Art of survival, Ross Calman

Carved Histories: Rotorua Ngati Tarawhai Woodcarving
Roger Neich
Auckland University Press, $89.95,
ISBN 186940257X

It would not be a gross overstatement to say that we have got Ngati Tarawhai, a tribe originally from Lake Okataina (east of Rotorua), to thank for the survival of the traditional Maori art of woodcarving. When Apirana Ngata was looking for a site to establish a school of Maori arts and crafts, it was no accident that he fixed on Rotorua, where, partly because of the tourist trade, there were a number of practising carvers. Within three years of the school’s establishment in 1926, Ngata became dissatisfied with the tutors’ reliance on chisel work, which resulted from their lack of knowledge of traditional adzing methods. It was a traditionally trained Ngati Tarawhai (pronounced Taraawhai) carver, Eramiha Kapua, who was approached by Pine Taiapa on behalf of Ngata to resurrect the art of adzing with a long-handled toki. It was Eramiha’s influence that saw the Ngati Tarawhai style become a de facto national carving style for many years, before the more recent revival of other regional carving styles.

One of Neich’s main aims in Carved Histories is to remedy the fact that most readers of this review will never have heard of Eramiha Kapua or the other carvers in the Nga¯ti Tarawhai carving tradition. For Neich, these carvers deserve to be known as great New Zealand artists. While not all readers of Carved Histories will subscribe to the Western fetish with individual artistic genius, no one who has read this major study would begrudge these carvers any belated recognition it may give them.

Carved Histories follows on from Neich’s 1993 study of 19th-century Maori figurative painting, Painted Histories. It focuses on one tribe’s continuous carving tradition and the transition from carving in a traditional context to carving largely for the tourist trade. It documents the change from Maori to European patronage, the difference in the two peoples’ conceptions of art, and the loss of meaning that ensued when carvings were produced outside of their traditional context. Most attention is given to the period 1870–1910 and a quartet of closely related carvers: Eramiha, his father Neke Kapua, his uncle Tene Waitere, and great-uncle Anaha Te Rahui.

Neich has been able to draw on a wealth of documentary evidence from this time, much of it generated by professional and amateur European ethnologists: men such as Augustus Hamilton, a Director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington and author of a weighty tome on Maori carving published in the last years of the 19th century; Charles Edwin Nelson, manager of the Geyser Hotel in Rotorua, a major player in the thriving turn-of-the-20th-century trade in Maori artefacts, who liked to be known as “the white tohunga”; and T E Donne, head of the Government Tourist Department in Rotorua, who, along with other projects, commissioned the model pa that still stands at Whakarewarewa.

These men wanted carvings to augment museum collections, to decorate tourist facilities and to sell to tourists and collectors. As patrons “knowledgeable” about Maori carving (Neich always uses the word in inverted commas in this context), these men were very prescriptive: they demanded that the carvers replicate as nearly as possible pre-contact styles, considering that the development of the art form since contact had been a degradation.

Without the patronage of these men, whatever their motives, we would not have many of the carvings we regard as taonga today. Retrospect, however, does not treat these men kindly: taken together, they exemplify the role of patron from which the verb “patronise” derives. It was their practice to keep the carvers, who were often existing on or near the breadline, waiting for payment, and when they finally did pay them, it was often less than the agreed sum.


A handsome – and rather pricey – hardback volume, Carved Histories is studded with historical photographs of the carvers at work and the taonga they produced. Carvings now separated by thousands of kilometres are reunited on the page. Captions telling us that this carving is now in Dresden, and this one in Cambridge, remind of how whole carved houses, not to mention gateways, tomb carvings and other structures fell prey to unscrupulous antiquities traders, who had no qualms about packaging up the treasures of a people and shipping them off around the globe to the highest bidder. Reading this book, it is hard not to think that the removal of these taonga has been almost as great a loss to te iwi Maori as the loss of the land, which, through the workings of the Native Land Court, was occurring at the same time.

However, Carved Histories is not without its flaws, some of which may be the result of its long development (Neich began the studies which led to the book in the early 1970s), but most of which some judicious editing could have corrected.

The first nine chapters (two-fifths of the book proper) don’t seem to follow a particularly logical progression. In these early chapters, the reader is left floundering somewhat as the text jumps from Ngati Tarawhai history (which is, commendably, largely based on iwi sources), to the carvers’ biographies (where the author attempts to locate signs of the “alienated artist”, largely in vain), to a chapter on the woodcarving style of a closely related tribe, Ngati Pikiao, which we learn about before we have been properly introduced to Ngati Tarawhai style (not explained in depth until chapter 16). Some imprecise chapter headings don’t help either (for example, the wars form only a very small part of the chapter headed “Ngati Tarawhai and the New Zealand Wars”; and chapter 5 is rather vaguely entitled “Ngati Tarawhai as an Iwi”).

Despite the author’s aim, stated in the preface, of keeping “tedious theoretical arguments” in the background, we then have to wade through some pretty heavy theory in two chapters (8 and 9), which have the sub-headings “The Nature of Art” and “Art and Reality”. This and later chunks of theory might have been more palatable if they had been worked more neatly into the book’s central narrative.

The chapters from 10 onwards form the real core of the book and are the most satisfying from a reader’s point of view. They cover 19th-century Maori and European concepts of art (only slightly tarnished by an inaccurate etymology for the first part of the word “ataahua” on p128), the contrasting expectations of Maori and European patronage, and the rise of tourist art.

Finally, it is unfortunate that a book containing so many Maori words does not mark vowel length with macrons.

All quibbles aside, this painstakingly researched book on an iwi’s carving tradition is a long overdue tribute to the lives and work of a group of remarkable artists, artists whose works should be a cause of pride not just to Ngati Tarawhai but to all who inhabit these shores.


Ross Calman is a Christchurch freelance editor.

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Posted in Art, History, Māori, Non-fiction, Review
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