Otintaai – Kiribati Warrior Armor Costume

Earlier this month Radio New Zealand posted a fascinating article written by Koroi Hawkins about a female warrior costume that was created by master iKiribati weavers and makers Kaetaeta Watson and Louisa Humphry. They called their costume, Otintaai, which is Kiribati for sunrise. 

Made originally for the Ā Mua:New Lineages of Making exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum, which ran from June to October last year, Otintaai was formally handed over to its new custodians, Te Papa Museum.

Kaetaeta and Louisa refer to their creation as an actual entity standing tall in the face of rising seas and warning of the perils of climate change, overfishing and polluting our oceans with plastic. “We called her Otintaai, which is the rising sun, because we don’t want to be completely negative about fighting the people that are maybe contributing to all the troubles,” explained Louisa Humphry.

“We want to know that she stands there to pre-warn and pass that message on to our young people,” she said. But they say “she” is also a symbol of hope. “The sun rises every morning, so we have got to stay positive that our earth is still giving us this beautiful sun to rise to every morning,” Kaetaeta said.

As part of the handover Te Papa hosted the two charismatic creators, along with members of their family and community, in a public demonstration of raranga (weaving), bibiri (plaiting) and taeriri – techniques used in making mats and baskets, floral head pieces and dancing costumes.

Otintaai, meaning sunrise, is a costume created for a female Kiribati warrior facing rising sea levels caused by climate change, overfishing and plastic pollution. Photo by Shaun Matthews/The Dowse Art Museum

This passing on and preservation of cultural knowledge is big part of the journey Kaetaeta Watson and Louisa Humphry are on. Both were born and raised in Kiribati, Louisa comes from Kuria Island and Kaetaeta from Tabiteuea Island.

They both married Englishmen and were among the first iKiribati to migrate to New Zealand in the 70s and so their families have always been close. But they said weaving and creating together came later. “We thought of our own children that are growing up in New Zealand…and we as people from Kiribati wanted them to know their roots from Kiribati.” Louisa said.

“And as far as weaving goes you are also promoting that language because you are calling things the names of how we used to do them and just conversation around the weaving,” she said.

But Kaetaeta said the way they are passing on the knowledge in New Zealand is very different from the way they were taught in Kiribati. “I grew up with that idea, you have got to do things that make sense, functional things. Therefore, you learn without realizing. That thatch or leaf there you turn it into a mat or a bag or something…it has got to be useful,” explained Kaetaeta.

“Now we are a bit more open, we do flowers and all sorts, and we often say if mum or grandma were here they would say ‘what a waste of time!’,” she said.

Kaetaeta and Louisa are well known within the iKiribati community in New Zealand and are often invited to run workshops with different groups around the country. They said they would like to do more but there are cultural considerations they must take into account. “Because in our culture you don’t go around saying ‘I am a weaver, I can help you’. You have got to be invited. because it’s like boasting and I think it goes with being humble,” Louisa explained.

“It’s quite a complex mentality,” Kaetaeta chimes in.

She explained that while the basics of raranga are widely shared within the community the more intricate and refined patterns and designs are more like heirlooms, carefully guarded and handed down only to immediate family members or very close friends. “So, you as an interested person might go and ask, ‘how do you really do it?’ but if they are that closed family that really don’t want to share that knowledge, they’ll keep it,” Kaetaeta said.

She said the downside of this was if younger members of the family did not take an interest in raranga then that knowledge died with the elders.

Kaetaeta and Louisa said they were both quite surprised when they made Otintaai which is inspired by Te Otanga, or men’s armour in Kiribati, that there were requests for the piece to be taken to Kiribati to be put on show. “We become really sad when we hear that because then we know that the knowledge is almost gone,” said Kaetaeta.

Between the two of them Louisa and Kaetaeta have over a century’s worth of cultural knowledge and expertise and they are on a mission to ensure that knowledge is preserved for future generations of iKiribati.

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