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From Halifax to New Zealand: Architecture student explores connections between craft and culture

- April 7, 2014

Emily Wilson, during her trip to New Zealand. (Emily Wilson photo)
Emily Wilson, during her trip to New Zealand. (Emily Wilson photo)

In 2012, Emily Wilson travelled on exchange to New Zealand with an open mind, ready to discover everything that awaited her. She didn’t quite expect to find such a passionate connection with the island country’s oldest Aboriginal culture.

During her exchange at the University of Wellington, undertaken when she was a Biology major at the University of Victoria, Wilson took a class on the culture of the Māori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. She fell in love with their prolific carvings.

“The traditions of carving, weaving, and building form an intricate web that links every Māori to his or her ancestors, to the land, and to the past,” she explains.

Last year, Wilson — now an Architecture student in the Bachelor of Environmental Design Studies program at Dal — was able to return to New Zealand for two weeks to undertake an independent research project, thanks to the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts / Ernest Annau Scholarship for Architecture. The prestigious scholarship is awarded to only one undergraduate architecture student nationally each year.

Her task was to “examine the ways in which cultural values are manifested in craft traditions and how this relates to cultural identity,” as she puts it.

Earlier this term, Wilson put together an exhibition hosted in the Medjuck Architecture Building, showcasing Māori architecture and craft.

Representing a culture

While in New Zealand, Wilson travelled to many different Māori communities on the North Island.

In addition to focusing on the connection between craft and cultural identity, she also studied how Māori architecture has responded to the challenge of preserving tradition while, at the same time, embracing modernization.

“The Māori were a severely marginalized group of people due to the effects of European colonization, but they have undergone an incredible renaissance over the last forty years,” she explains.

One of her largest hurdles in the whole process was learning how to study a culture that viewed her as an outsider.

“As a visitor, I could never fully understand what I saw. By the end of my trip, although I had seen a lot of wonderful things, I had no idea what it all meant. So when I came back to Canada, I tried to learn as much as I could about the Māori, so I could connect the dots and place what I had seen into a larger context for the exhibition.”

What started out as a hurdle quickly morphed into an amazing learning experience: “I learned that there are so many dimensions to understanding Māori culture — or any culture for that matter — that it can be overwhelming. I had to learn to widen my focus, and then narrow it back down again, in order to truly grasp what I was studying and had witnessed first hand.”

Originally from Calgary, Wilson has “always loved building things and taking things apart to see how they work.”

She found the experience of planning the exhibition and cataloguing her research incredibly rewarding, and says it may inspire her master's research at the School of Architecture: she’s looking to examine connections between the Māori and Canada’s First Nations.


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