How Messini Palace’s whakapapa informs her cast art

Cast artist Messini Palace is going against the mould, creating a contemporary twist on time-old traditions

Messini Palace is at her Auckland studio seven days a week, her self-proclaimed “happy place.” It’s there she creates the most dazzling, transfixing cast art with resin and ceramics. “The possibilities seem endless, and I am obsessed with form and colour and how I can transform a traditional whakairo rākau (wood carving) design into a contemporary piece,” she says. Having only recently connected with her whakapapa (Ngāti Apakura and Ngā Puhi), Messini is “coming home” through her work, each piece a brick in the road there.

When and how did you start making cast art?

I am relatively new to being a full-time artist. I cast my first wheku (carved face) around December 2021 in hard finish plaster. I think Covid lockdowns and an unhappy work life pushed me back into my creative space. I had also been exploring my Māori whakapapa so casting whakairo rākau seemed to happen organically, starting with a piece I had bought in a thrift shop about 20 years ago.

Do you think being self-taught has informed your art?

Being self-taught at mould making and casting means that mistakes have and continue to be made. I have probably created my own techniques and learned to problem solve and evolve in a very organic way. It’s very rewarding and sometimes frustrating.

What’s the process for making your resin pieces?

I often cast from one single mould for my bigger pieces like the tekoteko (carved figure), or a maximum of nine moulds for the smaller pieces like the Whānau Ariki cubes or the hei tiki mini vase. The silicone moulds only last for approximately 10-15 casts before they deteriorate and I have to remake them. In some cases, they will be limited edition pieces as I won’t remake that particular mould. As well as making the individual moulds, the curing time is between 24-72 hours for resin, and then there is grinding, sanding, cleaning and finishing. This means that each piece, large or small, is handmade and unique.

How about your ceramic casting?

The plaster wheku is made using a similar process but takes longer due to the minimum three-day curing time and the four layers of paint and drying time between coats. I have a separate area with a spray tent and an extractor fan where I don a mask and hazmat suit to spray him in select vibrant colours like hot pink. I then select paua eyes that bring him to life and draw from his traditional past.

Your work merges traditional toi Māori with contemporary mediums and colours. Can you explain what you love about that intersection?

I often cast from vintage Māori carvings that were largely produced for the Pākehā tourist market from around the mid-century. I feel there is a subversive nature to my work, taking this toi Māori and breathing a new journey, life, and intention into these pieces. I also engaged master carver Michael Matchitt to create my current main wheku. I continue to transform this wheku through medium and colour. The familiarity of Māori design married with such vibrant, contemporary colours and mediums seems to appeal to a wide demographic and continues to connect me to wonderful people from all walks of life.

You discovered and connected with your whakapapa later in life, what was that journey like for you?

My journey with my art is deeply intertwined with my whakapapa. After travelling and living abroad for 20 years, I returned to Aotearoa and embarked on a journey of whakapapa discovery, meeting and uniting with Ngāti Apakura iwi and recently witnessing the negotiation for the return of a small but significant piece of whenua to my landless iwi. I have been building beautiful new relationships with whanaunga and sharing knowledge. It’s no mistake that “coming home” has resulted in creating art that expresses who I am, a connection between my Māori and Pākehā lineage.

What’s been your favourite piece you’ve created?

Although most of my pieces are bright and fun, and I will always create this element of playfulness, I have also started to make what I call “statement pieces”. I’m very proud of Wheku Toa, with his modern-day army camouflage surface juxtaposed on his traditional pūkana face. He speaks to the strength and determination of Māori since colonisation.

Do you have any exciting news or exhibitions coming up?

I hope to have my third pop-up exhibition at Ponsonby Central, Auckland in November. As well as my resin pieces, I aim to have more of my one-of-a-kind light boxes and possibly some painted upcycled clothing. I currently have pieces at Kura Gallery, ZeaYou Gallery, Soul Gallery, The Poi Room, Pokapū Gallery and Toi Matarau.


Words by: Caroline Moratti. Photography by: Kate Battersby

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