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Whakairo – Māori carving

by Brett Graham

The earliest examples of Māori carving share common characteristics with Polynesian carving of the same period. However, over time Māori developed their own unique carving styles. In the 20th century there was a renaissance of traditional Māori carving and many new whare whakairo (carved meeting houses) were built.

Legendary origins of carving

Rukuhia te ata o te whakairo
Rukuhia te ata o te wānanga
Rukuhia te ata o te wharekura.
Whano, whano, hari mai te toki,
Haumi e, hui e, tāiki e!
Delve deep into the image of carving,
Delve deep into the essence of knowledge,
Delve deep into the image of the schooling,
Proceed! Advance! Welcome the adze!
Unite! Assemble the (vessels), ribs and hull!1

The legend of Ruatepupuke

According to an East Coast legend, the art of carving was discovered by Ruatepupuke, the grandson of the sea god Tangaroa. Ruatepupuke’s own grandson had an insatiable appetite for kai moana (seafood) and to meet his demands, Ruatepupuke fashioned a stone into an exquisite fishing lure which he named Te Whatukura-o-Tangaroa (the sacred stone of Tangaroa).

Tangaroa was offended that his name had been used without permission, and sought revenge. When Ruatepupuke’s son, Manuruhi, tried the prized lure he caught a massive haul but did not observe the custom of offering the first fish back to Tangaroa, further aggravating the sea god. Tangaroa decided to punish his great-grandson by pulling him down to the depths of the ocean, where Manuruhi was transformed into a birdlike tekoteko (carved figure) on the top of Tangaroa’s house, Hui-te-ana-nui.

Ruatepupuke, noticing that his son was missing, followed his footsteps to the edge of the ocean and dived into the water. He came upon the underwater village and found Hui-te-ana-nui. To his amazement, the whare was covered in carvings that spoke and sang to each other. When Ruatepupuke asked about his son’s whereabouts, one of the talking poupou (carved posts) told him that the bird-shaped tekoteko of the house was Manuruhi.

Ruatepupuke hid in the house and waited for its residents, the fish people, to fall asleep, whereupon he set the house ablaze. He had time only to rescue his son and some of the poupou – which were unable to speak – from the mahau (porch). Thus the first carvings came into the world.

Many years later, Ruatepupuke’s descendants brought these examples from the legendary homeland of Hawaiki to Aotearoa, where they served as models for Te Rāwheoro, the famous whare wānanga (school of learning) established by Hingaangaroa at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay). Future students of the wānanga, such as Tūkākī and Iwirākau, spread the influence of this school throughout the East Coast and eventually beyond.

Links with other Polynesian carving traditions

The legend of Ruatepupuke establishes carving as a taonga tuku iho, a divine gift from the gods handed down from ancestors, and therefore an art form that requires ritual respect. It also indicates that the tradition of carving was established in Hawaiki and brought to New Zealand. Linguistically and technologically the cultures of the early Māori and of other eastern Polynesian societies such as Rarotonga, Tahiti, the Marquesas and Hawaii are closely related, so it is not surprising that there is a direct relationship between the carving found on these islands and those of the earliest phases of Māori art. Those early forms evolved as the first Māori became accustomed to their new islands, and an art emerged that reflected the local flora, fauna and climate.

    • Quoted in Ranginui Walker, Tohunga whakairo: Paki Harrison: the story of a master carver. Auckland: Penguin, 2008, p. 190. Back

Carving materials and techniques

Symbolism of carving materials

The trees used to provide wood for whakairo (carving) represented Tāne, the god of the forest, and carving timber was sometimes referred to as the embodiment of Tāne. Special rituals were required to fell trees such as tōtara for carving. Once transformed into poupou (carved posts), the timbers took on the properties of the chiefs and other figures they represented. The pāua-shell used in the eyes of the figures came from the sea, the source of carving knowledge. The red ochre used to colour completed carvings was also worn as a personal decoration by high-born men and women, since red was the colour of high rank.

