Story: Whakairo – Māori carving

Page 6. The Rotorua school

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Ngāti Tarāwhai

Within one hapū in particular, Ngāti Tarāwhai of Te Arawa, the art of whakairo continued to thrive after the arrival of Europeans in New Zealand. As they were allies of the government, Ngāti Tarāwhai’s lands were not confiscated, and they maintained a strong and unbroken line of tohunga whakairo (master carvers) into the modern era.

Tohunga whakairo Wero Tāroi

Ngāti Tarāwhai carver Wero Tāroi was perhaps the first to use steel chisels for carving. In the 1860s and 1870s he used this new technology to great effect, creating powerful sinuous figures on the maihi (bargeboards) and amo (front post) of his house Houmaitawhiti (1860). The surface patterning is boldly carved but complements rather than competes with the sculptural forms. As well as the free-flowing boldness in his designs, Wero introduced bicultural innovations, carving European riding boots onto his figures and decorating them with paint rather than traditional kōkōwai (red ochre). He transmitted his knowledge to his apprentices Ānaha Te Rāhui, Neke Kapua and Tene Waitere.

Ngata’s vision

As a young man, Apirana Ngata mobilised his hapū to restore their ancestral house, Porourangi, and saw the positive effect this had on the community. As minister of native affairs he envisaged this happening on a national scale. He deeply resented the assimilationist attitudes of the day and sought to preserve Māori culture. Ngata believed that ‘The marae buildings … have always been the chief preoccupation of a Maori community. Until these are provided the community will not seriously take up other problems.’1

Tourist carvings

As more European tourists visited Rotorua, the sense of freedom evident in Wero’s work was gradually lost. Carvers became more self-conscious of their identity as Māori, and began modifying designs to please their  customers. Important patrons such as Charles Nelson, who ran a hotel, and Augustus Hamilton, director of the Colonial Museum, began to instruct carvers in the kind of work they wanted to buy. In 1905 Hamilton said, ‘natives could be trained under expert guidance in the production of articles of use, ornamented with native patterns’.2

European patrons

As fewer meeting houses were built, carvers became more dependent on wealthy Pākehā who saw carving as a craft with the potential to draw tourists. They did not appreciate carving as a system of knowledge that encoded and communicated the Māori world-view, and saw only its formal values. European patronage gradually imposed a system of European narrative on the carvers’ art which made it simpler for Europeans to understand. The inventive and wide artistic vocabulary of earlier carvers was gradually reduced and impoverished.

Rotorua School of Māori Arts and Crafts

This stiff and formal mode of carving continued under the Rotorua School of Māori Arts and Crafts, created in 1926. The school was first based in Te Ao Mārama, the church hall at St Faith’s, Ōhinemutu. It was later moved to Utuhina, where it remained until 1937. The first intake of students included Pine Taiapa (a former apprentice of East Coast carver Hōne Ngātoto), Piri Poutapu and Waka Kereama of Waikato.

Apirana Ngata arranged for the government to pay for the students and teaching staff, while iwi raised funds for their whare whakairo (carved ancestral house) or wharekai (dining hall). Carvers and their families stayed on marae and were fed by the local people. This system produced 21 meeting houses, two exhibition houses, 10 dining halls, two assembly halls and six chapels. The 27 graduates went on to train the next generation of carvers.


‘As soon as people produced some money for a carved house [Ngata] would send a group of carvers to make a start on the work, however the money would never quite be enough to do the whole job, so the carvers would soon be shifted to a further job. Once a start on a house had been made efforts were redoubled to get more money.’3

National style of house

Ngata created a template for the house which allowed for regional differences. However, for the sake of visual coherence and unity, all were treated to the robust modelling and deep relief of the Te Hau-ki-Tūranga style. The pou (carved posts) and heke (rafters) of the Rotorua School houses ceased to be structural elements. They could potentially be made anywhere from pre-milled timber and added later as decorative elements. By removing the work from its context and closely copying examples found in museums, the school was following a pattern that had been established by Pākehā such as Hamilton and Nelson in the 1880s.

The carving school closed during the Second World War, and by the time it was resurrected in Rotorua in the 1960s as the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, this philosophy of mass production had reached the point of exhaustion.

  1. Quoted in ‘The story of the modern marae.’ Te Ao Hou 2 (Spring 1952), p. 23. Back
  2. Quoted Roger Neich, Carved histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai woodcarving. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001, p. 143. Back
  3. Eric Schwimmer, The world of the Maori. Wellington: A. H. and A. W. Reed, 1966, p. 34. Back
How to cite this page:

Brett Graham, 'Whakairo – Māori carving - The Rotorua school', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 28 May 2024)

Story by Brett Graham, published 22 Oct 2014