Tukutuku in New York

When 43 tukutuku panels are unveiled this month at the United Nations refurbished headquarters in New York, renowned weaver Christina Wirihana expects to feel relaxed and happy that the panels have come to the end of a long journey.

“They’ll be in their rightful place,” she says reflecting on the more than four years since she first submitted the project proposal to Te Puni Kōkiri on behalf of Jack Lawless Whānau Trust.

That ‘place’ is a rimu wall that New Zealand, as a founding member, gifted to the United Nations in 1952. In 2010, then Māori Affairs Minister Hon Dr Pita Sharples was visiting the United Nations and noted that the wall was in an unfortunate state. Thus sparked the idea to work in with the redevelopment of the UN headquarters to refurbish and enhance it.

He saw it as an opportunity to take fine examples of one of the most traditional Māori art forms to the world. The United Nations headquarters in New York is a popular tourist destination with around a million visitors a year. From next week, they’ll all be walking past our tukutuku panels.

"It’s been an exciting project for me. Challenging and daunting,” says Christina.

“It had to be identifiably Aotearoa-New Zealand and represent all our people. We also had to research how the panels fitted in and related to the mission statement of the United Nations.”

“I felt it was important to adhere to those traditional practices because of where the panels were going. The materials relate back to the flora and fauna of our country and, the strong association we as Māori have with the whenua and other elements of nature. How we gather those materials becomes part of the narrative and informs people who come in contact with them.”

“Even in my most contemporary work, I practise the traditional by reflecting on the past in order to innovate how I apply it to my work in the present, and the artform in the future.”

Thus, the final body of work includes some panels that represent customary designs and others that have been developed specifically for the new setting. Together they create a dialogue that inextricably links New Zealand to the United Nations and its kaupapa.

For the research, Christina involved students from Toihoukura, the Māori Arts School at the Eastern Institute of Technology in Gisbourne, where she is a tutor. Students were also involved in ensuring that traditional methods of gathering and preparing were adhered to as much as possible.

For the weaving she drew on networks of weavers from around the country who she knew from her role as Chairperson of Te Roopū Rāranga Whatu o Aotearoa, The National Māori Weavers Collective. Tukutuku has traditionally had a strong community focus to it, and this project was no different. So while 60 weavers have been named as contributors to the body of the work, it’s almost impossible to tell exactly how many were involved in its completion.

“It could be in excess of 100. It’s always been the nature of tukutuku. Wherever we do the panels we cannot escape that whoever walks past might contribute a stitch. And as well as the lattice work, we had many others helping to harvest material for the project.”

For Christina—who has received numerous awards and commissions for her contemporary take on the art form—reverting back to the traditional and structured form of tukutuku was not an issue.

When Kōkiri met Christina she was preparing to travel to the opening; she recalls the first time she visited the United Nations.

“That first moment, I felt aroha for that rimu wall. Unless people had known that it was a rimu wall, a gift from Aotearoa, they would not have known. It could have been any old wall."

“But I could instantly visualise where those panels would be and how it would change the whole dynamics. The whole ambience of the space is going to be totally transformed when those panels go up,” she said.

Te Puni Kōkiri commissioned the panels and worked in partnership with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade for the installation of the panels on the New Zealand wall at the United Nations, New York.