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Māori clay matriarch Colleen Urlich passes away

11 Sep 2015

This content is tagged as Multi-Artform .


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Kua hinga tēnei rātā whakamarumaru o ngā taonga toi o te motu. He kanohi hōmiromiro, he ihumanea, he kaitiaki nō tōna pātaka iringa kōrero, kua kore. E te whaea Colleen, kei te rongo te ngakau i te mamae mou kua wehe ohorere nei. Kua hoki koe ki to ukaipo o Kura waka, o Hineahuone, ki a Hineukurangi ki a Hinetaapeka. Kua whai atu koe i te tini me te mano me to hoa a Manos katahi tonu nei ka nehua. Waiho mā to tatou kuia a Hinenuitepō koutou e pohiri atu ki tona uma. Moe mai ra e te ringa toi uku, ringa rehe uku, ringa poke uku. E kore a muri e hokia, haere atu rā.

Creative New Zealand mourns the sudden loss of legendary Māori clay artist Colleen Waata-Urlich (Te Popoto o Ngapuhi ki Kaipara).

Born in Te Kopuru in 1939, Whaea Colleen is a foundation member of the national Maori Clay Collective, Ngā Kaihanga Uku, and occasionally cheekily referred to as the ‘Matriarch of the Muddies’.

Dargaville-based, she focused on the promotion of contemporary Māori art over a long career: education and academic studies, as art teacher, through regional and national selection, coordination and curation, publication, overseas promotion, through networking with other indigenous artists and agencies and as a committee member of Te Atinga and a trustee of Toi Māori Aotearoa.

Whaea Colleen trained as a teacher before becoming a professional artist. Largely self-taught, Whaea Colleen developed her interest in pottery while completing an art major at Auckland Teachers College. She continued to experiment during the 1970s, encouraged by Alec Musha, one of the first Māori potters. She believed strongly in tradition, decorating with traditional Māori weaving patterns or by adding muka (flax fibre), feathers or shell to her works. For her, “working with clay means working with the body of Mother Earth, she who influences and sustains us physically and spiritually.”

In 2002, she completed her Master of Fine Arts degree with honours in sculpture at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts. Her dissertation on the ancient Lapita ceramic legacy to the Pacific contributed to a published paper.

Whaea Colleen’s work is held in a number of private and public collections and has been exhibited throughout New Zealand, United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada.  She has received Creative New Zealand Te Waka Toi grants, convened the national Banner Project for Waitangi, and written, presented and published papers nationally and abroad on Māori art and Māori artists. She has co-curated 14 national and international exhibitions, won commissions for public works, been a guest artist at nine national and international festivals, and exhibited in 38 exhibitions among other achievements in a lengthy list.

On top of this huge list of achievements, earlier this year Whaea Colleen was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori art. She credited it to “my iwi, my marae, Toi Māori Aotearoa, Nga Kaihanga Uku, particularly the Artists Collective of Te Tai Tokerau and their superb artists and exhibitors — this is really a recognition of all those people”.

Whaea Colleen will not only be missed by the Māori arts community, but by other indigenous artists around the world who she had formed wonderful relationships with. Earlier this year Whaea Colleen led Tai Tokerau Māori Collective to collaborate with Aboriginal artists of Central Queensland, culminating in a joint exhibition.

Whaea Colleen’s passing comes just a week after the loss of her close friend and fellow clay artist Manos Nathan; a huge loss for the Māori arts community.

Whaea Colleen will lay in state at Oturei Marae from 1pm Saturday 12 September 2015.

Hine Rakautauri - Female Deity of Flute Music (Colleen Urlich)