The Report: Digital Mana

The Report is a blog series created to showcase the Festival's Fashion Writing finalists. Writers are sent to Arts, Ideas and Independent Runway events, to take a closer look at the diverse program beyond the runway, and explore fashion that takes us to galleries, stage, screen and more.

Bridget is in her final year of studying literature, creative writing and French. She hopes to pursue a career in poetry and prose but for now you can find her and her basalt Birkenstocks wandering around the University of Melbourne.


The cloak of photographed emu feathers hanging on the far wall of the gallery is the jewel of Kirsten Lyttle’s Digital Mana exhibition. Currently showing at the Centre for Contemporary Photography in Fitzroy, Lyttle’s work infuses Māori cultural practices with Australian materials to impressive effect.

On the walls leading toward the cloak are close-up photographs of variously coloured and patterned plumage. Galah, kookaburra and rosella feathers sit against the hand-woven underlayer (the whatu) of a cloak. Strikingly, one of the images resembles the Aboriginal flag, coloured black, yellow and red.

Both a photographer and a weaver, Lyttle is a self-proclaimed Mozzie - a Māori Australian - and she bends the limits of her art forms to explore her cultural heritage.

The Māori concept of mana is a supernatural force within a person, place or object. “It’s something that can be inherited but it can also be lost,” Lyttle explains. “It’s pride and honour and importance and meaning all rolled into one.”

In this exhibition, mana manifests in the kākahu huruhuru. It is a Māori garment of prestige: a hand-woven feather cloak denoting spiritual power. Incorporating whatu, the highest form of Māori weaving, the cloaks can take years to assemble.

Forging a connection between her ancestral and adopted homelands, Lyttle has used ethically sourced feathers in Digital Mana. “I wanted them to read as Australian feathers. It was really important to me, as an uninvited guest on indigenous land, that the materials I used were gifted by Indigenous people,” she says. The feathers appear at the gallery in life-sized photographic form. Employing customary weaving methods, Lyttle has woven over 300 photographs of emu feathers into a stunning cloak.

Not only does she break through the two-dimensional confines of digital photography, Lyttle also strives to deconstruct the colonial history of the camera. “Photography has such a long history of being a tool for colonisation,” she emphasises. “I’m trying to find a way to make the surface of the photograph itself an indigenous object. For me that has a lot to do with touching it.”

The process Lyttle describes is hands-on and highly social. She’s an active member of the Pacific weaving community, and she enlisted the help of family and friends to construct this piece. “There’s something amazing about women making together,” she says.

Her next weaving challenge? To make a kākahu huruhuru for her PhD graduation later this year.

Digital Mana closes on Sunday 11 March at the Centre for Contemporary Photography. Digital Mana is a participant of the Virgin Australia Melbourne Fashion Festival Arts Program 2018.

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