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The Aotea Tapestry

Taken from ‘Aotea Centre Works of Art’, edited by Tara Werner, written by Karen Scherer and Katherine Findlay.

‘The Aotea Tapestry’ was designed by Robert Ellis and made at the Victorian Tapestry Workshop in Melbourne, taking six weavers nearly two years to complete. Hailed as one of the most significant contemporary tapestries, ‘The Aotea Tapestry’ is Aotea Centre's principle artwork, one of a set of artworks commissioned for Aotea Centre. ‘The Aotea Tapestry’ was one of the country's largest public commissions at the time it was created.

There are 1,600 warp threads in the work and the completed tapestry weighs more than 260 kilograms and is attached to the wall by velcro. Measuring 11.6 metres by 6.4 metres, the Victorian Tapestry Workshop was, at that time, one of only five such studio-based workshops in the world which could handle a single-piece work this size. Even then a loom had to be specially designed.
Robert Ellis: "It was not my intention to be too specific, as many people will prefer to interpret it in their own way. There are many different levels of meaning, depending on the viewer's outlook."

The work contains a narrative theme in keeping with the medium, and closely relates to the Tamaki-makau-rau (Auckland) district. A variety of star chart symbols, based on the southern skies, establishes geographic location and navigation reference points. The constellation Pleiades or Te Huihui o Matariki relates to the annual replenishment of earthly resources. Beneath this is a landscape formed by elemental natural forces; its surface conditioned by continuous volcanic activity. Cartographic symbols, surveyors' marks and weather chart signs also define the physical nature of the landscape.

Auckland is situated on an isthmus, and the fish symbolises the abundance and diversity of marine life. John Dory in particular has long-established spiritual connotations; it is poised over an open hand of friendship and good fortune. Astronomical, astrological and botanical characters, signifying riches and prosperity, embellish the hand.

In the lower left a fountain of pure water acts as a sustaining life force, and as a cleansing agent removing the Tapu (sacred nature) of the work. In the corners, the ancient signs of Alpha and Omega relate to the beginning and ending of all things and the perpetual life cycle.

‘The Aotea Tapestry’ hangs in pride of place between the doors to the ASB Theatre in Aotea Centre, hanging from level 4 to level 2. The tapestry can be viewed from the McConnell Dowell Balcony between doors D and E on level 4, from the BNZ foyer also on level 4, and between doors A and B on the Owens Foyer on level 2.

Robert Ellis was born in Northampton, England, and educated at the Northampton and Hammersmith Schools of Art. He was subsequently awarded an exhibition scholarship to the Royal College of Art, London. Before taking up the scholarship, he completed two years’ national service with the RAF Bomber Command as a photographer.

In 1957 Ellis moved to New Zealand and took up a position at the Elam School of Fine Arts, where he became an Associate Professor.