Nikau Hindin is a Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi and Ngāi Tūpoto cloth maker dedicated to reviving and preserving the artistry of aute making in Aotearoa. Her star maps are created with incredibly delicate precision and care. Nikau graciously accepted our invitation to talanoa on the synergy between place , person and practice.


How do you describe yourself – and by extension, your practice?
I am Te Rarawa and Ngāpuhi. I come from ancestress Ngahuia, and before that Tūpoto and before that Rahiri. I am from the North side of the Hokianga from a place called Motukaraka. I am Ngai Tūpoto. 

I am a cloth maker. Some people are weavers, some people are carvers but I am undeniably a barkcloth maker. I strip the bark from the aute, paper mulberry tree, I peel off the outer park, scrape and pound the inner sap. I then paint star maps using kōkōwai, red earth. 

Materials are most important to me in my practice. What am I using to create my work? where does it comes from? and how is it sourced? Are all questions I ask myself. 

This makes me realise how important the relationships that are formed in the creative process. The stories that are told and the knowledge that is passed forward – all of this is woven (or beaten) into the fibres of my cloth.    

It sounds like you have travelled a lot, from Tamaki Makaurau to O’ahu and now to Turanga. How does living in different places feed into your practice?
I’ve learned a lot from all of these places. When I am on O’ahu the wet green valley of Mānoa calls to me. It has been a place of profound transformation and learning for me. Some of my most joyful and challenging times have been in Mānoa, it is a place that signifies rebirth.  
I have been returning to Hawai’i every year for the past six years. I am manuhiri there but the ancestral ties run deep and I have a lot of love and respect for our kanaka brothers and sisters. O’ahu is an incredible island, since traditional times it has had always been densely populated. Huge influxes of people travel through O’ahu. I’ve met some of my best friends and most important teachers. 

It is where I learned to love the ocean, to notice the stars and most significantly it is where I learned Māori made tapa cloth and then learned how to make it. 

Tamaki Makaurau, Auckland, has a similar intense energy to O’ahu. I think it has always been densely populated because of its fertile volcanic soil, so many good pā sites and plenty of water around- fresh and ocean. We don’t see that now though. All the Mana whenua of Tamaki don’t get enough acknowledgement. It is different for my whānau- our home will always be country with a small population. We have different issues to deal with. The art world in Tamaki has always been difficult for me which is truthfully why I have spent so much time away- developing my practice in the safety of another island in Te Moana Nui a Kiwa. It felt like my opportunities for learning were more abundant outside of Auckland. It is hard to find the right knowledge holders in the city. So I’ve been working away- gathering resources, gathering knowledge and in all honesty gaining self confidence to face the art world. 

My partner Te Kuru o te Marama Dewes is Ngati Porou so I moved to be with him on the Coast. Living outside of Tamaki keeps me sane. Here in Turanga, Gisborne, we are close to the ocean. There are so many iwi here, so many marae, they all have beautifully carved whare nui, meeting houses, the fires of the ahi kā here are warm and their reo, language is beautiful.

Te Kuru, my tane – he helped me find my voice again. He is a native speaker and speaks Māori to me every day. It is really a relief for me, I grew up speaking but then I went to mainstream schools and I fell out of practice. Speaking again makes me so much more comfortable with who I am. It has been a spiritual awakening and it started when I was in Hawai’i, we would speak on the phone every night and he would speak Māori to me. 

He would always say to me, “It is there, it is inside you. You know the words.” He was right.

Place should be important in all art practices. If you don’t acknowledge your position within the political and social landscape that you are working in then you are missing something. I say this because in Hawai’i there are many artists who do not acknowledge the huge political issues in Hawai’i, you don’t have to make art about it but you can’t pretend that it is America and carry on your way. Either way, you are tangata whenua or you are manuhiri. Knowing who you are means you can make art from a standing of strength and respect. This understanding is powerful.

Tapa making is practiced across a few nations within the Pacific – Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Wallis & Futuna – what drew you to study kapa in Hawai’i? 
Firstly, I have to acknowledge that I’m not doing anything new here. In some islands the practice of making tapa is a strong and unbroken tradition. I’m looking at our tradition in Aotearoa but I’d be going nowhere without knowledge holders from Hawai’i. So one of the first things I did when I decided I wanted to seriously pursue aute (Māori tapa) was look at the Māori aute beaters at Auckland Museum. Interestingly they are relatively similar in nature to the beaters in Hawai’i. The most striking thing about Hawaiian kapa is their infamous watermark made by an intricately patterned side on their beaters. One of our old beaters also has a similar carved pattern.

