this? This is my mahi – I took the time to invest in my practice. I feel like I’ve got a good heart about the way in which I trade or sell hiapo; I’ve traded more hiapo with the Niuean community than I’ve ever sold to anyone, and those trades don’t feed the family directly. In the end, if I had a choice between being with a particular dealer or with the community, I would choose the community. They always get my best fruits first, because they are why I make my work.