Suggesting a third dimension

Roger Neich, who studied the work of Ngāti Tarāwhai carvers, vividly described the three-dimensional qualities of the work of early adze carvers: ‘Spirals bulged out of the surface, hands passed through mouths from the rear, and the profiles of figures met the background in various angles … Several layers of superimposed supplementary figures often overlapped each other and the main figure that carried them.’1

Adzes and chisels

A carver’s toolkit included a number of adzes and chisels in various shapes and sizes. The other essential tool was a mallet, with a head made from wood or whalebone. This tool has remained almost unaltered since earliest times. An adze (with a long handle at right-angles to the blade) was used for roughing out the basic shapes, and short-handled chisels were then used to carve the fine details. Traditionally, these tools were made from stone and pounamu (greenstone or jade). They acquired some of the tapu associated with their owner, and no one else could use them without the carver’s permission.

Metal tools

Metal tools could be made much sharper and held their edge better than stone or jade, and iron for making tools was in high demand among carvers from the first contacts with Europeans. Nails, barrel hoops, bayonets and carpenters’ drills were all adapted for use in carving.

An art of subtraction

The Māori carver worked within the bounds of the piece of wood chosen for a specific work. A head and limbs were never added later, but shaped from the same piece of wood as the trunk of a figure. So a carver always removed wood to make his poupou, canoe prows, maihi (bargeboards of a meeting house) or other pieces.

Carving rituals

The act of carving was a ritual with its own prohibitions. Chips and shavings could be brushed away, but not blown off by the carver. They could not be used as fuel for a cooking fire because of the cultural prohibition against combining sacred objects with food.

Carved canoes

When artist Augustus Earle visited the Bay of Islands in 1827, he observed, ‘A dozen superb war canoes were lying ready to convey the forces; and, considering their limited means, the solidity of their structure and the carved work on them are surprising. None but men of rank are allowed to work upon them, and they labour like slaves ... Here were carvers, painters, caulkers, and sailmakers, all working in their different departments with great good humour and industry. Some of their vessels were eighty feet long, and were entirely covered with beautiful carving. Their form was light and delicate.’2

Carving technique

Carving was, and is, hard physical work. It began with the carver standing astride or alongside a selected piece of timber and adzing out the required shape. This was traditionally done without preliminary drawings or other markings on the wood – carvers carried the completed design in their heads. Next, the carver sat beside his work to add the detailed decoration with a mallet and chisel. Large projects such as war canoes or meeting houses were usually the combined efforts of a number of carvers working together, under the overall direction of a master carver.

Traditional training

Traditionally, a novice carver was expected to spend up to 20 years becoming expert in all aspects of the art of carving. A mistake committed while carrying out work, or in the rituals associated with it, was seen as life-threatening.

    • Roger Neich, Carved histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai woodcarving. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2001, p. 162. Back
    • Augustus Earle, A narrative of a nine months’ residence in New Zealand in 1827. London: Longman, Rees, Orme, Brown, Green, & Longman, 1832, p. 110. Back

Carving before 1500

Earliest examples

Due to the perishable nature of wood and the difficulty of preserving it, few wooden carvings from the earliest period of Māori society have survived. However, stone amulets and necklace reels made in this era from moa or whale bone, stone, or whale ivory are very close in appearance to similar objects found in eastern Polynesia. There are also masterly carved adzes that are close in form to the ceremonial adzes of Rarotonga and the Austral Islands.

Transitional styles

In this transitional phase some objects carved by Māori began to reflect their adaptation to their new home, while others still strongly approximated those found in other eastern Polynesian cultures. This may indicate that two-way voyaging between New Zealand and Polynesian islands occurred during this period, and that new waves of migrants were still arriving.

Kaitāia ‘lintel’

An ancient found near Kaitāia in 1920 was once thought to be a pare (lintel), but is more likely to be a roof decoration. It has a central figure and decorative notching very close in appearance to a carving from the Austral Islands. The dog form of south-east Polynesian sculpture has been given a manaia-like (beaked) head. This simplified manaia and the composition, with a central figure flanked by the two manaia, foreshadow pare of the post-1500 period.


Uenuku, an early carving of special significance to Tainui tribes, is often compared with Hawaiian carvings of the god Kū, with its emphasis on form and lack of surface decoration. It was possibly a copy of a talisman or mauri (a material emblem embodying the life principle) that came from Hawaiki on the Tainui canoe.

