As well as the WOW stage, fibre artist and designer Shona Tawhiao’s structural, intricately-woven flax creations have graced the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the catwalks of New York Fashion Week. But the weaver is looking forward to a quieter life in 2017, focusing less on the outside world and more on her craft.
Tawhiao has been at the forefront of mahi raranga (flax weaving) for many years. She was born in 1970 and grew up in a small forestry village, Kaingaroa, near Rotorua. Her grandparents raised her until she was 13, when she moved to Mount Maunganui with her mum, stepdad and younger sister. In 1994 she began learning her craft at Auckland’s Unitec, and found inspiration in all forms of Maori art.
Describing her work as “art in a sculptural and wearable form”, she uses traditional Maori weaving techniques to make modern avant garde fashion and haute couture, using the widely available native harakeke (Phormium tenax) growing everywhere in New Zealand.
As well as designing costume for the screen and stage, including cult TV shows Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules, she has been the main designer and producer for sets on Maori Television. Her work has been exhibited in London, Hawaii, Melbourne and Paris, as well as appearing at local events such as New Zealand Fashion Week, Style Pasifika, Cult Couture and, the Matariki Festival.
In 2016 the Oceanic Department of the Met invited her to a three-week residency and exhibition. She used the time to concentrate on researching future works and designs, make new connections, and absorb the art around her. Having people see her work is important; it cements the permanence of mahi raranga, she says.
Tawhiao often sticks to traditional Maori colours of red, black, white, and natural fibre, with a strong focus on warrior themes, weapons, and battle dress, building on the idea of clothing as armour. She finds war inspiring. “When I first started weaving we learned about the old warriors and their weapons, and it just grew from there.”
She doesn’t work with solely Maori themes, but draws from many cultures built of and around war, finding inspiration in garments and weapons from sources as diverse as the Trojan War, the French Revolution, and the traditions of different cultures in Africa.
“It’s so amazing what they were wearing into battle, and their costumes were just as important as their training and everything else as well,” she says. “They affected the way they fight; it all comes in together. I don’t think I could do anything else that’s not inspired by those things. It’s timeless, and endless.”
She sometimes uses modern gang insignia and symbols, but in her fashion design, her warriors are women: wahine toa (women of strength) wearing helmets and the armour of battle.
Her work has fit perfectly on the WOW stage. Tawhiao first entered the competition with her garment Te Po in 2008, followed by Little Columbine in 2010 and then Toi Aotearoa in 2012. But she would like to see more local weavers entering. Though she’s been a trailblazer, she says a lack of confidence often prevents them. But it’s important for Maori and Pacific Islanders who have grown up with or learned traditional weaving cultures to tell their stories, she says.
A natural target would be the Aotearoa section. International designers have a different view of Maori and the Pacific Islands than those who are of that culture, and she says although the international point of view isn’t in any way incorrect, it’s very different. “I enjoy seeing what international designers think of the Pacific, though I think our community interprets it in a way that is closer to home and more spiritual,” she says.
“I know a lot of weavers who really want to enter WOW but I think it seems a bit hard because the level of entries is so high, and it’s global as well,” she says. “But when I first entered, I went to the designers’ get-together and I thought that was really good; quite relaxed and not as scary as I thought it would be. It can be overwhelming; if you haven’t entered you don’t know what’s involved, and it does seem quite daunting, but the meet and greets made it so much easier.”
She attended the show when she entered her first piece, and says she felt like she was well looked after. “Even though I knew there were hundreds of designers, I felt part of everything. I thought it was awesome, and told all my weaver mates they should enter.”
She may enter again herself one day, but the coming year is a time for rest and focus. In 2017, she’s thinking of moving to Matakana Island, off the coast of Tauranga in the Bay of Plenty, where her grandparents are from – they still run the dairy (local store) there.
“I’m going to build my house over here and take the year off and make some new stuff,” she says. She has a ready-to-wear collection on the way, and she’d like to spend some time quietly working after a few years of “chaos” – lots of travelling, lots of demands. The apparent glitz of the industry is not for her; she prefers to let her beautiful, powerful work speak for itself.