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No. 28 (September 1959)
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In the opinion of many, John Taiapa's masterpiece (and also the masterpiece of modern Maori carving) is the house named Apanui at Te Kaha, completed in 1942.

1. Building Art in the Maori Tradition

John Taiapa and the Carved Meeting House of To-day

THREE major carved Maori houses have been opened over the last eighteen months, two of them on the East Coast, the third and latest on the shores of Lake Taupo. The work in these houses is competent, terse and forceful; while following ancient tradition it still has the vigour and subtlety of a living art.

There are strong sentimental reasons why this art should be kept alive. Among stone-age peoples no better woodcarving was ever done than that of the ancient Maori. It is this art more than anything else in Maori tradition that has given the Maori a claim to special genius in the judgment of the world. With such a tradition to uphold, it is natural that the Maori people would wish to keep woodcarving alive if at all possible.

Is it possible? Some people suggest that wood-carving talent has died out and that no expenditure of money could bring it back again. Those people draw the conclusion that therefore no money should be spent on Maori carving.

One wonders how this myth about the non-existent Maori carvers should ever have started. All the facts deny it, yet it is widely believed.

Mr John Taiapa, who carved the house at Waihi, told me that he and his brother, Pine, have trained literally hundreds of carvers while they were working on their many meeting houses; in fact they are considering issuing diplomas to those who have worked with them for at least four years full time and who would, in their view, be quali-

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Sitting in front of an epa of the Te Kaha meeting house are Mr Tiweka Anaru (left) and Sir Apirana Ngarka (right) who is generally regarded as the chief inspiration behind modern Maori carving.

fied to carve a meeting house on their own. Taking only the pupils with definite artistic talent and technical skill, the two brothers consider they could issue no less than 65 diplomas. In addition to these 65, there are, of course, many experts trained by others than the Taiapas. Of all this abundant store of gifted people, hardly any are making a living out of carving at present.

So, in actual fact, it is not the art of carving that is dying out but the art of paying carvers for their work. This very essential art was superbly understood by the late Sir Apirana Ngata, but since his time it has gone into a serious decline.

Many of the wealthier and larger tribes and sub-tribes are now the proud possessors of good carved houses; they do not need further ones. The smaller and less wealthy communities often have other needs more urgent than a carved house. Furthermore, the cost of carving and tukutuku is high (average—£6000) when measured against other community amenities. It might even be said that a tribe with little money to spend would be wite to do without carving; from a purely financial viewpoint that is certainly true. A carved house, with the tapu often attaching to it, has only limited uses and can only be justified, under modern conditions, when other social amenities are already available.

Still, it would be shocking if this lack of money should cause the disappearance of an art which has shown such lively and satisfying development over the last thirty years. With tribal resources running short, other forms of patronage may have to be found to keep carvers going. It is a question that should be considered seriously by Maori leaders.

The most prolific producers of carved houses over the last thirty years have undoubtedly been the two brothers Pine and John Taiapa. They have carved in practically all parts of New Zealand, the exceptions being the Rotorua and Bay

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A typical group of carvers working on a meeting house is this one from the Te Kaha project, left to right: Wi Paki Reweti, Henare Rukingi Haupapa, Hone Taiapa, Aiotua Tuarau, Tui Graham, Tuwhaka Kapua.

of Plenty districts where Arawa carving traditions are still very much alive.

Each of them has worked on over forty houses. About eight years ago, shortly after the death of Sir Apirana Ngata. Pine gave up carving and became a sheep-farmer. John carried on as a full time carver, but after he finished the Waihi house about a year ago, there were no further contracts offering, so for the time being he is in the building trade in Rotorua. However, he expects that by and by opportunities will open up for him to return to his true vocation.

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Detail of the head on a poupou in the Te Kaha house. (N.Z. Department of Internal Affairs Photograph)

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When I was in Rotorua recently, I talked to John Taiapa, a spare quiet man who speaks without flamboyant phrases or effects but was able to tell me in simple workmanlike words about the life and art of the modern carver. Several other talented Maori carvers could have told me similar things but I have to leave them till some other time. What he told me cannot be the real story of his art: one only finds that by looking at the hundreds of Maori figures and symbolic representations that issued from his hands. He is a man who does not express his deepest thoughts in words; he uses wood instead. And in wood he expresses himself aptly and with imagination.

