Chapter 5, Part 1 - NGA PURAKAU
Carvings from Mythology
Please enjoy listening to ARIANA TIKAO SING A POEM BY HIRINI MELBOURNE "aMOKURA' WHILST READING CHAPTER 4 PART 1. tAONGA PUORO BY ALISTAIR FRASER.
There are several Māori words for a rainbow, such as the lovely sounding āniwaniwa. Like many of us, I have a fascination with rainbows, and eagerly seek traditional stories about them, but I was puzzled by museum examples of kō, or digging sticks, which appeared to have a rainbow-crowned figure at the top (below). This was later explained to me by Te Aue Davis, who said that a carving of a stylised rainbow representing the god Uenuku would traditionally be placed in gardens as kaitiaki of Papa tū ā nuku, the earth mother. She explained that Uenuku could also be consulted to give guidance, and he is therefore also regarded as a kaitiaki of travellers. The tips of his fingers, representing the colours of his rainbows, often top the sternpost carvings of large waka (below), and war parties were known to carry his effigy to consult for guidance on strategy.
The tekoteko of Uenuku opposite is the kaitiaki of the Whare Atea at Salisbury School in Richmond. It was chosen because when one stands in front of it, the mountain Wharepapa (Mt Arthur) can be seen in the distance and on some mornings a rainbow, the manifestation of Uenuku, arcs above it. This reminds the pupils that the beings from mythology are more than characters in a story, for they are constantly with us as part of our world. The carvings and panels within Whare Atea also reinforce that theme.
I created the carving on the following page for a respected kaumātua, or elder, whose family traditions come from Te Rēinga, near Gisborne. Their kaitiaki, Hine Kōrako, lives in the pool at the bottom of Te Rēinga Falls. She is best known as the female form of the rainbow, whose ghostly, whitish image is seen in the moonlight, but in this special place she can also be seen in her multi-coloured form.
The carving shown below is of the atua Kahukura Uenuku, whose ariā, or manifestation, is often referred to as either Uenuku or Kahukura. Using a niho parāoa, or whale tooth, I depicted Uenuku as a rainbow on one side, using his fingers and toes to represent the colours. The curve of the tooth complements the metaphysical image of a rainbow. The other side of the pendant represents Kahukura. I was delighted to learn that the most colourful of our native butterflies, the red and the yellow admirals, are called kahukura, and that they too can be a manifestation of the colour-loving god Kahukura Uenuku. I have depicted him here with his wings as four enlarged hands. Red admiral butterflies are becoming endangered because the only food of the caterpillars is stinging nettles, which are not a garden favourite. The native variety is very potent, but a friend, Dr Roger Frost, who is doing valuable work to help save the butterflies, gave me some introduced nettle plants which I have planted in a secluded part of my garden to attract the butterflies.
The kahukura below is carved in a sphere from boxwood. It is made in the form of a Japanese netsuke, but carved using a distinctly Māori design style. This celebrates its relationship with red admirals in other parts of the globe, whose caterpillars also dine on nettles.
It is a challenging responsibility to go from carving icons like rainbows and creatures with their mythical concepts, to crafting works that hold family or tribal stories. To be asked to create these is an honour not lightly given, for it usually involves entrusting the carver with information that is not usually made public. Some carvings have aspects which their owners are happy to share with the world, though they may also have other aspects which are personal and private. My most daunting request to carve a taonga kōrero, a personal pendant that tells a story, came when Sir Tīpene O’Regan was the narrator for a television series, The Natural World of the Māori. The piece was required urgently, and also had to accommodate and disguise a small microphone. Fortunately, some time earlier Sir Tīpene had entrusted me with an enormous whale tooth, with instructions to turn it into carvings for him and his great friend Bill Solomon of Kāti Kūri.
The large tooth pointing upwards reminded me of Niho Kewa (Solander Island), which can be seen in the far west from Te Ara a Kewa (Foveaux Strait). As the traditional symbol of Murihiku, the southernmost part of the South Island, is a whale’s tail, this became the first part of the carving (below). The story told within the tooth also comes from Tīpene’s southern ancestry. The head of a whale, which was a tribal guardian taniwha, is carved at the bottom and shown as if one is looking down on it, as it would appear from the cliffs of Cosy Nook, where it lived. The head is joined to the flukes by the tapering backbone, though the bulky body is taken for granted.
Instead, this section boasts of the abundant seafood found in the area. On the right side is a simple manaia face representing a pāua (see details below). Above that is a representation of a fish, portrayed with a semblance of reality as a manaia face and a limb. On the left side the same style with the addition of a second limb symbolises a seal with its flippers curled under it. These manaia faces have a physical resemblance to the beings they represent, whereas those on the tail flukes serve to portray the spirit of the great albatross which glide through the straits. On the left side is also a long, straight eel to remind us that the name of the pā this whale guarded meant ‘the skin of the eel’. The strengthener on the right side depicts the tentacle of an octopus, to acknowledge the guardian whale’s owner, Te Tau Wheke. Integral to this carving are various aspects that have a personal meaning for the owner’s family. Having an intimate knowledge of the area from where the story came seemed to make the carving flow. I then carved the other half of the tooth for Bill Solomon, and from the material that came from between these two carvings I created au rei, or cloak pins (opposite) for Te Aue Davis, Wharetutu Stirling of Kāti Kūri and my wife Julia who were part of this special friendship. While the responsibility of carving such precious material is overwhelming, the satisfaction of seeing the finished work is very fulfilling.
The simplicity of these au rei is a statement of the significance they hold for their owners. I was told of the concept behind traditional au rei by the late Eranora Puketapu-Hetet of Te Ati Awa when she asked me to carve some for her weaving. They have special significance because they bear the weight of woven cloaks, which have long been one of the most treasured possessions of Māori, and thus embody the concept of accepting responsibility. They are often worn as pendants when not required in their primary role of fastening a cloak. The au rei shown below is too large to wear, but it also conveys the concept of responsibility, as it was carved instead of a 21st birthday key to give a more traditional way of representing the same idea. A tuft of kea feathers with their red tips has special significance as well, and the faces carved on it represent family who will assist the owner to fulfill the obligations they take on.
The wearable au rei below was also commissioned as a coming-of-age gift. It has its own waka, or treasure box, so that the au rei becomes both lid and contents. Both the faces carved on the waka and the figures holding it portray personal ancestors, whose example will assist the owner to accept the responsibilities conveyed by the carving.
The same concept of responsibility is part of the weaving peg below. Weaving pegs are made to hold a weaving as it is being worked, and this one is shown holding a belt woven with muka, the dressed fibres of the harakeke. This belt was woven by Te Aue Davis as a gift to me, and its design tells the story of my love of the seashore, where land, sea and sky come together.
Early images of rangatira, significant tribal members, often depict them wearing heru in their tikitiki, or topknot. It was explained to me that although they were often described as combs, they are really a hair ornament worn by rangatira. The carving below from the Te Papa Tongarewa collection is a fine example of an early heru. Today they are again being worn more frequently, sometimes even as pendants. This use appears to be contrary to their function, but a kuia explained that the story her heru told and the memories associated with it made it so special that she just wanted to have it close to her, even when it was not appropriate to wear it in her hair. I was asked to carve a tūī on the heru below because this bird has become a symbol for people who use Te Reo, the Māori language. In earlier times tūī were sometimes kept as pets, and were occasionally taught to talk. The heru is made from kauwae ūpoko hue, the jawbone of a pilot whale. This is my preferred material for heru because the long teeth are both strong and flexible, and the natural curve both looks pleasing and fits comfortably around the head.