From The Archives: Making Matariki Multicultural

4 years ago by

In 2016 Michael Smythe looked at the idea of making Matariki multicultural.

Written by Michael Smythe

Would developing Matariki as a cross-cultural Kiwi festival be yet another act of patronising colonisation? Or might it be a means by which all New Zealanders confidently claim their place in the Pacific by extrapolating Māori cosmology and bringing their own heritage to the midwinter banquet? And should designers play a lead role in shaping our collective expression of time and place?

Matariki is the cluster of stars also known as the Pleiades in the Taurus constellation. In Aotearoa New Zealand it appears just before dawn low on the northeastern horizon, in the tail of the Milky Way, in late May or early June. It heralds the Māori New Year which is increasingly celebrated through creative (rather than traditional) cultural events.

One traditional account positions Matariki as a mother surrounded by her six daughters assisting the weakened sun. In Greek mythology Pleiades represents the Seven Sisters –daughters of Atlas and Pleione.

New Zealand culture continues to be colonised by northern hemisphere festivals for which the plot has been lost and the positioning makes no sense. Christmas and New Year traditions evolved from mid-winter festivals designed to offer warmth and hope – Christians built on what was already in place. Our summer Christmases remain smothered in artificial snow. Honouring the heritage of (some of) our forefathers and foremothers may be respectful but failing to find our own voice is simply immature. It’s time to grow up and reflect who we are and where we live.

Every culture needs a mid-winter festival to mark the passing of the darkest days while looking forward to the promise of spring. Some of us have marked the winter solstice on 21 June with a feast resembling a traditional Christmas dinner but a more indigenous option has been emerging since the turn of the century.

Modern Matariki

Te Ara Encyclopedia of New Zealand tells us that Matariki was celebrated before the arrival of Europeans and continued until the 1940s. Its revival began in 2000 when Te Rangi Huata attracted about 500 people to a celebration in Hastings in 2000. He says, ‘It’s becoming a little like Thanksgiving or Halloween, except it’s a celebration of the Maori culture here in (Aotearoa) New Zealand. It’s New Zealand’s Thanksgiving.’ (TeAra-matariki)

The Royal Astronomical Society of New Zealand website postions Matariki  within both the cosmos and earthly traditions. It credits the increasing popularity of the festival to its celebration of Māori culture and its universal midwinter purpose – a time of contemplation, looking back, valuing ancestry, giving thanks for the accomplishments of the past year and looking forward to the promise of spring and summer. (RASNZ-matariki)

This year Matariki is being celebrated all over New Zealand with many central and local government institutions providing enthusiastic support. Theatres, art galleries and other cultural venues are making Matariki a time to focus on Māori creativity.

At my local community gallery, Northart, photographer Akura Makea-Pardington has used Matariki as ‘an opportunity for acknowledging and grieving local histories while also to celebrating self-determination, whakapapa and the hau of the whenua’. She says that historically ‘colonisers have sought to suffocate indigenous systems of understanding, language and identity’. Makea-Pardington’s ‘Spirit of Place‘ exhibition ‘explores the ways in which people express their sense of selfhood and their beliefs, and how they register their thoughts, however fleeting, upon the whenua (land)’.

The project manager for Matariki at Te Papa Tongarewa, Mere Boynton, is among those who advocate for Matariki becoming a national holiday. She says the country needs holidays that celebrate New Zealand’s culture rather than ‘continually looking across the ditch, or the other side of the world, to find significance as a nation’. Many have suggested it should replace Queen’s Birthday – we should have Matariki Honours to acknowledge those who have made valued contributions to our country. This year’s Queen’s Birthday weekend Matariki events at Te Papa included six-minute kapa haka performances fused with krumping and Beyonce-poi – ‘a real mix up and we’re giving them the opportunity to show off,’ says Ms Boynton. (RNZ-TePapa-matariki)

So, there is no problem with the living, growing Māori culture adopting and adapting influences that infuse our daily lives through global media. But is it okay to reverse the flow? I dislike crass, insensitive appropriations of our unique Indigenous culture but I do see opportunities to evolve our Kiwiness in a way that honours the whenua we have chosen to call home.

Matariki Kai

Ironically the starting point for the proposal I am about to outline was the entrepreneurial efforts of a 43-year-old immigrant to ‘raise the dough’ for a homesickness-curing visit to Denmark. It is a Kiwi story and I see a connection with Matariki. Bear with me.

On 7 January 1928 Mary Nielsen’s application for design registration was received at the Patent Office. Her husband Niels Nielsen, a fitter and turner with New Zealand Railways, made a pattern and the new (to New Zealand) product – the Æbleskivepande – was cast at Booth Macdonald’s Christchurch foundry.

Æbleskiver (apple slice) is a hollow ball of pancake mix which is usually dusted in sugar and sometimes filled with jam. (The apple slice seems to have been usurped.) According to they are served with glögg on long and cold Nordic winter evenings, often sold by street vendors, and are very popular at Scandinavian charity and open-air events. Mary Nielsen followed that tradition. Mary’s daughter Vera Stanton recalled: ‘The Smith Family Fund put on an All Nations Fair and the Danish stall was run by my mother. She had seven pans working. … Dusted with icing sugar they were a meal to the hungry out-of-work people.’

The Æbleskivepande makes seven batter balls at a time. Mary Nielsen was surrounded by six women helpers as she embarked upon a five-year selling programme across the length and breadth of the North and South Islands. The relevance of this story to Matariki (the mother with six daughters) and Pleiades (the Seven Sisters) in midwinter is profound. The cluster of seven (southern) hemispheres will deliver comfort food when we need it most.

My proposal is that we reinvent the Æbleskivepande as the Matariki Pan and invite our leading chefs to create whatever Matariki Kai they think will suit the season – savoury or sweet, substantial or light. Meanwhile our beverage designers might like to think about a Matariki version of glögg.

When I made this suggestion ten years ago in ProDesign 84 I referred to the 2006 winter solstice update on The Big Idea website which quoted the Tumeke blogspot: ‘Māori New Year would be a good time for general merriment and feasting given the season and a fine occasion for balls.’

My contribution to the creative banquet is Matariki Balls. I challenge other designers to conceptualise other ways to make Matariki multicultural.



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