The power of pāua by Harry Bartle
Whether it’s the glimmering mixture of blue, green, pink, and purple or its significant cultural influence in both the past and today, pāua is undeniably linked with the visual character of Aotearoa New Zealand.
On now until the 20th of November at The Dowse Art Museum, Pāua: A Contemporary Jewellery Story explores this character by revealing contemporary jewellers’ impressions of how the shell infiltrated our national psyche. It explores its use in Māori whakairo (carving), its impact on the rehabilitation of soldiers, its common appearance in Kiwiana and souvenir shops, and its meaning in the 21st century in a dazzling and insightful display.
The exhibition includes over 70 works by several artists. These works have been sourced from The Dowse, Auckland Museum, Te Papa, and private collections. Pāua: A Contemporary Jewellery Story’s curator Sian van Dyk says she enjoyed the challenge of putting such a large exhibition together.
“I really love the chase of finding pieces – getting in touch with makers, colleagues, and collectors and uncovering common themes to group works together.”
“When developing a big group show like this it’s often a mixture of researching, then finding and arranging works, then researching again and working with technical and design staff before refining your selection”, van Dyk explains.
Along with the works from the museums and private collections, the display has seen a massive contribution from Hutt Valley local Wendy Judgeford, who commissioned leading jewellers to explore what pāua means to them.
“What actually inspired this exhibition was Wendy’s collection. She gives artists an opportunity to consider what this material means now, in the 21st century, and examines subjects including the environment, our long and complicated relationship with pāua, as well as the richness of its use in te ao Māori.”
This deep connection Māori have with the shell is explored via oral history traditions, including those surrounding the whakapapa of carving. Pāua: A Contemporary Jewellery Story then journeys through the end of World War II when injured soldiers were retrained to make pāua jewellery under the Government’s Rehabilitation Act. How the shell developed its souvenir status is then observed before audiences learn how many jewellers rallied against this idea.
The necklaces, earrings, brooches, and bracelets themselves are beautiful. Some use whole shells while others combine pāua fragments with other materials such as whalebone and silver. Upon viewing the showcase van Dyk hopes visitors discover something they can connect with.
“The use of pāua in contemporary jewellery is a well-trodden narrative within the art world, so I wanted this exhibition to bring some fresh perspectives.”
“It’s a priority for me as a curator to explore subjects I think people will connect with. It’s thrilling to be able to consider how seemingly simple items in our lives, like a shell found on the beach, can have a deeper impact on our sense of selves.”