The inspiration for Ako Marama

By Gina Ropiha

Marty was the inspiration for Ako Marama because he is the person who has shaped the way I think about what art can be and how an artist might live.

I was a terrible student. I was continually late handing in work and lacked confidence in my ability to make anything of worth. Marty was always patient, he created opportunities for me in which I would have to grow. On reflection I realised the “something particular” was this.

In my third year, Marty organised for me to teach etching to the students at the Maori art course that was also part of our polytech/TAFE. In hindsight, this forced me to recognise several important things:

  • I am not completely worthless
  • I am not completely useless
  • I can learn
  • I do have something to offer other people
  • People will listen to me
  • Teaching is a valuable and tangible skill
  • I gain confidence and the opportunity to learn more about myself and others by sharing rather than hiding away.

Teaching the etching class also made me interact with Maori outside of the peer group I had established in the fine art degree. It gave me an avenue to interact with my own people to share knowledge.

Ako Marama means teaching understanding or to become enlightened. As Marty explains in his email

I have thought long and hard about the piece of jewellery and named it ‘Ako Marama’. The translation for this is roughly understanding, enlightenment. The word ako is a beautifully poetic concept that in its fullness means both teaching and learning. Therefore Ako Marama can mean teaching understanding, or it could be about engaging in a journey of enlightenment.

This allows me to learn from you when engaging in your latest work. Thus the dynamic of our relationship continues to evolve through collaborative practice.[1]

As a personal project Ako Marama has been about learning, helping me to reconcile my past and communicating important things that I found difficult to say in words. As a ‘live object’, ‘…an object that can attach itself to many lives.[2] Ako Marama may be a prompt to respond to events, occurrences and relationships in recipients’ lives that are unexpected, fortuitous or seen as the result of chance rather than design. It is one way to reflect on our lives, observe, honour, give thanks and celebrate.

The act of giving Ako Marama away to someone else allows people to build on an established relationship. For me creating the necklace and giving it to a treasured mentor meant that I could show the gratitude and appreciation that I have felt for some time in a tangible way. I also hoped to initiate a pattern or set of actions that embodied the reasons why I wished to thank Marty. I wanted to create the catalyst for an act that would pay homage to the qualities I appreciated most about Marty’s teaching: warmth and compassion, generosity, mindfulness, patience, enthusiasm and a sense of wonder.

When holders of the necklace select someone to give Ako Marama to, they may change the appearance of the object to suit the proposed recipient. If this is so, they will put consideration, care and attention into the process of creating with a specific person and purpose in mind. I think this act of making is extremely hopeful and positive … albeit sometimes a bit risky. There is often a huge element of luck in this act, you never really know if what you’re doing is the right thing or how it will be received. You just have to hope and trust in your intentions and the process –something I was taught by Marty a long time ago. It just took a fair while to sink in!

Some other interesting points that occurred to me as I was making the bead units and then researching the reel motif recently is that the reel unit has come to represent the idea of the necklace. In a practical sense the reel motif enabled me to learn about carving bone. It gave me a better appreciation of the exceptional skill and patience of pre-contact craftspeople and a strong desire to seek out as much information as I can. If people follow the story of Ako Marama on the blog it will also introduce a new audience to the beauty and significance of Maori Art and maybe encourage them to learn more.

The reel motif is an object that was carried across vast distances from the ancestral home of Maori to a strange and distant land –Aotearoa/New Zealand. When used in necklaces it was a connection to home and the ancestors’ recent history, a symbol of the familiar, of rank, power and possibly abundance. Working with this symbol has lead me to connect the object with the same concerns – my connection to home, my history, who I am and how fortunate I have been.

Interestingly, when a notched example of this bead unit was shown to the great prophet and leader Te Whiti O Rongomai for identification he described it as a mnemonic device to teach and help recall whakapapa/genealogy. This meant the reel could have been an aid to the bearer in reaching back through time to make sense and order out of history. Hopefully, in a very modest way Ako Marama might encourage its recipients to search their own histories for important relatives, mentors, friends or maybe even adversaries who have made a mark or an impression – something they would like to revisit.

Finally, as is often the case, the act of making, of fashioning each bead, stringing the beads and then holding became slightly different experiences of meditation and remembering.

As is stated in the essay for the Joyaviva website many of the works in the exhibition are about connections between people, our private hopes and fears and the contracts we enter into when relationships are carved out.

Joyaviva encourages us to enter into the continuous cycle of teaching, learning and understanding that takes place when we interact with other people. We are social beings … we can’t help ourselves. Hopefully among all the tangle of hope, fear, laughter, tears and living at break-neck speed there is also time to pause, to undertake a small attempt at understanding some of ‘it’. To make a small journey of enlightenment.

Gina Ropiha

[1] Vreede, Marty (2011) email to name the necklace project

[2] Murray, Kevin (2012) Why? Joyaviva website

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