Personal Essay | Visual Arts

Making Waves in New Zealand

Over the past year, I received several invitations from BYU art professor Joseph Ostraff to tag along with eleven students on a field study project in New Zealand. Five days before the plane took off, I finally decided to go.

I was a little hesitant to accept the offer at first, because I didn’t really understand how I would fit in to their project (after all, I’m neither an artist nor a student). But five days before take-off, I figured “what the heck” (yes, “heck” – I may not be a BYU student now, but I was several years ago). What kind of idiot would ignore an opportunity like this? I called a travel agent, ordered my tickets and before I knew it, I was on a flight halfway around the world. After meeting several of the students, I soon realized that, though they had taken a prep class and purchased their airline tickets with more foresight than myself, I wasn’t the only one who didn’t understand exactly what would happen on our trip. But Ostraff’s spontaneous approach to the field study program actually opened new doors, providing us with a truly powerful experience we couldn’t have planned for.

The first few days in New Zealand were so relaxed one would think Ostraff was simply on a family vacation and decided to invite his students and friends to come a long for the ride. Brian Wilcox, a cinematographer at the LDS Motion Picture Studio, came to document the trip and fellow art professor Gary Barton would be joining us in a couple weeks. Wilcox and Ostraff have traveled together before with their families and BYU students on various projects, so even though this was old hat for them, there was no itinerary, no set schedule, no solid plans. Coming straight from an administrative world of itineraries, deadlines and day planners I wasn’t used to this way of life, but I welcomed the change. We all stayed at beach houses in Ohope, a small resort town situated along the east coast of the northern island. Vague explanations of Maori artists and an art school we might be working with rumored amongst us during Frisbee games on the beach and shopping trips up and down the streets of nearby Whakatane. For the first day or two, Ostraff patiently tried to answer questions like, “What’s going on tomorrow?” and “How exactly is it going to work with the art school?” Sometimes he knew, sometimes he didn’t. The only concrete piece of information he had was two names: Julie and Rangi Kipa.

The Kipas are both prominent visual artists in New Zealand. When it comes to art, the Maoris are traditionally known for their weaving, carving and ta moko (tattooing). Julie is a master at the art of ta moko as well as a painter, multi-media installation artist, designer, and writer. Rangi is also a ta moko artist, a sculptor and a painter. Ostraff first came in contact with Julie in 2002 when preparing for a study abroad program. He had his students seek out indigenous artists from New Zealand over the Internet and see if they would be interested in speaking to a group of university students. “Julie wrote back and said she’d love to talk to us,” Ostraff remembered, “but she wanted us to come stay at their marae (sacred meeting area) in Taranaki. We changed our whole schedule to go over there for a couple days. They had a bunch of other students from the local university there. They were teaching a class on Maori culture, so our students just blended with theirs for two days and it was a blast.” The personal connection with the Maori artists seemed to make all the difference for the BYU students, so Ostraff knew Julie and Rangi were essential in making this year’s program a memorable one.

After a few lazy days of exploring our new surroundings, we met the Kipas. They introduced us to the Maori university in Whakatane called Te Whare Wananga o Awanuiarangi. Ostraff knew Julie Kipa was the director of an art school, but he didn’t know it was part of something this big. The students and faculty are mostly Maori and infuse the indigenous culture into all their programming and activities. It is their mission to empower the descendants of Awanuiarangi to claim and develop their cultural heritage. Our first experience on campus was a unique one. We were greeted with a Maori ceremony and hongi (Maori form of greeting, involving pressing noses), which let us know they accepted us as their guests. The every-day tourist is not usually welcomed in this way, but because of Ostraff’s friendship with the Kipas, we were granted this honor. After the ceremonial welcome, Rangi stood up to say a few words and then, to everyone’s surprise, Ostraff gave a little speech in Maori. I didn’t know what he was saying, but the administration and faculty smiled and nodded as he spoke, so I assumed he was making sense.

The next morning we had the privilege of spending a few hours with the university students at the art school. We split up into groups and sat down with the artists as we tried to understand more about their curriculum and what they studied. The artistic disciplines varied from student to student, but they were currently learning about theory and symbolism in Maori art. We shared a lot of information that first day as they let us look at their notebooks and portfolios. It was the beginning of a three-week relationship we didn’t expect to have.