Both he and Pine were born at Tikitiki on the East Coast. When Pine grew up he became a surveyor's chainman; he was in his late twenties when the School of Arts and Crafts opened in Rotorua. Pine Taiapa became one of the foundation students at the school together with two young men from Rotorua and two from Waikato. The director was Mr Harold Hamilton, son of Augustus Hamilton who was Director of the Dominion Museum and a noted authority on Maori art. The teacher was Rotohiko Haupapa, from Rotorua. As Pine Taiapa tells the story, this first Arawa teacher was very much a man of the old school and jealous of imparting his knowledge to men of other tribes—‘Why don't you go back farming?’ he asked Pine. But he and the two Waikato youths persevered; he got information from carvings of the East Coast and from photographs; he developed a technique of his own.

Beginning of a Career

It was at this period that John, the younger brother (born 1912) appeared on the scene. It was the middle of the depression; his job in the bush had just cut out, and John came to the school, not as a student, but just to help his brother. In the end they paid him five shillings a week. At the time of John's arrival the school was busy on the house ‘Te Hono ki Rarotonga’ which stands at Tokomaru Bay. This was the first house to which John Taiapa contributed as a learner. Around this time, Sir Apirana Ngata engaged a new instructor in the school to teach adze work: Eramiha Kapua from Te Teko, descendant of a famous Ngati Terawhai carving family. This teacher is remembered by both the Taiapas with much gratitude and affection. There were seven brothers in Eramiha's family who were all carvers. Between them they carved the house in the Christchurch exhibition of 1907.

Eramiha Kapua himself was a strict carver of the old school who knew all the tapu observances concerning carving. He never blew the chips away, he did not allow women near the carvings, nor any smoking on the job. However, he told his young students that they would be wiser not to bother with tapu. His reason was that, not knowing precisely what the tapu was, they might easily make a mistake and that would be worse than if they did not burden their mind with it at all. Therefore, both Pine and John abandoned all idea of tapu in their work.

Te Hono Ki Rarotonga was the work of five carvers; at the head Eramiha Kapua, and helping him: Pine and John Taiapa, and the two men from Waikato: Wiremu Poutapu and Waka Kereama. At that stage, the Rotorua instructor and the other two Arawa carvers left the School. The kowhaiwhai for the house was done by a European signwriter, Jack Wright, there being no qualified Maori available. The women of Tokomaru Bay did the tukutuku work themselves.

The opening of this house was especially dramatic because Makea. Tinirau, paramount chief of the Cook Islands, with his party, had been invited to emphasise the importance of the link between Rarotonga and the descendants of the Horouta canoe. Makea opened the house and then asked Ngata whether he could have a similar carved meeting house in Rarotonga. Ngata asked the Cook Island chief to leave two of his men behind to learn the art of carving and so it was that Aiotua Tuarau and Wili Marama stayed in New Zealand and joined the School of Maori Arts and Crafts. The Raretonga house was never built, although money was raised for it; the project ended with the death of old Makea Tinirau.

All this happened in 1934; shortly afterwards work began on the monumental Waitangi meeting house. When that was finished, in 1937, John Taiapa considered himself a fully trained carver. But not the whole of the three years after Tokomaru Bay were devoted to the Waitangi house. They were in fact exceptionally busy years for the men of the Arts and Crafts school—it was then that the house at Otaki was built, and the one at Waitara, and the Mangahanea dining hall at Ruatoria, and the Sir James Carroll Memorial Hall, and a start was also made on the carvings in the Te Aute College assembly hall.

The Travelling Circus

The bewildering variety of jobs was part of Sir Apirana's financial strategy. As soon as people produced some money for a carved house, he would send a group of carvers to make a start on the work; however, the money would never be quite enough to do the whole job, so the carvers were soon shifted to a further job. Once a start on a house had been made, efforts were redoubled to get more money; such organizations as the Maori Purposes Fund Board were also asked to contribute.

During these years two carving parties were almost constantly on one job or another. John

(Continued on page 48)

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Opening of one of the houses built by the Rotorua School of Carving, ‘Takitimu’, built as a memorial to the late Sir James Carroll and opened in 1937.

