Almost 100 birds of many shapes and colours have nested in Mahara Gallery, each one the creation of tauira (students) from two Ōtaki kura (schools).

Ninety-three pupils, ranging in age from five to 18, from Hato Petera Kaniera (St Peter Chanel) and Te Kura Kaupapa Māori o Te Rito have turned their minds and hands to sculpting.

Ngā Manu – Birds marks the 10th anniversary of the Mahara–Ngā Manu Children’s Art and Environment Project, a collaboration between Mahara and Ngā Manu Nature Reserve, supported by the Philipp Family Foundation.

Philipp Family Foundation trustee Irene Mackle, speaking at the exhibition opening ceremony, described the current year’s project as “possibly the best yet”.

“The birds are absolutely beautiful,” she said. “It’s truly inspirational.”

It is the second time the two Ōtaki kura have taken part in the programme. 

Seven years ago their exhibition, Wai Ora – Water Life, took the form of paintings, weavings and poems in te reo Māori as well as English.

“It’s wonderful to be working with them again,” says Gallery Director, Janet Bayly. 

“Moving into the world of three-dimensional construction has introduced a fresh creative challenge that has enabled us to bring some new thinking to the project.

“We wanted to review and refresh some of our established ways of implementing the project to ensure it was delivering as well as it could to diverse tauira in Kāpiti schools.

“The project gained deeper significance and value after being delayed by Covid-19 and a seven-week lockdown. 

“It was further enhanced by working with the kura who brought their strong wairua (spirituality) and connection to te taiao (the environment) to everything that we shared.”

Artists Michelle Walton and Harriet Bright guided the children through forming their birds out of tightly wrapped, taped and painted balls of paper.

The birds each gained their own unique character in ways that were deeply satisfying to their creators.

The project begins with a half-day at Ngā Manu Nature Reserve followed by a half-day at Mahara Gallery.

Janet Bayly says that, in the past, the project has been an indoor experience during mid-winter, but, for the first time, it began in late summer and the tauira could benefit from time in the ngāhere (bush).

“It was a real joy to experience the world of Tane up close, listen to ngā manu singing, examine their widely different nests and hear how Māori travelled through this special lowland forest hundreds of years before colonisation.”

The children’s work is also published in a new, locally produced, Mahara book which contains photographs of every child’s sculpture, photographs of their creative process and some of their written responses in poetry and prose. 

Philipp Family Foundation founding trustee Robin Philipp describes the project in a foreword to the book as “innovative and fascinating, combining as it does the relationship of nature and art with experience of different environmental themes”.

“The theme, Ngā Manu – Birds, for this year’s project is indeed very close to our own hearts,” he says.

“We set the PFF up in 2006 to support research, education, programme development and services for the health and wellbeing of New Zealanders.”

The exhibition will be open at the Gallery until 17 July with four free art workshops for tamariki offered in the first week of the school holidays. [see Facebook, @maharagallery, and www.maharagallery.org.nz for details]

Mahara Gallery Director Janet Bayly addresses students-artists, teachers, Ngā Manu Nature Reserve staff, Gallery Board members and friends, 11 June 2021