Apart from making jewellery fit for a queen, Areta Wilkinson creates installations that engage with the politics of identity and representation.
Thirty-six-year-old Wilkinson’s winning work Poi Girl did both. A metal silhouette brooch of a woman swinging the poi enclosed in a pristine bell jar, similar to those used in old-fashioned museum displays, the work is a self-portrait. Though it’s sculptural in scale and context, engaging with museum traditions of representation and display, Poi Girl is also unashamedly a piece of jewellery – the brooch can be taken out of its glass jar and worn.
Thus Poi Girl, like Wilkinson – who describes herself as “an urban chick” – leads a double life. This astute and beautiful self-portrait perfectly declares the complexities and contradictions within her identity. Her hapu is Ngai Tahu, she was born in Kaitaia and lives in Grey Lynn.
Inspired by a lovely old paper cut-out silhouette of Wilkinson’s grandmother, Poi Girl is one of an ongoing series of silhouette works, made from felt, wood, wallpaper and metals, which Wilkinson first exhibited at the Christchurch Arts Festival in 2005. Silhouettes, which have links to the much-loved cameo brooch, were a popular 19th-century form of jewellery and Poi Girl is a bi-cultural take on that tradition.
Wilkinson, whose jeweller’s workbench is set up in the lounge of her small 1950s apartment, says her work contains two traditions “because that is where I am; I haven’t been brought up on the pa”.
Throughout her 15-year career as a jeweller – she graduated from Unitec with a Diploma in Design (Jewellery) in 1991 and a Bachelor of Design in 2001 and now teaches there – Wilkinson has made multi-layered and strongly autobiographical work. For instance, in a striking work titled The Herbal Mixture, 2000, she used the brown medicinal jars from which she had been drinking a herbal tonic. The work affirmed her belief that art can literally function as an elixir to make you well or an amulet to ward off the evil eye.
“I use my work to find my way in the world. Jewellery is a medium for self-expression like any other.”
Her latest project Have Takapau will Travel is a travelling exhibition that takes this journey of discovery a step further. Comprising four travelling museum diorama cases and several silhouette works, it was first shown at Auckland Museum late last year.
The title refers to a chief’s mat (takapau), which can be taken anywhere and placed on the ground, creating a temporary place from which to speak. Wilkinson has reinvented the chief’s mat as a conceptual takapau – a magical flying carpet that can take her into new territory and one of the silhouette works in the exhibition shows the artist seated on a flying carpet with her jeweller’s tools held aloft.
“I wanted to make some work that responded to an object in the museum. In the end it responded to the museum itself.”
In March, in an Alice-in-Wonderland feat, Wilkinson shrunk her jeweller’s workshop, packed it into two travelling museum diorama cases and loaded them into the back of her red Ford Laser.
So began a six-month journey around New Zealand that will see her collaborating with Maori artists, including painter Kura Te Waru Rewiri, adornment artist Rangi Kipa and Christchurch carver Riki Manuel.
Moving around with her mobile workbench, Wilkinson is excited by the chance to work with much-admired contemporaries. She is at the point in her career where she’s open to being influenced by other artists. On a practical level the diorama cases will function as small mobile art galleries that can be displayed in libraries, community spaces and galleries. The original travelling diorama cases (Wilkinson has borrowed two from Auckland Museum) functioned as mini museums, showing a Maori pa and a display about greenstone. They were taken to schools in the 1940s and will set off once more in Wilkinson’s red car.
“One of the four cases in Have Takapau will Travel (titled 0503 No Hea Koe?) is about self-representation – a self-portrait of an urban chick working in her flat in Auckland but still with this relationship to other places associated with her land and family values. The other case (0502 He Aha Ahau?) has pieces of jewellery in it and is more like a traditional museum case. On the inside of its doors hang my jeweller’s tools. This case is about what I do.”
The brooches in this case are loosely based on, though not copies of, plant specimens collected by Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander during Cook’s first voyage to New Zealand. The specimens were taken back to the British Museum and catalogued and eventually some of them came back to New Zealand and found a home in Auckland Museum’s collection. Made from gold, silver, steel and leaves from two-dollar shop plants, the brooches have little tags with accession numbers on them. They’ve morphed from an earlier series that was included in Wilkinson’ exhibition Legere to gather at Anna Bibby Gallery in 2004. The brooches were displayed on white book-like objects on tables – an installation that showed Wilkinson’s engagement with the politics of collecting and classification.
Ironically, though her work critiques museums’ treatment of taonga and other cultural objects, it often ends up in a glass case in the museum with “no one to keep it warm”.
Wilkinson admits she has a certain ambivalence to the contentious ground she’s exploring, because were it not for museums, she wouldn’t have access to the taonga that fuel her practice and help feed her understanding of her own culture.
In 2002 Ngai Tahu commissioned her to make a gift for Queen Elizabeth when she visited one of the tribe’s maraes during her royal tour. The result was an extraordinary brooch – Aoraki Lily, 2002.
“The work represented the mana of my tribe in many ways. The brooch is the shape of a Mt Cook lily. It’s silver with a gold stamen in the centre. The petals are white heron kotuku feathers, which were handed down through a Ngai Tahu family for several generations – so in themselves they are taonga. The kotuku has associations of high mana because it was rarely seen very far from its home on the west coast. I found it quite daunting to use these feathers; I felt like I had a huge responsibility in dealing with that material.”
Asked if the queen wears her brooch, Wilkinson laughs. “I’m always scanning the pages of the Woman’s Weekly but I’ve never seen a picture of her wearing it!”
“I’m not making pieces that are meant to be worn all the time. I hope there’ll be a dialogue when the piece is worn and that people will enjoy that.”