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A party of carvers working on the Takipu meeting house opened last year. Left to right: Derick Morris, Jim Ruru, John Taiapa, Wi Te Parihi, Charles Rutene. (Kandid Kamera Kraft, Gisborne)

John Taiapa and Carving Today — continued from page 31

and his party of six carvers would be sent, say to Mangahanea Dining Hall, while Pine with another similar party was at the Rotorua school, busy on the carvings for the Wairoa hall. Pine was then shifted to Putiki, and John to Wairoa. And so the two groups travelled around from one place to another, staying on tribal maraes, fed by the local people, sleeping in meeting houses. Wives and children accompanied the carvers who constituted a sizeable busload when they moved from one marae to another. At no place was there any privacy or any respite from the traditional Maori way of living.

John built a very comfortable home for himself in Rotorua but he was rarely there; most of the time he, his wife and his children were on the road—‘a travelling circus’, as John now calls it. In this way the family were brought up, although some years ago the ‘circus’ atmosphere stopped when John refused to accept the marae type of accommodation any longer and insisted on staying in hotels or guest houses. But this was as late as the fifties.

In the thirties, the carvers' rate of pay was adapted to the times. Qualified men got two shillings an hour, Pine Taiapa only was paid 2s. 6d. Students got 25s. to 35s. per week. It was only later that the contract system was introduced whereby a carver puts his price on the whole of a job—something like £4,500 for the woodcarving on an average fully decorated meeting house. Today, some arrangements are on an hourly basis, others on contract. John Taiapa prefers contracts; he still has a scale of charges worked out by Sir Apirana Ngata shortly before his death and clings to this price list when asked for quotations.


There are many books describing the elementary techniques of carving, the proper forms of the spirals and the decorative patterns and all the other conventional features of Maori art. But these conventions, added all together, would still never make a carved meeting house. The carved house is the supreme representation of the history of the tribe; in the absence of a written literature this history was set down in the form of pictures in wood, each picture being a supreme moment in the lives of the ancestors.

The modern carver, just like his forebears, aims to tell a tribal story in striking pictures. Some of these pictures are already traditional, like Tamatekapua, who is always shown on stilts. The carver who first thought of this picture wanted to show the old chief in one of his most characteristic activities: he was known as a very ingenious thief and it was said that he would never leave footprints behind; so he was represented on one of his thieving expeditions walking on stilts to avoid recognition. To-day, every carver who wishes to know Tamatekapua shows the stilts: they have become entirely traditional and in fact the stilts are the feature by which Tamatekapua may be recognised in any Arawa meeting house.

Similarly traditional is the representation of Hine Amaru, seen in the Waitangi meeting house. As John Taiapa told me, she gave birth to a child from the armpits and this miraculous event is shown in any carvings of that ancestress.

In treating such subjects, the Maori carver has much the same task as the Christian artist of the middle ages reproducing moments in the life of Christ: tradition determined precisely what should be on the picture (e.g., the three black Magi had to bear opulent gifts standing in front of a cradle and there had to be haloes round the heads of the Magi and of the Divine Child). Yet within these limits an artist can still do powerful work as he relives the old story and expresses it in his own way and with his own individual skill. At the end of the Middle Ages, European art moved in a quite different direction and one can already see

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Paramount Chief Hepi Te Heuheu greets the Prime Minister, the Rt Hon Walter Nash, and the Hon E. T. Tirikatene at the opening of Tapeka Meeting House, Waihi, last April. Since Tapeka was carved last year, Maori carving has been at a complete standstill. (Photo: 20th Century Photography, Taumarunui).

this change happening when the Flemish masters introduced, in one corner of a Nativity scene, a cow nonchalantly chewing hay, quite indifferent to the central event. This was the beginning of realism: the Divine Birth was placed in the setting of a barn in Flanders such as people saw every day.

However, woodcarving does not lend itself easily to such a development; it is not surprising that the carver, by and large, still works with the traditional simple picture stories which often demand very great skill. For instance, the representation of Hine Amaru giving birth to a child from the armpits would be a challenge to any sculptor, particularly in the circumscribed space, and style, demanded in a Maori meeting house.

