Maorigami at Whitespace
Published NZ Herald July 19
Maorigami by James Ormsby
Whitespace, 12 Crummer Rd, until July 28
By Adam Gifford
Under the veranda of the house at the Navy marae in Devonport the kowhaiwhai conform to the traditional rafter patterns published by Augustus Hamilton in 1901.
Inside the whare it’s another story. The Douglas pine boards display a wealth of invention, with spirals giving way to geometric shapes, star clusters, and figurative embellishments giving clues to the tribal areas they represent.
They were painted several years ago by James Ormsby, who was then part of the team from Te Wananga o Aotearoa which built the house.
Ormsby has continued his explorations of the form, with the latest instalment on display at Whitespace.
Of Maniapoto, Waikato, Ngati Pikiao and Scottish descent, Ormsby wasn’t raised around traditional Maori culture.
Born in Hamilton in 1957, he lit out for Melbourne when he was 19, studying and teaching there as well as working as an industrial illustrator, drawing sketches of machines for instruction manuals.
He returned in the mid ‘90s to help Buck Nin set up the wananga’s art course “when it was still a tin shed on a car park at Te Awamutu”.
Ormsby wears with pride a description artist Selwyn Muru gave to him and other artists who trained outside the traditional system - Ngati Whiriki.
“It means those who come from outside, the freaks from outside. I liked that idea.
“You have your carvers and weavers, and then you have those who come in from outside and add another colour. It may be the wrong colour, but it kicks up the dust.”
Which brings us back to kowhaiwai and its relationship to origami.
“Maori art is a more than the spiral,” says Ormsby.
He tried to open up his students by taking them to the Alexander Turnbull Library and showing them unpublished sketchbooks of designs collected from around the country, so they could see how it was more than the limited range collected by Hamilton.
“Kowhaiwhai is more than sign and symbol, more than geometric analysis, slip rotation, symmetry and the rest. There was probably some ethno-mathematics going on as well,” Ormsby says.
“I read that NASA was trying to figure out how astronauts could navigate in space if their electronics broke, and they were thinking about three dimensional star maps using folding maps.
“I then thought about Maorigami, putting kowhaiwhi into three or four dimensions.
“It’s a theory. The more I do it, the more I think I’m completely wrong, but you have to have a go.”
The Maorigami works are small works on paper, depicting quirky folded paper structures covered in kowhaiwhai patterns.
In many, the fine brushworks is contrasted with expressionist calligraphic swipes with a larger brush.
Ormsby has piles of failed attempts littering the studio.
“I spent a day or two outlining, thinking exactly where to put the marks and get the structure right, and then I got out the pot of paint and the floppy brush and thought, ‘I can stuff this up in two seconds.’
“I found myself under that pressure, so from some innate sense I started to clap and walk around, thinking ‘there’s some Max Gimblett going on here”, and then went back and slapped it on.
“Then looking later at Shinto religion, they do a lot of clapping and ceremonial chanting with the Zen paper as well, and I love those strange coincidences of knowing things before you know them.”
He was also attracted to the Shinto respect for paper, including the notion that paper has a wairua or spirit of its own.
“I realised the ‘gami’ in origami is pronounced the same a kami, which refers to a god. I love that conscious/subconscious thing.”
“I like the idea of pushing new materials and negative space in front of Maori, who are prone to over-accessorise.”
He cites the carving Uenuku held at the Te Awamutu Museum, one of the standout pieces in the Te Maori exhibition.
“The old stick is so minimal, it’s pure form, not embellished in any way. I love that style.”
I mention a canoe sternpost in the Waikato Museum, a minimal board with a few flecks dug in to it.
“I’ve drawn that taurapa again and again,” Ormsby says.
Drawing is an essential part of Ormsby’s practice. He even had a life drawing session because coming up to Auckland to do the cleaning and restoration work on the navy marae.
“It puts you in the ‘no bullshit zone,’” he says.
The Whitespace exhibition also includes some larger works on paper which are homages to the korowai or cloak drawings of the late John Bevan Ford.
“I’m not trying to mimic the master,” says Ormsby, who rates Ford as a friend and mentor.
Indeed, the works include elements of quirky humour and startling juxtapositions.
“I like the idea of working on a large scale on paper, the idea of big yet fragile.”
Ormsby quit teaching last year to work full time as an artist.
“I’m 50 now. I’ve mucked around long enough, so I’m finally doing it, and I’m just loving it,” he says.