Andrew Paul Wood
A Whakapapa of Tradition: One hundred years of Ngāti Porou carving, 1830–1930 by Ngarino Ellis with new photography by Natalie Robertson (Auckland University Press, 2016), 304 pp., $69.99
The arrival of Pākehā in Aotearoa was not a good thing for Māori whakairo taonga; vide the denuded whare of Ngāpuhi, their carved ancestors deemed pagan and too sensual by prudish missionaries. The more discerning Victorians castrated such carvings with hammer and chisel, which echoes down the ages as recently as 2010 when a local became distressed on a visit with his four children to Te Parapara Garden at the renowned Hamilton Gardens, when confronted by the symbolically heroic scale of the graven genitalia on display. Oh dear. Even carvings in the nation’s museums as late as the mid-twentieth century weren’t safe, and were given a generous coating of red enamel paint in the run-up to special occasions like royal visits.
From around 1830 there was a major shift in cultural paradigm. The carving of waka taua (war canoes), pātaka (storehouses) and whare rangātira (chief’s houses) – the three dominant displays of the tradition – went into decline, a result of European culture-shock and complex internal changes within Te Ao Māori. Greater emphasis was placed on churches, whare whakairo (meeting houses) and wharekai (refectories). By the 1920s the carving traditions of Māori were in danger of dying out altogether until Māori MP Sir Āpirana Ngata (1874–1950) of Ngāti Porou, paralleling similar initiatives in the Dutch East Indies, threw his weight behind a programme of revival initiated by Te Puea Herangi, a ranking princess of the Kīngitanga movement. As a result, a school opened in Rotorua in 1927 and provided training until it closed in 1938.
Sir Āpirana being Ngāti Porou is not insignificant. Ngāti Porou were core to the development of the East Coast school of carving, which evolved out of the Iwirākau School in the Waiapu Valley. Six Iwirākau carvers – Kihirini Te Aotapunui, Hone Taahu, Hone Ngatoto, Riwai Pakerau, Tamiti Ngakaho and Hoani Ngatai – produced 30 significant meeting houses between 1864 and 1930, setting an important template for Māori art and architecture as a dynamic and responsive entity. These mark both a break with tradition and a continuity. This profound period is the subject of a new book by Ngarino Ellis (Ngāpui, Ngāti Porou), A Whakapapa of Tradition: 100 years of Ngāti Porou carving, 1830–1930, richly illustrated with additional photographs by Natalie Robertson (Ngāti Porou, Clann Dhònnchaidh).
Focussing on one iwi is an ideal way of going about things. The tribal rivalries and favouritism that tends to creep into more general texts are entirely absent here, and one will always know one’s own community and traditions best. Ngāti Porou is indeed fortunate to have a scholar like Ellis to articulate the cultural tūrangawaewae and Ngātiporoutanga of that part of her whakapapa in such an accessible and readable way. A senior lecturer in art history and museum studies at the University of Auckland, Ellis has published in depth on the artistic traditions of Northland and the East Coast. This volume is a continuation and extension of the groundwork laid down by Robert Jahnke’s doctoral thesis, ‘He Tataitanga Āhua Toi: The house that Riwai built / A continuum of Māori art’ (2006), and looks back to other pioneering work. It was Sir Hirini Moko Mead’s 1961 The Art of Māori Carving that identified a number of carving styles along the East Coast of the North Island, noting that they generally identified as Ngāti Porou, and representative of what he called ‘the Waiapu style’.
The Iwirākau School (there is some debate as to whether the Tāpere sub-style is a separate school; Ellis uses the two names interchangeably) finds its symbolic roots in the ancestor Iwirākau (c. 1700) who brought about a reinvigoration of carving around Waiapu in the northern part of the East Coast. Āpirana Ngata, writing two centuries later about the origins of Māori whakairo, was first to coin the expression ‘Iwirākau School’ for the carvers of the Hinetāpora wharenui at Mangahanaea Marae in Ruatoria at the end of the nineteenth century. He also used the phrase ‘Waiapu carvings’ in reference to material in Auckland and Wellington museums, Hinetāpora, and the Porourangi wharenui at Waiomatatini.
