What we wear says a lot about who we are, and for Tāne Te Manu Mekerapata, he’s made it his life’s work to show the world what it looks like to be a true Polynesian. From designing traditional costumes to photographing stunning works of art, Tāne says what sets him apart from his competitors is the rich history and culture behind every piece of work he puts his hands and heart to. In a world of ever evolving fashion, Tāne’s story shows us some things will always remain the same: the beauty and richness of who we are as Pacific people, and the story we tell through the clothes we wear. (Story by Talanoa Intern, Ilisapesi Muliaina)
Tell us a bit about yourself, the work that you do, and how you came to follow that career path?
I am Māori and English, born in Rotorua, New Zealand, and the youngest of 6. I was always intrigued as to why I was the only child who was blessed with a Māori name. I was named by my Grandparents: Tāne after Tāne Mahuta (the God of the forest and creators in it) and Te Manu after my Grandmother who passed before my birth. Unbeknownst to anyone in my family at the time, many years later my name would lead me to a spiritual awakening and a journey that no one could’ve imagined!
It began when I was 19 and joined a Kapa Haka group in Melbourne. I started designing the dance group’s traditional costumes and had to research our traditional culture, costumes and all that fun stuff.
After that I began thinking about my own name and where it actually came from. That’s when I started designing my costumes around my culture and also my genealogy. Since then I’ve branched out into portraiture photography, where my partner and I adorn our clients (we use the word Whanau – family – because we are adoring them in attire of our culture) in traditional and contemporary styled attire and temporary Moko (facial tattoo) and let their essence bring their very own portrait to life.
From there we’ve ventured back into our genealogy to where our ancestors have come from, known traditionally as Hawaiki, Rangiatea. The island is now known as Rāi’ateā and is situated inbetween Tahiti and Pora Pora (Bora Bora). This is where my paramount ancestors were born and lived until their great fleet to Aotearoa (New Zealand). I researched and studied the history of Tahiti, their traditional costumes and materials our people used to make them.
Now I work with portrait photography covering all Polynesian islands, and I also design costumes for Polynesian performing arts groups.
What have been the biggest challenges in your line of work? How do you overcome them?
The biggest challenge with the photography is the arrogance towards Māori tradition and also the Polynesian community with how we traditionally dress and the use of Moko. We also face the issue of our own Polynesian community questioning our ethics – people think we’re here just to make profit from of our culture. But what we’re actually doing is shining a light on the positives and raw natural beauty of our culture. We’re only one of many photographers that do this type of work, and the difference with us is that we find no need to dress our Whanau in clothes from the 18th Century where our ancestors were forced into a world that only hurt them. We prefer to dress our Whanau in full traditional clothing to capture the raw beauty of what it once looked like to be a true Polynesian.
For the costumes, it’s finding natural plants and fibres used for weaving. This is mostly due to the Australian climate – it’s harder for Harakeke to fully grow to its glorious potential. Sometimes the sun is so harsh that it burns the leaves, and the Hau fibre from the wild hibiscus bark is also very hard to come by in Australia. We have to import most of this from the islands which is a small fortune at time. But it’s what makes these costumes look their best – using traditional materials.
What motivates you to push forward with all that you do?
Personally my motivation and drive is to show my children that anything is possible. We aren’t fortunate enough to have all our traditions reinforced around us or our language spoken regularly, so for me, this work keeps my family in touch with our culture and upholds the Mana of our ancestors.
What advice do you have for young Pacific people who might be thinking of doing the same thing?
We’re all born with a gift. It’s our job to find out what gift we’ve been blessed with and use it in the best way we can to promote our culture. Some are born leaders, performers, artists, teachers and so on. I believe my gift is art and what makes my art different to what people learn at a university is the “Mana” that came through my genealogy. It gives my pieces more Wairua (or spirit) than what could be produced by a machine. Don’t let anything hold you back from showing the true potential of your gift.
We’d like to thank Tāne Te Manu for sharing his story and his beautiful work with us. If you’d like to get in touch or view more of his work, you can find him on his Facebook pages – Arawa Designs and Te Manu Ātaahua. We wish him all the best and look forward to seeing more of his beautiful art!