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To Sell or Not to Sell Your Mahi?

Feb 21, 2022

There is a 'con-myth' that is holding a lot of weavers and carvers back from selling what they create.

Are you aware of it?

It's such a powerful story that it literally makes traditional artists feel guilty to even consider selling their mahi.

I call it the 'con-myth' because it reminds me of a story I once heard when I was a live-in Nanny for a Jewish family in London (waaay back in the 1980s). 

The story goes:

A girl asks her mother why it is that everytime she cooks a roast, she cuts the end of the leg off the roast before putting it in the pan.

The mother says: "I don't know. I do it because that's what your grandmother did."

So the girl asks her grandmother "Bubbe, why do you cut the end of the leg off the roast before putting it in the pan"?

The grandmother answered: "Because the roast was always too big to fit in the pan!"

The lesson of this story is twofold:

1. many traditions have very practical origins 

2. context is important to understand the meaning of something

The "con-myth" is similar in that there are some 'traditions' within ngā mahi toi that have origins in something quite practical but have been given a meaning that is out of context.

An example of a con-myth in action is one I well remember:

From 2000 to 2012, I ran the Hetet Gallery at Waiwhetu where we sold traditional carving and weaving made in our studios as well as other mahi toi from other artists.

 (Sitting in the Māori Treasures Gift Store in 2010; Photo courtesy of Norm Heke)

One day a Māori woman came into the gallery and started looking at the kete on display. I could tell she was a weaver the minute she took a kete off the wall and examined it's inside and then turned it upside down to take a look at the bottom. 

It made me smile.

But the thing that made me frown was her response to the price of the kete (a modest $280 at the time). She declared indignantly and loud enough for everyone in the gallery to hear:

            "Hmmpf. My nanny never sold her weaving! She only ever gave it away."

As if, not selling one's weaving was admirably tika and selling one's weaving was truly kino.

I politely challenged her belief with the suggestion that, in a green economy, her nanny might have occasionally given her kete as koha in return for something she or her whānau may have received (some firewood or kai perhaps).

Now, don't get me wrong: of course there are many occasions when a weaver will weave a kete or kākahu for someone special and give her mahi freely with aroha. That is one of the real perks of being able to weave.

However, there are always occasions when a taonga is given as koha and there is no reason that one's weaving (or carving) cannot be exchanged for money.

The idea that it is somehow wrong to ever sell one's mahi is a really great example of a con-myth.

This con-myth can be a powerful force if you're a weaver or carver wanting to sell your mahi because it can not only affect your confidence but it also undermines the value of taonga and the skills of those who create them.

Con-myths are the kind of stories that have crept into our collective psyche about what is and isn't a 'Māori way of doing things'. Are they  based on a real version of how our tupuna lived or romantic nostalgia of their way of life?

Have you ever stopped to consider what happens when weavers and carvers don't get 'paid'?

In the 1950s, a fraternity of carvers called Konae Aronui travelled the country carving wharenui under the mentorship of Hone Taiapa. My dad was one of them.

One wharenui they carved was at Waiwhetu in the Hutt Valley (my mum's papakainga). 

Pictured: Konae Aronui carvers (Hone Taiapa second from left and my father, Rangi Hetet, at the far right) carving the pou for Arohanui ki te Tangata wharenui at Waiwhetu

These kaiwhakairo stayed with our people at Waiwhetu for many months. They were housed and fed and received a modest stipend for their mahi. Without that support, there is no way that those men could have been able to carve that wharenui. How would they feed and clothe themselves and their families? 

If you're a weaver or carver who has been stalling on selling your mahi, I hope you feel better about doing so and don't fall prey to the con-myth that selling your mahi  is "not a Māori way of doing things".

Remember the joy that you're bringing to those who want to be able to purchase your mahi for themselves and their whānau and are more than happy to recompense you for the taonga you create.

Ngā mihi,
Lillian

If you're keen to sell your weaving, here's the easiest way to price your kete