Christine Hellyar

Gathering Collecting

Artwork Detail

Mrs Cook's Kete - Thought Trays consists of 7 cedar trays, each lined with tissue and topped with a cream or red silk 'tongue' embroidered with the classificatory categories of the artifacts that they hold. Hellyar considers in the work what Elizabeth Cook, wife of the explorer James Cook, might have kept in her kete as souvenirs of her husband's travels.

Like a historical novel, the work is based in fact, but is woven together using fictional elements. In the same manner as historical novels it examines the events of history through the eyes of a minor character in them, and consequently offers a unique and untold point of view. In reality Mrs Cook is known to have had a collection of items given to her by her husband, however this was dispersed over her lifetime and at her death. Hellyar's work reconstitutes a previously unknown collection using the idea that it had been found abandoned in the attic of her home in Clapham.

The categories into which the objects have been sorted are inspired by the taxonomy employed by the Pitt Rivers Museum which, rather than taking a culturally based approach to anthropology, has since its foundation arranged its objects by their 'typology' or function. The underlying principles behind this approach derive from the founder of the Museum's theories about the evolution of ideas and the information that can be gained from a comparison of similar objects across cultures. However the categories Hellyar uses are also inflected by Mrs Cook as a wife and widow of an explorer and Captain in the Royal Navy in the late-18th century. The emphasis in the collection is on domestic tasks: gathering of food, cooking, sewing, cleaning, dressing and adornment.

Hellyar reflects that she is "interested in raising questions about the kinds of interactions that may have occurred between women from opposite sides of the world during the late eighteenth century. Would they have shared information and skills about everyday things? Might these exchanges have reflected mutual interests in family and food, clothing and fashion, adornment and handwork, rather than a desire to accumulate exotic curiosities?" Hellyar inserts into Mrs Cook's collection examples of this sharing of information and skills, for instance: in the 'Binding Restricting' tray a book of threads includes embroidery silks with harakeke, kiekie, hibiscus and muka and in the 'Gathering Collecting' tray red baize fabric references the cloak Captain Cook had made up for 'Maru' in Dusky Sound.

The aesthetic of the work is extremely important to Hellyar. With the emphasis on red and white Hellyar engages in a cross-cultural exploration of colour symbolism. The artist is fascinated with the colour red and its meaning in Pacific and (to a lesser extent) European societies.

In addition to the narrative of Mrs Cook and the arrangement of her collection, Hellyar explores her own artistic practice through the work. She comments "It seemed that Pitt Rivers' idea of cultural evolution being related to increasing sophistication in cultural objects had a place not only in our thinking about our day to day existence but also in the creative process itself so I sorted the work into the relevant categories of function with their parallel categories of thought." These parallel categories are:

Gathering and Collecting

Fishing and Researching

Binding and Restricting

Dressing and Embellishing

Sweeping and Clearing

Dressing and Enhancing

Binding and Confining

Hellyar continues "I had done a simpler 4 step version of this in 'Thought Cupboards' in 1984. These 7 categories follow a sequence which I consider to be more true to my creative process now than the 1984 version of 'Gathering' 'Mixing' 'Worrying' and 'Enhancing'."

The historical character of Elizabeth Cook has a significant influence on Mrs Cook's Kete - Thought Trays, in such details as the embroidery of the classificatory categories on the silk 'tongues'. The artist, however, insists that the items are not intended to be authentic or to directly imitate the original objects. Rather they are signifiers for the originals which allow an exploration of thought systems and taxonomies both of the eighteenth and twenty-first centuries and encourage reflection on how these are constructed and how they have changed through time.

Gathering Collecting
Christine Hellyar
Production date
red feather earring (tuenga telinga), red baize, flax
Credit line
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, purchased 2004
Accession no
Copying restrictions apply
New Zealand Art
Display status
Not on display

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