Tools can tell you a lot about the process.

This is one of the reasons Hawai’i was the most logical place to learn. I also had relationships with people in Hawai’i already.

I have so much admiration for how delicately your knowledge, diligence & detail intertwine. What is the most rewarding part of your work?
I think talking to people is the most rewarding. I love to hear wāhine Māori say to me that they have been encouraged to create. I feel I am part of a collective consciousness of returning to the ways of our tupuna for the betterment of our world.  

Could you share a story about a work you created recently that caught you by surprise?
I love this question. The piece I have spent the most time on is called Matariki II. It tracks three nights and the times stars rise and set. It was really amazing to visually see the patterns occur over three nights. I usually only document one night but because this piece was really long there was space to literally expand my observation over time. I saw that the most Northern Stars have a super short arch in our sky and the more south that these stars rise the longer they are cruising over head. Until eventually you get to Atutahi and Mahutonga (Southerns Cross) and they are circumpolar so they never set, they do a big circle. I really enjoyed this process of mapping and learning about celestial movements from the patterns I create.

Is there much opportunity for you to share your practice with other fibre artists?
How mind boggling is Instagram. I talk to cloth makers from Indonesia, Hawai’i and of course my tuakana Cora Allen who lives here in Aotearoa.  

Re-awakening an ancestral practice can feel like a huge responsibility, do you ever feel tension between how you lead your practice and the expectations of your community?
YES. It took me six years before I had a show with completed works (by completed I mean marked) of aute, calling it aute. Māori tapa. It took me six years before I felt like I was good at it and could consistently produce good quality aute. It is one thing to be a contemporary artist producing art for the art world but it is another to be a contemporary artist working with a traditional process that has standards and protocols that go way beyond the time and understanding of the art world.

It is not always a smooth learning journey, knowledge comes when you are ready. 

I had to get over my own anxieties about making aute and become comfortable working with a material that has a deep connection Te Moana Nui a Kiwa.

I think this is a common theme for many artists- gaining confidence to actually show work but for me it had a lot to do with my own cultural grounding. I had to learn my language again and I had to create my own visual language I felt comfortable with. I had to do the time and research. 
Most importantly I have to acknowledge the Hawai’i kapa community I learned from who were generous enough to pass on their knowledge. I feel a strong obligation to support the kapa tradition in Hawai’i and will always help out with wānanga when my teacher needs my support. These are all considerations indigenous people have to make. We represent not just our family and community but also our ancestors. We feel the pressure but that’s ok. It pushes our work and it pushes us to be better people and artists. What I realised is that me alone, I am not going to define what Māori aute looks like.. I might make 1000 pieces and still not know and that’s ok. A visual language is created by a collective experience- so we will just have to see how it turns out. It won’t end with me.

Why did the Aute plant become extinct? 
I’m not sure it did go extinct.. this is something I’m still looking into and will get back to you when I find the answer! In the mean time I have found aute- growing tall and strong. The more word gets out about aute in Aotearoa it seems the more information that gets back to me. It has been awesome coming home and connecting with more people who know stuff. I don’t know everything about aute in Aotearoa. 

How do you imagine yourself, your practice, to look in 30 years time? 
In thirty years I hope that there will be healthy amazing aute patches all around the North Island. I hope that there will be other cloth makers using this resource. I imagine that my pieces will have grown in size. I hope that I will be making all kinds of things from clothing to manu aute, kites. In any case I will still be working with aute. I have it tattooed to my hips lol! I’m fully committed and I’m in for the long haul. 

Any upcoming exhibitions we should know about?
YES – Currently I am in Te Uru Gallery till August 18th. Titirangi. Largest body of work I’ve produced to date.
I have a few group shows coming up this year. One on the 29th of August at Millers O’brien Gallery. One in October at the Maritime Museum called Tākiri. Again in October I’m part of two other group shows- one at Tauranga Museum and another at the Gisborne Museum called Native Voices: Ko Au, Ko Mātou.  
At Labour Weekend I’ll be at the Maritime Museum giving a demo of my mahi.
Next year I am going to have a major solo show at Corban Estate Art Centre out West curated by fellow cloth maker Cora Allen.

You can follow Nikau’s work at @nikaugabrielle