Story: Whakairo – Māori carving

Page 8. Carving in the 2000s

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New urban marae

In the 21st century whare whakairo (carved meeting houses) continued to be built as a powerful assertion of Māori identity. Most were urban and pan-tribal (such as Ngā Hau e Whā in Christchurch) or multicultural (for example, Kirikiriroa in Hamilton), rather than belonging to a particular hapū. Many were for tertiary institutions. They maintained the teaching function of houses such as Nuku-te-apiapi at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua, where the carvings are highly figurative and representational rather than symbolic and allusive, and tupuna (ancestors) are easily recognised by the tools they possess and their positioning within the house.

Ngākau Māhaki

Ngākau Māhaki at Unitec in Auckland, carved by Lyonel Grant, was one such spectacular achievement. The house, which took six years to complete, incorporates many of the innovative characteristics of modern carvers such as Para Matchitt and Cliff Whiting. Even the pou (carved posts) contain an element of irony. Grant depicts ‘urban Māori’ with the familiar manaia (beaked) head from New Zealand’s 10-cent coin. The maihi (bargeboards) have been embossed with thousands of zeros and ones, a homage to either Io-matua-kore (the parentless, the origin of all life), or binary code (the computer code that describes all life).

Carvers of Whitirēia

Whitirēia, at Whāngārā, on the East Coast, is the carved meeting house known internationally as the location for the film Whale rider. When students of the Māori visual arts programme of the Eastern Institute of Technology took down the maihi and amo (front post) of the house for restoration, the names of the Rotorua School carvers who had worked on the house were revealed, after being hidden for 70 years.

Pine Taiapa’s students

Grant’s teacher was Hōne Taiapa, whose brother Pine was the family expert on whakapapa, whaikōrero (speech-making) and tribal history. His students included artists such as Cliff Whiting and Para Matchitt from the contemporary movement, and the tohunga whakairo (master carver) Pakariki Harrison.

Pakariki Harrison

As a young student at teachers’ training college Harrison was visited by his mentor, Pine Taiapa. Each night for three months Taiapa imparted ancient karakia (incantations) associated with the art of whakairo and whakapapa. Harrison went on to carve numerous houses for both hapū and urban institutions. Quoting a proverb, he saw these as ‘te whakapiringa o te tangata, te whakairinga o te kupu’ (the gathering place of people, the hanging place of history), where the esoteric knowledge of the wānanga was invoked and inspired by the whakairo.

NZQA council

In about 1995 Harrison assembled the most highly regarded carvers in Aotearoa as a whakaruruhau (council of experts). Their task was to develop a series of carving standards for the New Zealand Qualifications Authority (NZQA), essentially elevating what had been considered a ‘craft’ to an academic pursuit.

First carving degree programme

Together with his former student, Kereti Rautangata, Harrison established the first carving degree programme, Maunga Kura Toi, at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa in 2002. His students were expected to demonstrate knowledge of the rituals and incantations of carving as well as technical proficiency. In the 2010s Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, Te Wānanga o Raukawa and Te Puia, the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, were the principal institutions in which carving was taught and NZQA-recognised qualifications were attained.

Survival of traditional carving

The ‘customary’ or ‘traditional’ art of carving continued to thrive in the 21st century, perhaps because, rather than in spite of, the fact that over 80% of Māori live in urban centres. Just as tā moko (traditional tattooing) has undergone a renaissance, Māori continue to identify whare whakairo, waka taua (war canoes) and other examples of traditional carving as visual and spiritual icons of their culture.

How to cite this page:

Brett Graham, 'Whakairo – Māori carving - Carving in the 2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 23 May 2024)

Story by Brett Graham, published 22 Oct 2014