Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa Go to Te Ao Hou homepage
No. 28 (September 1959)
– 48 –

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.

THE ART OF MODERN MAORI CARVING

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

– 49 –

Picture icon

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.

– 50 –

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.

TRIBALISM IN MODERN CARVING

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.

THE CARVER, HIS PUPILS AND THE PUBLIC

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

– 51 –

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.

IS THERE A FUTURE FOR MAORI CARVING?

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.

⋆ ⋆ ⋆

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.

⋆ ⋆ ⋆

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.

⋆ ⋆ ⋆

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.

⋆ ⋆ ⋆

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