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Tene Waitere lived during dramatic times and left a legacy to match.

Tene Waitere lived during dramatic times—and left a legacy to match

Hamish Coney


With the holiday season hoving into view, Idealog readers will be planning their great Kiwi holidays with a mixture of relief and anticipation. Gifts will be exchanged, buckets and spades pressed into action, a good many books will be devoured and, no doubt after numerous amber fluids are imbibed, resolutions made.

I’d like to suggest that one book in particular is added to the reading list: Raaru: Tene Waitere, Maori Carving, Colonial History, recently published to accompany the superb exhibition in June by photographer Mark Adams at Two Rooms Gallery.

Raaru charts the locations and carvings of one of New Zealand’s greatest artists, Tene Waitere (1854–1931). It has the sweep of history, beginning with the Tarawera eruption of 1886 before moving on to the 2005 relocation of Waitere’s magnificent Pouhaki or flagpole from Wallaby Gardens in Portsmouth, England to the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge. There it will remain for eternity, one of a number of Waitere carvings that have become one of the great legacies of internationally located works by any New Zealand artist.

The flagpole was gifted by the Te Awara people to Edward, Prince of Wales when he visited New Zealand in 1920 to thank the people of the then-British dominion for their stalwart support in the war to end all wars. Against this background of natural disaster, colonial history and war, Waitere fashioned a body of work which is every bit as important for New Zealand’s cultural development as that of later artists such as Colin McCahon, Frances Hodgkins, Rita Angus or Gordon Walters. Perhaps you have never heard of Waitere, but after reading this revelation of a book and taking in the masterpieces revealed by Adams’ keen eye, you’ll almost certainly want to see the works of the great carver.

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Tene Waitere’s Raaru takes pride of place in the Maorihaus at Hamburg’s Museum für Völkerkunde

And why not? This summer would be the ideal time to make a travel detour to view Waitere’s work in situ. For those whose holiday plans extend to Europe, why not divert to Hamburg to view the mighty Raaru itself?

For a New Zealander, a trip to the Maorihaus at the Museum für Völkerkunde in Hamburg is a pilgrimage of no less significance than visiting the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra to take in Colin McCahon’s 1970 masterpiece, Victory Over Death 2. Carved at the turn of the 20th century by Waitere and two other great Maori carvers, Anaha Te Rahui and Neke Kapua, this showpiece Whare whakairo originally stood as a tourist attraction at Whakarewarewa in Rotorua and was much celebrated as a dazzling exemplar of the mana, skill and creativity of Maori carving as art at the time. Numerous historic photos show Maori performers and dignitaries welcoming guests and thoroughly enjoying themselves.

In 1910 Raaru was sold to the Hamburg Museum where it has remained ever since as a star attraction. The structure itself will be familiar to those who have visited meeting houses throughout New Zealand but what will be startling is the intensity of decoration and magnificently integrated whol—carved poupou , woven tukutuku panels and ceiling rafters decorated with the most complex array of kowhaiwhai designs combine in a potent assertion of Maori creativity that has left observers awestruck.

If your travel budget does not quite stretch to a German diversion, then how about Taupo? The Spa Hotel houses another Waitere masterpiece, Te Tiki-a-Tamamutu. Carved in the 1880s, this Whare Whakairo has since the late 19th century been a centrepiece of the hotel and as early as 1902 dinners were served in the ‘Maori Carved Dining Room’. Today the meeting house can still be visited, something I’ll be doing this summer. It is a sure bet that most visitors are unaware they are in the presence of one of our great works of art or of an artist whose mana and legacy can be found throughout the world.

His sphere of influence even spreads to old Blighty. In the grounds of stately old Clandon Park in leafy Surrey stands another Tene Waitere whare, Hinemihi. Rescued after it was one of the only remaining structures after the 1886 eruption, the brightly-coloured Henemihi lives on as a source of pride and an event location for Ngati Ranana, the London Maori Club.

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