Page 1: Biography
Ngati Tarawhai carver
This biography, written by Roger Neich, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 1, 1990.
Known as Wero Taroi, Wero Mahikore, Karu, and Wero, this master carver of Ngati Tarawhai of Te Arawa was one of the greatest Maori carvers whose work is now known. Few facts about Wero Taroi's life have been recorded, yet so great was his name as a carver, that the name Wero has been attached to several lesser known Te Arawa carvers who worked with him.
It is likely that Wero was born in the early years of the nineteenth century, in a Ngati Tarawhai pa on Lake Okataina. His father was Mahikore and his mother Marukore, both of Ngati Tarawhai. He traced his descent from Te Rangi-takaroro, through his third wife, Hinganga. He grew up at Okataina among the canoe builders and carvers of Ngati Tarawhai. He learnt his craft from his two elder cousins, Te Amo-a-Tai and Tara Te Awatapu, at a time when European metal tools were replacing the stone adzes and greenstone blades of the past. All his known work was produced with the new metal tools. He is regarded as the originator and leader of the Okataina school of carvers based at Ruato, on the southern shores of Rotoiti. The school is named after his birthplace.
Ngati Tarawhai had specialised in the production of large war canoes, supplying the needs of Te Arawa and of other tribes as far away as the Bay of Plenty, Hauraki and North Auckland. However, by the time Wero became recognised as a master carver in the late 1860s, war canoes were becoming obsolete. To maintain and assert their identity, many tribes had begun to build large, fully carved meeting houses. Wero and his kinsmen turned from canoe building to house carving.
In this period Ngati Tarawhai gradually migrated from their lands around Lake Okataina. Ruato, on Rotoiti, became one of their main dwelling places, close to the route between Rotorua and the coast. Wero often lived there, taking the lead in carving projects, and also gaining a reputation as a tohunga skilled in ritual. His work took him to many parts of the Bay of Plenty and to the Taupo district. Carvers were usually paid for their work in cash as well as in goods and hospitality.
Wero was associated as a master carver with several houses, and many examples of his work are still to be seen. The first house called Rangitihi stood at Te Taheke, on the northern shore of Rotoiti. Most of its carvings are now in the Auckland War Memorial Museum, and one is in St Petersburg. Houmaitawhiti, the second house of that name, was shifted to Maketu and then returned to its original home, Otaramarae, also on the northern shore of Rotoiti. The first Hinemihi was at Te Wairoa, and survived the Tarawera eruption in 1886; what is left of it is now at Guildford, England. Wero carved a house for Arama Karaka Mokonui-a-rangi of Ngati Rangitihi at Matata. This was later called Nuku-te-apiapi; some of its carvings have been placed in the Te Arawa Maori Trust boardroom in Rotorua, and others are in the Rotorua Museum. The house Uenuku-mai-Rarotonga was built at Maketu and shifted to Punawhakareia marae at Rotoiti. He is also associated with the house now called Tiki-o-Tamamutu at Taupo, the storehouse called Te Puawai-o-Te-Arawa at Maketu, and Tokopikowhakahau at Tapapa. On the earlier of these projects, Wero worked as part of a team with Te Amo-a-Tai, Tara Te Awatapu and other senior carvers. On later houses Wero tended to work alone or with one pupil. His most illustrious pupils were Anaha Te Rahui and Tene Waitere.
Wero carved canoes and houses within his own tribal region, that of Te Arawa, stretching from Maketu to Tongariro. Although he must have had considerable contact with Europeans, Wero did not produce carved souvenirs for the developing tourist trade in Rotorua. No photographs are known, nor is the date of his death, which was probably in the early 1880s.
Wero Taroi's carving is outstanding for its wide repertoire of figure types and surface decoration, the deep, powerful relief of his figures, and his skill in superimposing several layers of figures in a single composition. His total production represents the first complete flowering of the Ngati Tarawhai house carving tradition. Through his pupils and his wider influence on later artists, Wero set the pattern for most subsequent Te Arawa woodcarving and ultimately for many aspects of the 'national' Maori carving style taught at the Rotorua School of Maori Arts in the 1930s and 1940s.