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Essay

Fabric Softens Everything: Aroha Revolution at New Brighton

Maungarongo (Ron) Te Kawa of Ngāti Porou has been working prolifically in fashion, art, community and most notably in education across Aotearoa New Zealand for decades. Using sewing as a conduit to connect with people, his workshops give anyone who attends the confidence to create with fabric and are legendary to those in the know.

His personal practice has evolved from its beginnings in fashion to explore mātauranga Māori, his whakapapa and atua wāhine through uniquely bright and bold quilts. Breaking the rules of traditional quilt construction, all types of fabric are masterfully stitched together by Ron to illustrate scenes from his imagination, his history and the stories of the people who have been influential in his life. His quilts burst with his infectious energy, a love of making and the utterly democratic way in which he approaches creating. In 2020, several quilts were exhibited at Tūranga, Ōtautahi Christchurch's new central library. Exhibition pieces were made collaboratively by Ron and the community of New Brighton as part of a series of workshops run at Stitch-o-Mat, a sewing space in the eastern city suburb.

Ron began working at Stitch-o-Mat during Matariki in 2019. He had been a resident in New Brighton for eight years prior to the earthquakes but hadn't been back to the suburb since. The workshops at Stitch-o-Mat came about through the support of Paula Rigby whom Ron credits as a guiding teacher and mentor. Her own work was the starting point for a workshop structure that Ron has developed over the years - the whakapapa quilt. Using this framework, he proposes participants use the quilt form to create a composition that tells their personal story, incorporating whenua, tīpuna and whānau.

Importantly, it gives participants an opportunity to explore their identity and where they are from. Ron explains 'for me making whakapapa quilts is all about wellbeing and mental health through helping people connect with their heritage. It is so empowering to be able to tell your own stories, especially in a new and tactile way.' When delivering these workshops he says that turning the focus on participant's own history can be challenging, but ultimately 'fabric softens everything' and over the course of a few days the exploration of personal vulnerabilities through sewing results in phenomenal and unexpected mahi. Paula formulated the idea for Ron to work with a group of women from Ōtautahi, giving them the chance to come together, share stories and each create their own whakapapa quilt under Ron's guidance.

The success of Ron's first workshop quickly escalated to other sessions that were open to more people from New Brighton and he ended up sewing for six weeks, his time turning into a residency of sorts. During his stay, he facilitated a range of workshops for all ages, complementing the kaupapa of Stitch-o-Mat and encouraging opportunities for anyone to join in and sew.

In Ron's practice Te Wharepora is a vital space. In the past Te Wharepora was a sacred house in which weaving was taught but it can also describe a state of creative being. Ron describes Te Wharepora as something we need to carry around with us now, and talks about the urgency he has as an educator to ensure there are safe spaces for people to creatively express themselves and learning through process. He says 'it wasn't about the finished product when we were making, everyone could have their own space, talk, cut things up and sew them back together again.' Ron's firm connection with Te Wharepora decolonises the space for making, opening it up for exploration and the freedom to achieve in both a collective and personal way.

The quilt has now made its way back to New Brighton and will be hung at the local library so people an visit and point out their contributions. The quilt is a taonga for the community and shows the incredible ability Ron has to create a space for beautiful and compelling work to be teased out of the even the most reluctant of sewers.

'Too many people think they need to follow lots of rules to quilt, to do all these straight lines and use rulers. I ban rulers. You don't need them. For me, it's not actually even about making a quilt, it's the space and the feeling and the letting go of fear, the accepting and the turning up to yourself.'1

Aroha Revolution (detail), installed at Tūranga, Ōtautahi Christchurch 12 August 2020.

Aroha Revolution (detail), installed at Tūranga, Ōtautahi Christchurch 12 August 2020.

Aroha Revolution (detail), installed at Tūranga, Ōtautahi Christchurch 12 August 2020.

Aroha Revolution (detail), installed at Tūranga, Ōtautahi Christchurch 12 August 2020.