By Sophie Carter
For Maungarongo (Ron) Te Kawa sewing is as natural as breathing. “It’s my happy place, my te whare pora.” His father taught him the craft on a five-dollar sewing machine. Now a fashion designer and fabric artist, Te Kawa uses his skill to connect with the community.
His vibrant whakapapa quilts honour nature, whanau, and the resilience of the human spirit. Sewn together from a mix of fabrics, including sequins and shiny flourishes, they illustrate scenes from Māori legends and history. Enjoying the hunt for the right textures and colours, Te Kawa says “I’ll go to the ends of the earth for something that I really need.”
Te Kawa sews to music which helps him to “bring the mauri” into his work, each quilt with its own personal playlist to “match the energy.” His latest piece is a large wall hanging for the Twisting, Turning, Winding: Takatāpui + Queer Objects exhibition at Ockham Gallery, Auckland. “When I started out in my career, all the fun things were illegal. Being gay was one of them, and so for me it’s a political statement to just show up.”
The Woodville artist attributes much of his knowledge to designer Maisie Palmer. A winner of the 1980 Kotuku Fashion Awards, she “blazed the trail” for him and other Māori artists. He spent “a couple of hours a week”, working for her, “helping to choose the pockets to balance out the shoulder pads on blazers for rich ladies to wear to the races. It was heaven.”
Currently Te Kawa is working in collaboration with Season gallery in Auckland. His work will be displayed at the Heavenly Bodies exhibition from 17 June until 9 September, showing a fabric reinterpretation of the Matariki stars. Te Kawa has another exhibition at Mahara Gallery, Waikanae, in July.
Recognised for his community workshops, in 2019 Te Kawa was named Adult Community and Education Aotearoa Māori Educator of the Year. He hopes the workshops raise participants’ confidence, and he encourages them to abandon the conventions of traditional quilting, leaving straight lines and rulers at the door.
First published in Art Zone #91