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Korowai gifted to Business School by former Dean

Tuesday, 16 May 2017 8:49pm

robin-and-george-korowai-image
The former Dean of the Otago Business School Professor George Benwell (right) and the current Dean, Professor Robin Gauld, with the beautiful korowai gifted to the University by Professor Benwell. Photo: Sharron Bennett.

An exquisite korowai featuring both Australian bird feathers and albatross feathers has been gifted to the University by the former Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Commerce) and Dean of the Otago Business School Professor George Benwell to create a tangible bond of friendship between him, the University and Ngāi Tahu.

Professor Benwell, who retired as Dean of the Business School last year after almost a decade in the role, says he wanted to give something that represented his efforts to support Māori strategic development.

The act of giving was important to him. He has often witnessed Māori giving – giving their time, their culture, food and other resources – and wanted to do the same. Similarly, he says he appreciates the beauty of indigenous dress.

"I needed the korowai to tell a story, but to do so in a respectful way, and also to show my culture as an Australian."

“Giving helps cement and define relationships,” he says. “So, it kind of evolved as a reciprocal act of giving, and in this case the giving of a physical symbolic piece of clothing.”

He presented the korowai – created by local weaver Lucy Dickel-Smith – to the University earlier this month, with the hope that it could be worn by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Commerce) on official occasions.

It is decorated almost entirely with Australian bird feathers – emu and guinea fowl – to represent his country of birth. In addition it has a few small Toroa (albatross) feathers.

“I needed the korowai to tell a story, but to do so in a respectful way, and also to show my culture as an Australian. So, we explored the ethics and protocols of a story and of using Australian bird feathers. I wanted initially to use bright reds, blacks, greens, yellows and white feathers, but such feathers from cheeky Australian birds are hard to come by.”

He says he managed to source emu and guinea fowl feathers and imported them into New Zealand. The korowai also has a few white feathers from the Toroa, the albatross of New Zealand.

“They represent beauty and power, and these attributes are said to be transferrable to the wearer. They have a special meaning for me. On the one hand they represent the kindness of Ngāi Tahu in caring for Taranaki Māori (the Pakakohe Group of Ngāti Ruanui) when the latter were incarcerated on the Peninsula. I hope that that kindness also enduringly couples Ngāi Tahu and the University. On the other hand, importantly, these activities took place in 1869 – the founding year of the University.

"The korowai for me therefore implies friendship and connections between cultures and between peoples."

“The korowai for me therefore implies friendship and connections between cultures and between peoples.”

As an Australian, he says one of the things he is proudest of in his time as Dean was learning about the aspirations of an indigenous people, and then helping to advance cultural respect within the Business School to better reflect society.

“One of the greatest enlightenments in my life has been an awakening of myself to the equality of all peoples, no matter what nationality, creed, colour or tribe.

“Being a non-New Zealander, I have had the privilege of looking in from the outside and observed the last 30 years of the cultural struggles in this country. Yes, I observe the tensions, but I also observe that this country and its people are way ahead of my country of birth. Bluntly, the enduring and present treatment of Australian aboriginals is shameful. In response, I am humbled to be able to connect me and my family, and Māori in the act of giving.”

Professor Benwell acknowledges the skills and weaving ability of Lucy Dickel-Smith.