Two canoe prows

Two further examples from this period demonstrate a change in their makers’ response to the flora and fauna of Aotearoa. A 15th-century haumi (canoe prow) from Taranaki has regular rows of decorative notching in keeping with the carving of other Polynesian islands. However, some of the rows have been curved to form spirals, early versions of the takarangi or rauru spirals that characterise later classical whakairo. Another haumi, from Doubtless Bay in Tai Tokerau, features a beaked head form that is a bold and sculptural forerunner of the manaia profiles that would emerge in later Māori art.

Carving, 1500 to 1800

This was a period of great inventiveness during which the curved patterns and spirals that have become synonymous with Māori art emerged as a response to the flora of New Zealand. Stylised bird forms were employed to depict the human figure.

European admiration

During this period Europeans first encountered Māori culture. Joseph Banks, a botanist on English explorer James Cook’s Endeavour voyage in 1770, observed elaborately carved canoes at Ūawa (Tolaga Bay). He wrote, ‘for the beauty of their carving in general I fain would say something more about it but find myself inferior to the task’.1

Pātaka and waka taua

The mana of a tribe was invested in the carving of elaborate pātaka (elevated food stores), which denoted wealth and hospitality, and in large waka taua (carved canoes), which expressed the tribe’s prestige outside its own boundaries.

Whale decorations

The taratara ā kae surface design, a common carved pattern on pātaka, portrays the story of Tinirau and Kae, who argued over killing and eating Tutunui, a pet whale. Māori did not then have the technology to hunt whales, but a stranded whale provided a community with abundant food and bone for tools and ornaments. Storehouses made visual reference to generous food supplies to demonstrate wealth of resources and hospitality.

Examples of pātaka

A famous example from this period is now known as the Te Kaha pātaka. The maihi (bargeboards) and kūwaha (doorway) survive from a pātaka that once stood at Maraenui, beside the Mōtū River in Bay of Plenty. Each maihi shows the hauling of a whale by alternate human and manaia (beaked) figures, superbly embellished with the taowaru style (where figures stand one above the other) of the taratara ā kae surface pattern, which depicts whales. The layering of the figures and the abstract patterning create an extraordinary sense of depth in the relief.

‘Serpentine’ style

During this period, two classical regional styles of carving emerged, with many local variations. The first, known as the ‘serpentine’ (tuare) style, is associated with the Hokianga, Hauraki, East Cape and Taranaki, and is exemplified by Ngāti Whātua carvings. In this style figures have cone-like heads and long, sinuous, often S-shaped, bodies. The tubular bodies are usually uncarved, but if surface decoration is applied the unaunahi (fish-scales) pattern is the most common, especially in the north. Variations of this pattern called ritorito (unaunahi arranged in clusters like a plant) or pungawerewere (unaunahi arranged in a spiral) are also seen.

Unaunahi is most prevalent in Te Tai Tokerau (Northland), and ritorito in carving by Te Āti Awa of Taranaki. Te Āti Awa examples are distinctive for the depth of modelling created by the figures’ intertwining limbs, and also for the unique shape of their foreheads, peaked in homage to the mountain Taranaki.

Style of the times

Most surviving examples of the ‘eastern square style’ of carving date from the period of European contact and were carved with steel rather than stone tools. This has led some scholars to conclude that the style is more recent than the serpentine style. However, examples were recorded as early as 1769, when Cook’s Endeavour visited Ūawa (Tolaga Bay). Drawings of the carvings collected on that voyage not only show clear evidence of the ‘serpentine’ style, but also the haehae (raised lines) and pākati (notch) surface patterning that characterise the ‘square style’.

‘Eastern square style’

The other major regional style is the ‘eastern square style’ from the Bay of Islands, Thames, East Coast, Rotorua, the south of Te Ika-a-Māui (the North Island) and Te Wai Pounamu (the South Island).This style is so-named because of the broad, squat nature of the body types, with the head usually about a third of the entire composition.

