The Painted House at Patutahi
The meeting-house in which these photographs were taken stands at Repongaere, near Patutahi in the Gisborne district. The house is known to some people as Rongopai, and to others as Eriopeta. It was formerly tapu, but recently, in a ceremony conducted by the Ringatu Church, the tapu was lifted. Because of this it is now possible for the first time to photograph the building.
In 1888, when Te Kooti announced his intention of visiting the district, his followers hastily erected this house to accommodate him and his retinue. The work was carried out by the young men of the tribe (Whanau a Kai). But when the elders entered the house at its opening, they were profoundly shocked to see how far the young men, in decorating it, had departed from the traditional designs.
Many of the paintings in the house had no relevance to tribal matters; there were strange animals, and stylized foliage, and little scenes showing such incidents as a boxing match, a man hunting with his dogs, and a horse race. What may well have upset the elders still more,
however, is the spirit in which the artists had portrayed those subjects which were traditional. The old gravity and reverence had gone, and the figures of ancestors were depicted with a light-heartedness which must have appeared dangerously frivolous; there is even one ancestor who wears in his head not a huia feather, but a Scotch thistle.
When the elders saw this, they prophesied that because of this desecration Te Kooti would never enter the house. The building became tapu at once, and Te Kooti never did visit the district.
Like most of the great houses built in different parts of the country by Te Kooti's followers, this meeting-house is very large; altogether it is 85 feet long by 35 feet wide. Although a certain amount of maintenance work has been done from time to time (there is corrugated iron over its raupo roof, and the walls are set in concrete), the house has in most ways been left as it was when it was built 75 years ago. The door and window in the porch wall are the old-fashioned sliding panels, and
The paintings in the porch (some are shown on page 32) are among the most interesting, but they are so battered and worn by the weather that they do not, at first sight, give one much idea of what to expect inside the building. It is an astonishing moment when one first sees the painted interior.
When you push aside the door the wide, long building is dark inside, since the only window is a wooden one. There are about 20 panels (poupou) on each of the walls to the right and left, and all of them are elaborately decorated: some with Maori designs, and some with elaborately twining plants—curious trees and vines, some of them bright with fruit and flowers, with birds flying among them, and people climbing in their branches. At the far end of the building, and also in the wall in which the
The bold rhythms of the kowhaiwhai designs give strength and coherence to the other decorations in the building. This photograph shows the upper part of the back wall.
Quite Different from Traditional Art
Art of this kind is, of course, quite different from the art of 50 or so years earlier, and it cannot be judged by the same standards. As the old religion and the old society disappeared, so, inevitably, did the great traditional art of the past; even when carving continued, it was different in spirit from the older work. In houses such as this one, untaught artists were trying to fill the gap in their own way—to express their own society and their own experience. The high-spirited inventiveness of this folk art, its wit and charm, its irreverent and affectionate treatment of matters which had formerly been sacred, tell us much about the people who produced it and the changing times in which they lived.
Once, there were many houses with paintings similar in type to these, though there must have been few with work as interesting as this one. These days, however, there are few folk paintings left; some of the old houses have disappeared, and in many cases the earlier
decorations have been painted over during renovations. This house is unique; let us hope that it and its paintings will be preserved for the future, as the proud possession of its owners, and as a source of enjoyment and interest to future generations.
The information given in this article concerning the early history of the house is taken from W. J. Phillips' article on Maori Houses on the East Coast, published in the Records of the Dominion Museum, vol. 1. 1942–4. The photograph on page 32 is by Ans Westra; other photographs are by Margaret Orbell.
Mr Tonga Awhikau, of Normanby, Taranaki, received many congratulatory messages recently when he celebrated his 100th birthday.
Mr Awhikau, who was once Chairman of the West Coast Lands Committee, fought hard in earlier days for the betterment of his people. He lives with his granddaughter and her husband, Mr and Mrs M. Tapara, at Normanby. Although he has lost one eye, he still reads the newspaper with keen interest.
Mrs Martha Hirini, the Dominion President of the Maori Women's Welfare League, has been awarded the M.B.E. in this year's New Year Honours.
Mrs Hirini, who has been a member of the League since its inception 11 years ago, has given it long and faithful service in a number of capacities; before elected Dominion president three years ago she was president of the Heretaunga District Council of the League, and also president of the Hastings branch.
Her present position involves a great deal of travelling about the country visiting branches of the League, and this, her fourth and final year as Dominion president, will be taken up with visiting areas she has not been to previously, as well as covering as much familiar ground as she can to say her goodbyes.
Apart from her work with the League, Mrs Hirini has worked on the committees of the Save the Children Fund and the National Council of Women. She is to represent the Council at the Pan-Pacific conference to be held at Tonga in August.
In spite of all these activities, Mrs Hirini still finds time to spend with her large family, which includes several grandchildren and three great-grand-children.