Areta Wilkinson is a leading Maori jeweller. Through her work she explores ideas about adornment, wealth, and the preciousness of materials. She also examines local and global issues, including identity (particularly her Ngai Tahu identity), dislocation, memory, protection, and spirituality.
Although much of Wilkinson’s work relates to her Maori/Ngai Tahu identity, it generally does not draw on the forms of customary Maori jewellery such as heitiki. Like fellow jeweller Gina Matchitt, Wilkinson’s art often combines Maori concepts with contemporary issues and European abstract form.
The pendants in Wilkinson’s 96:04 Series can be interpreted as a critique of museum and art gallery practice. Wilkinson studied the way that museums and art galleries record and label the objects in their collections. She then made the pendants from precious materials, but sandblasted each one with a large number that dominates it, deliberately overshadowing the value and meaning of the materials it is made from.
Through these works, Wilkinson is commenting on how taonga (treasured objects) in museums and galleries have been taken out of their social and spiritual contexts and placed in new ones. In a broader sense, she is looking at people’s relationship to objects, the way dominant cultures record the objects of other cultures, and the difficulties of maintaining a Maori identity in a non-Maori setting.
The works in the 96:04 Series need not only be interpreted as a critique of museum or art gallery labels. They can also be seen as almost any labels that categorise people or things – military dog tags, luggage labels, or even concentration camp numbers.
Labels are a recurring theme in Wilkinson’s work. Her 97:01 Series (made in 1997) is based on retail price tags. Her 96:05 Series is a set of triangular silver settings, each holding fragments of taonga. The fragments include fibre, stone, shell, wood, bone and feathers. The back of each setting is stamped with an object number, and the warning ‘DO NOT TOUCH’ – standard advice given in museums and art galleries.
In the catalogue for Areta Wilkinson’s Wai – recollected works exhibition, Dr Deidre Brown writes, ‘We all carry labels. They mark the beginning and end of our lives and are continually being applied to us by ourselves and by others who need to place us within their own systems of understanding. Our labels are as familiar as our faces . . . ’(1)
In her more recent works, such as Herbal Mixture II, Wilkinson continues exploring ideas about tohu (signs), symbols, and talismans that provide and protect. Herbal Mixture II is the second in a series of works based on herbal remedies.
1. Brown, Deidre (2000). Wai - recollected works, exhibition catalogue. University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts Gallery 9 June – 22 June.
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2001).