Few and far between are the singular occasions that truly rare art of the Pacific Islands becomes available. The recent acquisition of a cloak made by the Maori people of New Zealand is the result of such an occasion. In the repertoire of traditional Maori clothing there are several distinctive types of cloak. The most finely worked flax cloaks are known as kaitaka. The main body of a kaitaka was left undecorated to display the golden shimmering quality of New Zealand flax (Phormuim tenax) but a decorative border called taaniko was added along the bottom edge. Of all kaitaka cloaks the most prestigious form was called huaki, which sported two taaniko borders rather than one. The huaki are represented today by only a small handful in museum and gallery collections mainly in New Zealand. The National Gallery of Australia’s huaki cloak, however, is singularly exquisite, not for its remarkable colouring, condition and size but for having three intricately woven taaniko decorative borders. Called harakeke by the Maori, New Zealand flax grows in fans of large sword-shaped leaves and has many uses – it was even exported for making ship rigging in the early nineteenth century. The flax used to produce this huaki has been delicately prepared.
Cloak-making was a specialised art closely guarded by women, who observed structured rituals associated with weaving. Maori weavers did not use looms, and such things as heddle pulleys, shuttles and spinners were unknown; instead, hands were used to twine the threads together. The weaving technique uses two pegs firmly inserted into the ground. One peg was considered spiritually potent, associated with the sky, while the other had earthly, or mortal, connections. Weaving was conducted in private; if a peg fell down it was a sign that strangers were approaching and work could not continue that day.
The restraint shown in the geometric detail of the tanniko border of the Gallery’s cloak is the work of an exceptional weaver. The patterns along the top and bottom border depict rau k mara (sweet potato leaves). Sections are dyed various shades of red, a sacred colour traditionally reserved only for important treasures. Black, a colour produced from soaking the flax in mud, forms the background to all the patterns. Tanniko borders are visual designs indicating the spiritual and social strength of the wearer who, for this cloak, would have been a tribal chief of great importance.
In the early-nineteenth-century, elegant huaki cloaks gave an air of resplendence akin to the robes of European royalty from the same period. The cloak lent colour and grandeur to its wearer, its form stressing the verticality of the wearer and emphasising the horizontal line of the shoulders. At important events the chiefly owner of the huaki cloak that is now in the Gallery’s collection would have cut a striking impression. The wearer certainly wore a deeply chiselled facial tattoo (moko), accentuated by his hair raised in a tight topknot, jade ornaments adorning his ears and chest, and his body wrapped by the flax cloak.
For decades this cloak was part of the James Hooper collection, regarded as the finest private collection of Polynesian art amassed anywhere in the world. In 1981, the Gallery acquired other Maori works from the Hooper collection, and so it is fitting this important fibre object joins Australia’s impressive national collection of Pacific art.
Assistant Curator, Pacific Arts Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010