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Fire and earth

Updated: Nov 14, 2023

Maia McDonald’s (Ngāti Mutunga, Te Āti Awa) work is on fire. Literally. All of the works in her most recent solo exhibition have been pit-fired – a process, that involves heating clay ceramics in the ground, dating back over 5,000 years.

Maia McDonald. Photo by Sam Hartnett

During the firing process, the areas McDonald has painted with black manganese dioxide develop an even deeper black colour, an effect she then darkens again with spray paint. “It felt very irreverent to the tradition of pit-firing to interrupt the natural process with a very street style of art making.”

Taranaki-born McDonald currently lives in Naarm Melbourne, but was recently back in Aotearoa for her exhibition Te Ao Mārama at Auckland’s Season gallery.

Maia McDonald, Upoko, Raku gold clay with white engobe and manganese dioxide, 2023

All the pieces in this body of work were hand-built, something the artist describes “a very intuitive process.”

“The clay will sometimes take over and tell me how the piece should be.” She honed her skills with clay while completing her Diploma in Māori Art and Design in Te Wānanga O Aotearoa in Porirua, under the watchful eye of master uku (clay) artist, Wi Taepa.

Maia McDonald, Ai Weiwei, I see you one work and raise you another, Red raku clay with white engobe and manganese dioxide, 2023

Te Ao Mārama gave McDonald the chance to develop her artistic practice, exploring colour and kōwhaiwhai. The colours used refer to the Māori creation story – the deep black representing Te Korekore (the realm of potential being) through to the bright white slip on the vessel, suggesting Te Ao Mārama, (the world of light and life). “The use of only black and white in the works, which are then set out on a red table could be viewed as a simplistic way of trying to understand what is essentially an incredibly complex set of ideas,” says McDonald, “However I felt that reducing the palette made sense on the surface of very specific shapes created in clay.”

Among those shapes are a waka huia, a face wearing a moko kauae, and a pot bearing the words "where did my language go?" “This work was speaking to the viewer directly and held the space for other Māori that may have lost their language and are fighting to discover their whakapapa.”

First published in Art Zone #95


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