Prior to 1830, Ellis relies heavily on oral history and legend, beginning with the Ngāti Porou story of Ruatepupeke’s rescue of his son, Te Manu-Hauturuki, who had been taken by Tangaroa, god of the sea, and magically transformed into the tekoteko (carved figurehead) on Hui-te-ananui, Tangaroa’s undersea house. Thus was the art of whakairo brought to mortals. The tradition maintains that the carver Hingangaroa, at the beginning of the eighteenth century in Ūawa (Tolaga Bay), learned by copying the carvings brought back by Ruatepupeke. Related stories tell of Hingangaroa and his wife visiting her family in Whakaki in Wairoa, and teaching them the dovetail join.
Of course these are often from written and formalised accounts, but they do tell us that the carving tradition probably pre-dates the arrival of Māori in Aotearoa. About the same time as Hingangaroa, a female chief Te Ao Kairau in Waiapu sent her nephew Iwirākau to Ūawa to learn the art of whakairo. By the nineteenth century European education and influence and Christianity brought about a change in mindset and cultural emphasis, with the Pākehā presence on the East Coast inescapable by the 1830s when the first carved Christian chapels emerge.
Ellis lays this all out lucidly, weaving a clear account from traditional narrative, contemporary observation and colonial policy. From 1850 to 1900 the meeting house became the pre-eminent expression of the carver’s art, taking over for the community the role previously held by the chief’s house, from personal to public, probably as a response to cultural erosion caused by colonisation.
When the French philosopher Michel Foucault created his concept of genealogy, ‘for the constitution of knowledges, discourses, domains of objects, and so on, without having to make reference to a subject which is either transcendental in relation to the field of events or runs in its empty sameness throughout the course of history’, he was reinventing the wheel. The centuries-old Māori concept of whakapapa had it covered. Ellis constructs for us a whakapapa of carvers, communities, stylistic motifs and history that tells us as much about the evolving story of a people as it does an art form. And then there is the tragedy of whakapapa lost or muddied by carving being taken away and put in Pākehā museums, often at great distance from their place of origin.
Another flourishing takes place in the 1870s following the Land Wars with the rise of patrons among the local rangātira class, though this often tended towards a more traditional flavour, but at the same time Te Kooti was commissioning Iwirākau carvers for Ringatū buildings, and Wi Tako Ngatata of Te Āti Awa was commissioning Iwirākau for Kīngitanga projects with all the diversity of new influences that entails. Ngāti Kahungunu were also customers. There was a motley array of Pākehā patrons too, wanting everything from tourist souvenirs to significant artworks.
Just as for historical reasons the Waikato–Ngāpuhi dialect of te reo Māori has become the official standard, one might argue that the East Coast style became something of a standard template for representations of ‘Māori’ visual culture – not least because of Āpirana Ngata’s mana and influence. But even before then, Canterbury Museum commissioned the meeting house Hau Te Ana Nui o Tangaroa (presumably in the basement somewhere) in 1874 (Ngāi Tahu and Ngāti Porou share Paikea the whale rider as an ancestor, so perhaps there is some logic to it, and the art had died out in the South Island, the last carvings done in Kaiapoi around the same time).
Hone Ngatoto’s death in 1928 brings that incarnation of the Iwirākau School to a close, but as Ellis is at pains to point out, that was by no means the end of East Coast carving as a living force, though by the Māori Renaissance of the 1970s and 1980s it was less about the marae than the art gallery, the point at which divisive categories like ‘contemporary’ and ‘traditional’ gained full categorical authority — the world-touring Te Māori exhibition (1984-1987) helped put that back into context somewhat — and the process is mediated by powers outside of Ngāti Porou.
A Whakapapa of Tradition is a book very conscious of its historiography as well as its whakapapa and is an exemplar for future Māori scholarship, particularly as applied to Māori art history. It is a vital study of the transmission of culture.
ANDREW PAUL WOOD is a Christchurch-based independent scholar, translator and writer, and a regular contributor to a wide range of publications.