Large carved houses

Some of Cook’s crew observed the unfinished frame of a large house, about 10 metres long, in the process of being carved. As there is no evidence of large, fully carved houses elsewhere in New Zealand at this time, this carving tradition may have started on the East Coast, possibly under the influence of the Rāwheoro school, and spread from Ūawa (Tolaga Bay) to the rest of the North Island. It is believed that the fully carved meeting house was introduced to the Te Arawa tribes when the East Coast tribe of Ngāti Awa offered them one as a wedding gift. By the 1830s and 1840s there were many such large carved houses.

    • Quoted in Anne Salmond, Two worlds: first meetings between Maori and Europeans, 1642–1772. Auckland: Viking, 1993, p. 281. Back

Carving, 19th century

The 19th century was a period of dramatic change as Māori experienced the impact of colonisation. One impact was the introduction of guns, which proved deadly during the intertribal ‘musket wars’. Those who possessed the imported weapons overwhelmed and decimated those who did not. The carved Te Kaha pātaka (storehouse) was dismantled and hidden by its makers, Te Whānau-a-Apanui, when they were threatened by musket-bearing Ngāpuhi. The carving traditions of the north, Hauraki and Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) seem to come to an abrupt end at this time. The later wars between Māori and the Crown had a further impact. For instance, in 1863 the Crown destroyed more than a thousand canoes on Manukau Harbour just before the invasion of Waikato.

Te Hau-ki-Tūranga

The magnificent meeting house Te Hau-ki-Tūranga, carved by Raharuhi Rukupō, which in the early 2000s was in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, was completed in the years immediately after the Treaty of Waitangi was signed. It is an example of the transition between a chief’s own house and the much larger communal houses that became the expression of tribal mana in place of waka taua (carved canoes) and pātaka (food storehouses). Te Hau-ki-Tūranga is exceptional not only because it is the oldest existing example of a fully carved meeting house, but because it demonstrates Rukupō’s exemplary skill. He utilised new steel tools to great effect, producing forms that are highly sculptural and inventive in their application of surface patterning. The house was described by Māori leader Apirana Ngata as ‘the finest flowering of Maori art’1 and was upheld by him as the example to be followed by the carving school he established in 1926.

Te Hau-ki-Tūranga is seen as the ultimate expression of mana, of supreme confidence in the Māori world-view, by a tohunga immersed in the customs and lore of his people. Rukupō deeply feared Pākehā encroachment, and by 1867 his world had been shattered, his tribe dispersed and Te Hau-ki-Tūranga confiscated by the government.

Simplified symbolism

In areas most affected by land confiscation and conflict, such as Taranaki and Waikato, the rich carving traditions were obliterated. On the East Coast carving continued under carvers such as Hōne Ngātoto, albeit heavily influenced by western narratives and naturalistic conventions. As Māori became more exposed to Christianity and European cultural influences, their understanding of their own culture’s symbolism started to break down. Carvings began to be read like a picture book – a taiaha (fighting staff) signified a warrior, a naturalistic landscape beneath a chief symbolised his domain.

Multi-use houses

During the period from the 1860s until about 1920, the traditional Māori way of life was disrupted and Māori were regarded by many Europeans as a dying race. As a result of political upheavals, meeting houses were built to fulfil the roles of church, assembly hall and sleeping house, so that communities could gather to respond to the issues at hand. There was little time to carve elaborate houses that indulged the traditions of the past.

Painted houses

There followed an innovative period of painted houses, which made reference to carving in painted form. They are associated with Rukupō’s nephew Te Kooti Arikirangi Te Tūruki, a prophet and war leader, although not all were made under Te Kooti’s influence. These houses drew on western naturalism and narrative figure painting as introduced to Māori in the missionaries’ illustrated books, as well as kōwhaiwhai, tukutuku (woven panels) and whakairo. Such houses were described by traditionalists such as Ngata as a ‘degeneration’ of the art of carving. Yet, as a reflection of the people and time in which they were made, they make a powerful statement. Rongopai at Manutuke and Te Poho-o-Materoa at Awapuni (both near Gisborne) are the best known.

    • Quoted in Deidre S. Brown, ‘Te Hau ki Turanga.’ Journal of the Polynesian Society 105, no. 1 (1996), p. 21. Back

The Rotorua school

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.

