Living Archives: Editors' Introduction

by Káren Elle Gaup, Cameron Woolford and Marte Johnslien

Tatai whetu ki te rangi, mau tonu mau tonu; Tatai tangata ki te whenua, ngaro noa, ngaro noa. – The starry hosts of heaven abide there forever, immutable; the hosts of men upon this earth pass away into oblivion.

This whakataukī (Māori proverb) is used to talk about the impermanence of human life and existence in comparison to the natural world. It is often used when referring to people who have passed away. The proverb also highlights the reason for archives and generational transfer of knowledge. Skilled people will pass on and so it is the responsibility of every generation to pick up and add to the communal and traditional knowledge. It can also illustrate how the world and natural order is moving away from this Māori perspective. Human activities are making more permanent lasting changes and the environment is being destroyed and passing away.

As editors we were brought together by our shared interest in art’s role in the preservation of nature, knowledge, and local cultures. Káren Elle Gaup is a conservator of the Sámi collections at Norsk Folkemuseum. She has been in charge of one of the biggest repatriation projects in Norway and Sápmi through the Bååstede project (Bååstade means “return” or “back” in South Sámi), which saw the return of more than a thousand objects from the collection back to six different Sámi museums. Cameron Woolford is a Kaitiaki Taonga Collection Manager at Te Papa Tongarewa. In his work caring for taonga Māori1 at the museum he is frequently facilitating meetings between communities, artists, and taonga, to enhance connections and uplift traditional knowledge and practices. As an artist, Marte Johnslien has for many years worked with integrating archival material in her artistic practice. In her recent project White to Earth, her ceramic sculptures build on research into the mining of titanium and its impact on the local environment in the county of Rogaland in Norway.

Archives and museums are perhaps the first words that come to mind when thinking of the preservation of knowledge. But for us, it was important to extend the concept and to approach the topic of the archive with a holistic perspective, and to look at the role of contemporary crafts in the preservation of knowledge and continuation of traditions.

In this time of climate change and global warming, scientists are harvesting previously inaccessible information from our changing ecosystems. Melting glaciers are revealing objects which have been preserved for hundreds of years. The defrosting tundra is releasing secrets of the past, even offering scientists genetic material of extinct species. Nature is our largest and most precious archive. And despite the technological advantages of the 21st Century, our common archive is deteriorating at a faster speed than what we as humans can document and preserve for the future.

The knowledge of the materials and techniques used to produce objects, clothes, tools, ornaments, instruments, and sacred objects are traditionally passed from one generation to the next. But climate change, loss of access to land and displacement has a deep impact on these chains of knowledge. Ongoing colonisation in both Fennoscandia and Aotearoa New Zealand continue to put the making practices of Sámi, Māori and Kven people at risk. Not only are we living in a time of ecological crises – we’re in the middle of a collapse of deep knowledge.

For the inaugural issue of The Vessel we wanted to investigate how contemporary craft artists, duojárat and ringatoi use archives, museum collections and knowledge holders to gain access to valuable information about craft traditions.2 We invited a group of artists and writers with Sámi, Kven and Māori backgrounds to share how they work with natural materials, history and local knowledge.

Editors Cameron Woolford, Káren Elle Gaup, Marte Johnslien

Åsne Kummeneje Mellem is a young artist whose art practice focuses on Kven crafts, known as käsityö, and identity. In her interview with Maija Liisa Björklund she discusses how she explores both what Kven craft is, has been and could become, within the context of contemporary art.

In another interview Isaac Te Awa (Curator Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa Tongarewa) talks to artist and weaver Matthew McIntyre Wilson about his efforts in revitalising woven Māori eel traps known as hīnaki. The work has required him to teach himself the craft of weaving hīnaki through museum taonga (precious objects), and now he is using the knowledge to teach others.

Hilde Hauan Johnsen is a textile artist with both Kven and Sea Sámi roots. Her artistic practice revolves around plant dyeing and ancient weaving techniques, combined with fibre optics. In an expansive interview in both text and film by Hilde Sørstrøm and Ingun Mæhlum respectively we meet her in her summer cabin in the Arctic, where she is preparing a colour bath from birch leaves.

In his essay titled Returning the long silent voices of our treasures to the world of light we meet carver Tāmihana Kātene, who through pūrākau (stories) and research in archival collections, is bringing historical musical instruments back into the cultural practices of his people.

In Susanne Hætta’s expansive essay we travel with her through Sápmi, the land of the Sámi people, from Guovdageaidnu to Kárášjohka, Sohpparjohka and Várjjat. Along the way she meets duojárat and professionals from Sámi and Kven museums with whom she discusses the need for collecting and protecting culturally significant objects.

There is a Sámi proverb which reads: Jahki ii leat jagi viellja – one year is not the other year's brother. The proverb is based on lived experience accumulated through hundreds of years of noting the weather around specific annual occurrences, and by observing the behaviour of the reindeer. In this time of climate change the proverb rings all the more true. The Arctic is extremely vulnerable to change; the effect on nature and animals is profound, and climate change is threatening the existence of reindeer husbandry, which is crucial to the Sámi communities. For artists who depend on naturally occurring and foraged materials this presents a challenge. For artists who rely on natural materials for their work this presents a challenge. How do they move forward in the landscape of climate change? We believe there is important wisdom and knowledge to be found in craft practices which are based on local nature and organic materials. We hope this first issue of The Vessel will contribute to increased awareness and interest in the practices of the artists we present and the deep knowledge they represent.