Kiribati master artist restores pride in lost art forms

A Kiribati master artist, credited with reviving lost art forms of Kiribati, is among the Pacific recipients in this year’s Queens Birthday Honours in New Zealand.

Louisa Murdoch Humphry was made an Honorary Member of the NZ Order of Merit for services to Kiribati and the arts. 

The 69-year-old Kiribati born artist who resides in Thames grew up and was educated in Tarawa. She had a natural curiosity for the heritage arts and gravitated toward knowledge holders to hone her craft. 

“I was always very interested in weaving. Like anywhere in the Pacific, weaving was for practical purposes – for the thatching of our huts, mats to sit or lie on, baskets to put food in.

“The making of canoes was taboo for young children and women who were not allowed near the canoe makers. The secrecy and the myths around the practice pricked my curiosity,” Louisa says.

She gained a scholarship to study in New Zealand at the age of 16 and for the first time came across a Kiribati war armour at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.

“That was a pivotal moment for me. Why is it I had never heard about a Kiribati war armour and why was I learning about it in a foreign land.”

Louisa and fellow Kiribati master artist Kaetaeta Watson ​began researching the history behind the war amour and how it was made. 

Together they recreated a body armour made out of sennit or coconut husk, sharks teeth and other material sourced from Kiribati. 

It made the Triennale Exhibition in Brisbane. 

“It is a work in progress but the best thing is we have been contacted by Kiribati if they could have what we’ve created.

“Made me think that the revival of this art form is vital. It is important that we keep, understand and share this part of our history,” Louisa says.

Last month she and Kaetaeta handed over a Kiribati warrior woman costume to the Te Papa National Museum in Wellington that they created out of local materials.

The warrior woman is aptly titled Otintaai  (pictured above) which in Kiribati means the rising of the sun.

“It is a symbolic representation of the hardships of our time such as as climate change, rising sea levels, the rubbish in our oceans and overfishing.”

​She and Kaetaeta Watson continue to hold weaving workshops all around the country. They work in collaboration with high profile artists like Chris Chaterisis whose Tungaru exhibition in Auckland won rave reviews.

Louisa Murdoch Humphry MNZM is humbled by the Queens Birthday Honour and acknowledges the guidance and support of her fellow artists and colleagues.​

"We do what we do because we love it. And it is important to share the knowledge and keep these treasured art forms alive for our future generations.​"



Photo PMN News