28 July 2023

The Threads that Bind – Shona Tawhiao


Ngā Hononga. Common Threads.

The trappings of fashion are all around us – as ways to express style and personality in the everyday, or when adorning ourselves for special occasions. Behind the fabric and the clothing are the artists whose visions shape the wearable art we spend our lives in. Janine Whale, Philippa O’Brien and Shona Tawhiao have each dedicated themselves to the fashion world. Though at different points in their careers, they are all bound by love to the craft. Here’s Shona’s story.

Image of the hands of Shona, a weaver, weaving mahi raranga

A lot of Shona’s work is warrior-inspired. “I find battle culture really interesting. Samurai, the Greeks, Trojans – battles of all kinds. I think it’s interesting how warriors are portrayed, what they look like – especially the samurai warriors. I think that Japanese culture is quite similar to our culture, so I combine them.”

It might not be the most traditional application of mahi raranga, but the work of toi Māori artist, weaver and designer Shona Tawhiao, of Ngāi Te Rangi, is both visible and tangible, and that is exactly what has always driven her.

“Reaching a different audience is always what I want for raranga,” Shona, 52, explains from her container studio-home on Matakana Island in the Bay of Plenty. “I thought fashion would be a good way to get mahi raranga out to the world, because everyone’s going to see it. People all around the world understand what it is – it’s a contemporary kind of wearable art.”

Image of a woman sitting in her studio
“We started building our container house about seven years ago,” Shona says. “It’s pretty much done. We’ve got four containers connected. I’ve got my studio here; I work from home, day and night. We’ve done everything ourselves with help from a cousin and our uncle across the road.”

Since her beginnings as a student weaver at Auckland’s Unitec in the nineties, Shona’s creations have been featured on national and international catwalks; worn on world stages by opera singers, musicians and Miss Universe contestants; in films, music videos and stage plays; and have been displayed in global galleries and museums. Her handmade designs, which she produces under the label Tawhiao7, are instantly recognisable for their refined couture beauty and warrior-inspired sculptural form. But despite the recognition and reception, Shona remains incredibly humble as she tells the story of her journey to the world stage.

“I always loved fashion, art design and culture. Both weaving and fashion work together. When my first daughter was old enough to start kōhanga reo, I thought I’d love to do a Māori art course,” Shona recalls. “There wasn’t much available at that time, but I did find a Māori weaving course. I was hooked from there. Raranga definitely found me, and it’s taken me on a journey, that still has a way to go.”

Woman modelling mahi raranga in front of a marae
Whero is Red modelled by Nellie Mikaere.

Her tutor at Unitec was the renowned weaver Kahutoi Te Kanawa, daughter of a long lineage of prestigious weavers, and the training Shona received covered all aspects of Māori weaving. She spent two years learning the basics, traditions and protocols. Combining traditional methods with contemporary techniques has allowed Shona to develop her unique style. Still, she has a strong adherence to the origins of her art form.

“I feel honoured to be part of the mahi raranga movement,” Shona says of her mentor’s lineage. “I think the process has to be kept traditional with karakia and protocols. I still practise all these things. And I’ve noticed if I’m not doing something right, it kind of tells me. I always have to step back and re-evaluate the situation. The kaupapa is definitely important. I feel the work and the weaver won’t grow or move forward if it’s not practised correctly.”

Shona’s goal has always been to have mahi raranga recognised further afield than the Māori arts community, so when opportunity came knocking, she didn’t turn it away. “When we were at Unitec, my tutor would get a lot of calls about specialist pieces needed for films and things like that. She’d always pass them on to me and Judy and Joy – two ladies I learnt to weave with. It was specialised work that they needed, so we’d go on set and have meetings and stuff with the costume departments.”

Woman modelling a black mahi raranga in front of a marae
Rakeitia, modelled by Kyra Samuel.
Image of the front of a marae
Launched at Opureora Marae on Matakana Island last winter, Pākākano is now exhibiting around the motu and will be on display at Te Uru Waitākere Contemporary Gallery in Titirangi this Matariki.

Her latest work, however, isn’t designed for the runway, and takes its cues from a different element of traditional Māori culture. “I did a collaboration with my great-great-grandmother, Nanny Nunu. She passed away when I was four, but her patterns are in Pendergrast’s Raranga Whakairo book.” With permission from her uncle, Shona has taken Nanny Nunu’s designs and created an installation of eight giant sculptural seed pods, some more than two metres in height, called Pākākano. “They’re basically about growth and knowledge and nurturing,” Shona explains. “It was really nice to work with Nanny Nunu, even though she’s not here.”

After many years living and working in Auckland, Shona is now a resident of Matakana Island – her family home. “My partner and I built a house on our papakāinga,” she says. “We’ve got an avocado orchard right next door and there’s about seven or eight whānau living on the block now. Everybody’s whānau and this is where my grandparents are from.”

Black and white photo of a Māori woman
“Everything – the planting, the moon – it’s all related to Matariki. I don’t think there’s anything in Māoridom that’s not. It is an important time of year for everything and everyone,” Shona says.
Image of the front of a marae
Opureora Marae on Matakana Island.

Shona’s three kids are all grown now, and don’t live at home. “The baby’s at uni,” she says, “and my oldest daughter has a baby. Calina is going to be two this year. So that’s our first moko, which is pretty cool.” And that little girl might well be the inheritor of Shona’s legacy. “I’ve got three girls,” Shona says with a laugh, “and none of them are keen on weaving! So hopefully the granddaughter will like weaving. I hope!”

Glossary. Karakia, prayer/incantation. Kaupapa, movement/initiative. Kōhanga reo, early childhood settings which offer Māori immersion for children. Mahi raranga, flax weaving. Moko/mokopuna, grandchild. Papakāinga, communal ancestral land. Raranga, weaving. Toi Māori, Māori art. Whānau, family.

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