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

Carving in urban environments

Hōne Taiapa

The dramatic shift of many Māori from rural communities to the cities after the Second World War produced two major responses from would-be carvers. Some followed the traditional path exemplified by Hōne Taiapa, younger brother of carver Pine Taiapa, who, as head tutor at the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute, strongly resisted deviation from the ‘classical’ model. He emphasised the ‘craft’ of carving over its esoteric values.

Fine arts schools

Other trainees attended mainstream art schools or teachers’ training colleges, where they could specialise in fine arts in their third year. They were confronted by the widely held belief that Māori art had died with their ancestors. Experts such as the director of the National Art Gallery claimed, ‘No Maori artist of stature has yet arrived. The process of integration has isolated the Maori of today from the living meaning of the arts of his forefathers and his culture must from now on be one with his European neighbour.’1

Māori artists such as Arnold Manaaki Wilson (of Ngāi Tūhoe), who trained at the Elam School of Fine Arts, believed that ‘reviving so-called Maori arts is a dead loss … all they’re getting is a template of what was done before 1840, or worse, a template of the template that was created by the Ngata revival.’2

Urban marae

By the 1970s a large proportion of the Māori population had moved into the cities, and many campaigned for the construction of new marae as part of the urban landscape. A newly built whare whakairo (carved house) such as Hoani Waititi marae in Te Atatū, in Auckland, became symbolic of new life in Māori culture.

Cliff Whiting

Cliff Whiting (of Te Whānau-ā-Apanui) was encouraged to explore the art of whakairo by his relative, the renowned traditionally trained carver Pine Taiapa. Whiting led the restoration and rebuilding of historic wharenui and other marae buildings, and new urban marae. He supervised the carving of Te Kūpenga o te Matauranga at Palmerston North Teachers’ College, which became the first meeting house on a teachers’ college campus when it opened in 1979.

Maru Kaitatea, Kaikōura

Whiting was one of many prominent artists, Māori and Pākehā, who contributed to the wharenui (meeting house) Maru Kaitatea at Takahanga marae in Kaikōura which opened in 2001. The local iwi, Ngāti Kurī, recognised that since the early 1880s, many of their people had intermarried with Europeans. ‘Everyone worked together in a very deliberate way to integrate that inclusiveness into the whole marae statement. It was the first marae to do that.’3

Te Hono ki Hawaiki, Wellington

Te Hono ki Hawaiki, the meeting house at Rongomaraeroa, the marae at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, created intense discussion when it opened in 1997. To preserve increasingly scarce native timbers, and to employ the qualities of new materials, Cliff Whiting chose MDF (fibreboard) panels for the marae carvings, which were painted in vibrant pastel colours. The panels in the front of the wharenui represent Māori stories and traditions, while those at the rear stand for the various non-Māori who have made New Zealand their home.

New waka taua

At the same time as the revival of carving meeting houses, there was a renaissance of canoe building. The waka taua (carved canoe) is an important symbol of a tribe’s mana. Tainui leader Te Puea Hērangi, moved by her childhood memories of seeing King Mahuta’s waka Tāheretikitiki on the Waikato River, mobilised her tribe under carver Piri Poutapu to build carved waka that would represent the legendary great fleet that brought Māori to New Zealand.

A full fleet of seven waka was originally planned to take part in the 1940 commemoration of the centenary of the Treaty of Waitangi. Eventually, however, only two new canoes (Aotea and Tākitimu, which was later renamed) were built and a third, Te Winika, was restored. Another waka was built in Kerikeri under Piri Poutapu and Pita Hepera and named Ngātokimatawhaorua. Traditional canoe building flourished again with the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1990, when a flotilla of 23 ceremonial waka was assembled.

    • Stewart Bell Maclennan, ‘Art in New Zealand – section II: survey, trends, and influences, 1938 to present.’ In An encyclopaedia of New Zealand, edited by A. H. McLintock. Vol. 1. Wellington: Government Printer, 1966, p. 87. Back
    • Damian Skinner, The carver and the artist: Māori art in the twentieth century. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2008, p. 12. Back
    • Quoted in Adrienne Rewi, ‘Takahanga – a place by the sea.’ Te Karaka, (last accessed 15 January 2014). Back

Carving in the 2000s

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.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Brett Graham, 'Whakairo – Māori carving', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 September 2023)

Story by Brett Graham, published 22 Oct 2014