A case of lost-and-found: The three wāhine Māori leading the revival of an ancient Māori practice

More than 10 years ago, Nikau Hindin began her haerenga, or journey, to reclaim a lost Māori art form named aute. 

The art of aute is a traditional Māori practice that involves processing the aute plant (paper mulberry) into a bark cloth, also called aute. For the artist, the process begins with the harvesting of the aute plant and culminates in creating the cloth. 

Traditionally, knowledge of aute was passed down through generations, but in the past century, the chain of knowledge was largely broken in Aotearoa.

However numerous Polynesian cultures retained inter-generational knowledge for their own versions, such as the Samoan siapo and the Hawaiian kapa cloth.

Nikau Hindin (Te Rarawa, Ngāpuhi) first learned about the ancient art form on a visit to Hawai'i 10 years ago. Since then, she's used kōrero tawhito (ancient teachings) from Hawai'i as well as her own research to re-awaken and re-remember aute. She's now considered the foremost aute practitioner in Aotearoa. 

Reflecting on her journey to become a knowledge holder and an aute artist, Hindin said: "Being an artist is almost quite self-indulgent because you're just pursuing an individual practice. 

"But when I found aute, it was a practice that I felt contributed back to te ao Māori. It was something that I could give back and teach other people." 

Now, her pia (students) Atarangi Anderson and Rongomai Grbic-Hoskins are also picking up the wero and honing their own skills in the world of aute.

Rongomai said: "It's really important to think of aute as something bigger than just ourselves."

She strongly values the opportunity to learn from Hindin.

"I think mentorship is really important. The tuakana-teina framework is obviously integral to te ao Māori."

This model can be described by the famous phrase: Mā te tuakana te teina e tōtika ai, mā te teina anō te tuakana e tōtika ai. The older sibling teaches the younger sibling, the younger sibling teaches the older.

A case of lost-and-found: The three wāhine Māori leading the revival of an ancient Māori practice
Photo credit: The Hui

Hindin believes it is not just important to have knowledge of aute herself, but also to preserve it by sharing it.

"Aute isn't a practice that you can kind of do by yourself, and it's much better when it's collectivised." 

Recently, Hindin and Rongomai released a new documentary Te Uru Aute. It was filmed over six months at Motukaraka Marae in the Hokianga, and records their wānanga aute. The public will have the chance to see it when it screens at the Māoriland Film Festival 2023 next month.

By creating their documentary, the artists want to make their knowledge accessible to a wider audience, hopefully sparking the desire for others to learn and solidifying aute's place in a modern world.

Hindin has committed her life to passing on the knowledge, and now her students are equally dedicating themselves to the practice. 

Atarangi Anderson said for her aute is a lifelong commitment.

"I really have enjoyed this journey and it's something that I'm committed to for the rest of my life."

Atarangi has worked with many, varied textile art forms. She said that unlike more modern forms of art, aute requires her to have a different state of mind. It requires a relationship with te taiao (the environment).

"When you work with aute, you're not on everyone else's schedule, you're on aute's schedule… learning that you are collaborating with another living being. And so you have to wait for things to grow and you have to wait for the maramataka. You have to carve and make your own tools."

Atarangi is hopeful about aute's future

"It'll be so lovely to have a lot of people that want to practice aute and that love it. And I hope that that is what our future holds."

With such passionate artists at the forefront of this revival, it is easy to imagine that aute will be a taonga accessible for generations to come.

Made with support from Public Interest Journalism funded through NZ On Air