We were able to learn first hand about the Maori culture and traditions by accompanying their class on a field trip to holy sites pertaining to Maori prophet Rua Kenana in Waimana and Matahi. The following day, we collaborated with the students in creating installations along the beach that incorporated some of the symbols we learned about on the field trip. The faculty also invited us to attend weaving classes and participate in other school activities during our stay. In return, Ostraff and Wilcox facilitated a couple of photography workshops. The students were divided into four groups and each was given a camera and the assignment to shoot photos around town that exhibited an element of juxtaposition. Wilcox demonstrated the development process and taught them how to develop their own film. He and Ostraff also helped install a dark room in the art building so they could continue to study and practice photography.

Photography is something Ostraff and Wilcox asked all their students to practice on the field study. Each student brought a Holga camera, which is probably the cheapest medium format camera out there (short of building your own out of plywood). The cameras have soft focusing, can shoot double exposures and have interesting light leaks that add to the unpredictable nature of each exposure. The students loved these cameras, shooting rolls and rolls of 120 film during the trip. In fact, the art school hosted an exhibit featuring some of the students’ photographs at their gallery to coincide with an exhibit featuring major Maori artists.

After a week in Whakatane, I took a moment to sit down with Malia Andrus, a student of sociology and art at BYU who attended the New Zealand study abroad in 2002. She noted the differences between the experiences this year and the one two years ago. “Our first trip to New Zealand was a study abroad; we went to the south island and the north island. We jumped around and got to see a lot of cool places, but we didn’t meet anyone except for Julie and Rangi in Taranaki. That was everyone’s favorite part of the trip; those two days when we got to meet them and work with their students. That’s what I really like about this trip is how we’re staying here and we’re able to see the same people over and over again and understand their personalities – and they understand us. Because this is a field study, we’re in charge of our own learning. This trip is totally what you make of it. You can choose to not make any friends or you can learn about the students. And look at us! We have some over right now,” she laughed as she looked into the living room at her fellow BYU students trying to learn some traditional dances from a couple Maori students who came to visit.

Working closely with the local students and faculty for an extended period of time was a unique privilege. Andrus explained, “We’re not here to study them. We’re here to learn from them. When I finished the prep class for this I thought I knew exactly what I wanted to study. But being here has changed my attitude toward my sociology project. My ideas were kind of arrogant. I was going to study and evaluate the Maori values and how they resist modernization. I realized that they don’t need me to come in and do that. I want to focus more on a specific value that I’ve noticed and how they preserve it.” One of these values is an emphasis on family and a continuation of future generations. This was evident when we learned how to properly pick flax for the weaving projects. When picking flax or “harakeke,” students are taught to never cut the three main leaves in the center because those are the parents and the child – you must preserve the family so the plant can continue to grow.

New Zealand was just the first adventure for these BYU students. As I sit here at my desk, typing this article, they are treading around in Tonga pursuing their projects and research (unfortunately 15 Bytes can’t pay me to do these “on location” pieces so I must to return to 40 hour weeks and earn more vacation days). Ostraff has friends in Tonga from previous trips whom the students will be staying with, but again, nothing is set in stone. Ostraff has the advantage of being more selective with those who participate in field studies as opposed to study abroad programs. In fact, when I commented on how knowledgeable and respectful this group was, he smiled and said, “Well, they were hand-picked.” He knows from years of experience that it takes a unique person to fully appreciate different customs and values. These trips also require patience and flexibility with last minute schedule changes. Last I heard the group had to take a 25-hour ride on an over-booked freight boat to Tonga because the only inter-island airline went bankrupt. And, according to one of the students, “the Olevaho ain’t no love boat,” but the passengers were very kind and considerate of one another. The very nature of the Polynesian culture seems to be relaxed and unpredictable, so if the students haven’t already adopted that mentality, they soon will as they continue to play it by ear, day by day and see who they meet and what wonderful opportunities arise for them in the coming weeks.

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