Symbolism in the Takipu House

Many times the carver must represent an ancestor who has never before (to his knowledge) been put into a carved house. He then has to study all the stories that are still known about the ancestor and make a carving from these stories. He has to picture the man from the stories he has heard and then present in wood, not only the man, but also his most famous acts. For instance, when John Taiapa did the Takipu house which was opened last year, he had to present the ancestor Taharakau who is still famous for his proverbial sayings.

On the finished carving, Taharakau is shown wearing a rain cape; in the background there is a cabbage tree. Most people who saw the carving recognized the rain cape, for there is a famous story about Taharakau going to visit the chief Tapuwai in Wairoa. On the trip, his slave wore fine cloaks but Taharakau merely wore a rain cape. When the slave asked him why, he replied ‘E tata a runga, e roa a raro’ meaning that the journey was far but the sky right overhead. The Maori is very neatly expressed and became a well known proverb.

Although everyone understood this part of the carving, quite a few visitors to Takipu did not know the significance of the cabbage tree. John Taiapa was referring to another of Taharakau's proverbs, ‘Ahi kouka i te ata, he ai i te po’. Between the two proverbs, we get an appealing picture of old Taharakau who was careful not to be overtaken by sudden rain, and who liked lying under a cabbage tree during the day, but keeping warm with his wife at night. In this way his memory is being admirably preserved in the tribal meeting house.

Another striking picture at Takipu is Wairaka who was the only woman on board the Mataatua canoe. When the canoe landed, all the men jumped out and rushed off to claim areas of land, so the story goes. The canoe drifted back to sea, so Wairaka called out to the men to pull it ashore. However, the men took no notice. Wairaka then said “Ki a whakatane au” (I make myself a man) and got the canoe back herself. This is the supposed origin of the name of the town Whakatane.

John Taiapa presented Wairaka with a tiki and the usual formal design for female breasts, holding a midget canoe in her hand.

Finding a fitting way of picturing the stories is the main task of the Maori carver and this can be done satisfyingly only by a dedicated artist.

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While Sir Apirana Ngata was alive, he used to help the carvers by tracing the genealogy of the tribe whose house was being decorated and discussing the tribal history; since Sir Apirana has passed to the beyond, John Taiapa took this task over himself.


When Pine and John started carving, tribal sentiments were very much more pronounced than they are to-day. Their earliest teacher, Rotohiko Haupapa, it seems, was not very happy about teaching men of other tribes and Pine and John used East Coast models for their earliest work, rather than trespass on what was thought of as a closed Arawa domain. So, by the time Te Hono Ki Rarotonga was finished, they knew the style of Ngati Porou. However, wider knowledge was needed for their next big job, the Waitangi house.

This house contains slabs carved in five different styles: East Coast, Gisborne, Arawa, Whanau Apanui and Ngapuhi. John recalls how the carving team managed the Ngapuhi style which at that time was entirely forgotten and had not been practised for over a century: they stayed in Auckland for a while and carved small models of Ngapuhi work they found in the Auckland Museum. This was the only time small models were made; later when they had to carve in the Taranaki style for the house in Waitara, it was easy to imitate the style just by looking at the models in the museum. By then, the principle had been accepted that a practised modern carver may have to use several tribal styles, according to the area where the house was built. However, not all tribes insist on carvers adopting the local style; for instance, the house at Waihi was carved in East Coast style, no attempt being made to revive the quite unusual features of the old Tuwharetoa carving.

This is all the more understandable as most of the carving parties were of mixed tribal origin. Among those who carved in the thirties were Arawa such as Tame Naera and Tuhaka Kapua, Northerners such as Joe Mokaraka, Wi Te Parihi and Henare Toka, while others came from Ngati Raukawa (G. Patuwaka and Kohe Webster) or Rarotonga, and all these carvers worked together on the same jobs. There was a custom of taking on learners from the tribes whose houses were being built. For instance, when the Sir James Carroll Memorial Hall was carved, three Wairoa students joined the party: Wharekauri Kaimoana, his son Hai, and Ipu Hook.

In this way, carving is gradually becoming a national rather than a tribal Maori art. Nevertheless, there are certain specific features (body shapes, types of decoration) which are felt to belong to particular tribes and used accordingly.


