Review: Pāuā, A contemporary Jewellery Story

Review: Pāuā, A contemporary Jewellery Story

What does pāua mean to you? Love it or hate it, pāua is something undeniably kiwi and a large part of the visual culture of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The natural luminous colours must be amongst the brightest and most beautiful colours found in nature and alongside its natural form and texture, pāua cannot fail to capture your attention. For those of us who own and cherish pāua jewellery like myself, it was a delight to see an exhibition where contemporary jewellers showcased their artistic responses to this unique shell.

Over 70 works from The Dowse, Auckland Museum, Te Papa and private collections were exhibited comprising necklaces, pendants, bracelets, bangles and brooches. Some jewellery items were more traditional using silver, other artists responded with newer and synthetic materials alongside pāua. Some of the necklaces were large, bold and almost unwearable whilst others were delicate.

In 1981, Fingers Gallery in Auckland held an influential jewellery exhibition Pāua Dreams, the first of many exhibitions which showcased local natural materials. New Zealand jewellers were looking to connect and work with the natural materials available to them in the Pacific and to uplift pāua from its historic souvenir status.

It was interesting to learn that post World War II, some injured returned servicemen chose to retrain to make pāua jewellery and gifts under a government rehabilitation scheme.

Dowse exhibition curator Sian van Dyk explained to a group of Friends some highlights of the content of the exhibition including the connection of pāua to Te Au Māori. Māori have had a relationship with pāua shell for hundreds of years and considered it a tāonga. Pāua shell was used in Māori whakairo rākau (carving) to represent the eyes of tupuna (ancestors) and atua (gods). Pāua is also associated with Maori legends and the underwater wharenui of the sea god Tangaroa.

Alongside the jewellery, I also particularly enjoyed the Natalie Robertson artwork – a series of sets of eyes on a wall which referenced members of her whakapapa. Each eye was a whole pāua shell.

Pāua and its use in jewellery and other artistic and cultural practices will continue to have an ongoing significance in the history and psyche of New Zealand. This exhibition runs until 20 November 2022 and is well worth visiting.

Susanne Lang, Member

Images by Susanne Lang