John Taiapa regards the educating of pupils as an essential part of his calling. He likes to see the art of carving flourish and is prepared to give much of his time and energy in the passing on of his knowledge. In the first stages of instruction he designs the slabs in pencil, carves one side himself, and then leaves the pupil to do the other half, imitating what has already been completed. The next stage is to leave the student also to

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design the second half of the slab. He tries to make sure that the pupils get confidence in themselves and are not frightened to work independently as their training progresses. Unfortunately, none of these students have been able to take up carving as a full-time career once their apprenticeship was finished.

Who are the good carvers of to-day? Among his fellow-carvers and students, John Taiapa mentioned the following names as especially distinguished: Aiotua Tuarau, the Rarotongan who is still working with the Dominion Museum as a professional carver; John Metekingi, Joe Mokaraka, Jim Ruru, Derrick Morris, Tuhaka Kapua, Bill Poutapu, Waka Kereama and Dempsey Greening.

The status of carvers varies from tribe to tribe, being undoubtedly high in districts like the East Coast where leaders have continued to revere the carver as a ‘tohunga’—a learned man, whose service to the tribe is of the highest value. The fact that the carver has to be paid like anyone else in these expensive days should not lower his status in Maori eyes, because no carver is really just a paid servant: he has to give his whole personality to the great task of presenting the whole history of the host tribe in his carvings.

Yet attitudes to the carver vary from place to place; in places where his art is valued he is given a farewell party after his work is finished. He is invited to the opening and classed among prominent visitors at the opening ceremony. On the treatment meted out to carvers in some communities, John Taipa quotes the apt proverb:

Karanga riri, karanga ki a Paeko;
Karanga kai, ka hapa a Paeko.

(When there is a battle, they call Paeko, but at the feast, Paeko is forgotten.) Certainly, poor treatment of the artist is not confined to the modern Maori,—it happens in many places in the world, but in this respect the ancient Maori tradition is far superior to what may have been learnt from the less civilised category of pakehas.


To-day, the Rotorua School of Arts and Crafts is closed. Flourishing during the thirties, it was closed during the war and then reopened with John Taiapa as instructor. The last house carved at the school was Tapeka, the house recently opened at Waihi. Since then, the building has been locked. By no means all the carving work of the thirties was done at Rotorua; in fact, those who have meeting houses built like to have the carving done on their own maraes where they can watch the work in progress and this limited the usefulness of the building in Rotorua. Still, it was indispensable as a headquarters and a place for storage.

How the future of carving can be safeguarded it is hard to tell. At present, there are still plenty of experts left from the days of the Rotorua school and the problem seems to be how to find useful employment for their talents. Employment on traditional carved houses is inevitably lagging but there should be plenty of other uses for Maori woodcarvers. Could they be used to decorate public buildings? Has enough been done to market superior carvings of medium size? We do not wish to encourage present tourist jobs done in a few minutes but very good and eminently saleable small work could be carved if a week or a day or even half a day could be devoted to it. This is well worth examining: with some thought and planning there might well be a good future for carving. And the experience of the last thirty years has shown that the talent will come forward as soon as the opportunities are opened.

Mr Charles Tareha, son of Mr Tuiri Tareha, of Waiohiki, Napier, graduated recently from the Watchtower Bible School of Gilead, South Lansing, New York.

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The Ahuriri tribal committee has been offered a shingle island in the Ahuriri tidal channel by the Napier City Council for the establishment of a marae and community centre.

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Mrs R. T. Cairns, of Kaitemako Road, Welcome Bay, Tauranga, was recently presented with the Tauranga Co-operative Dairy Association cream-grading cup. The cup will be held for a year on behalf of the Matapihi run which has supplied the Tauranga factory with the most improved cream for the second year in succession. Mrs Cairns is the daughter of Mr John Ohia and the widow of Ahuwhenua trophy winner R. T. Cairns, who died suddenly last January.

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Canon Te Hihi Kaa, of Karamu, gave a series of six lectures on ‘Maori History and Culture’ at the Hastings Public Library recently, under the auspices of the Wellington Regional Council of Adult Education.

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The Russian Geographical Literature Publishing House has announced the publication of Te Rangihiroa's ‘Vikings of the Sunrise’ in Russian.