11 Sep 2016

The Art of the Whare

From Standing Room Only, 12:16 pm on 11 September 2016

In rural and urban centres around the country, Whare Whakairo - decorated Māori meeting houses of all different kinds - contain traditional and sometimes contemporary artistic taonga.

Now the history, significance, and art of many of these Whare Whakairo are explored in a new book by art historian and curator Damian Skinner, The Māori​ Meeting House, introducing the Whare Whakairo, published by Te Papa Press

Lynn Freeman talks to Damian, and also visits what's certainly the country's most visited meeting house at Te Papa, and the new Whare Whakaira of Victoria University. 

She meets Te Papa's Arapata Hakiwai, the Māori Co-leader there, and master carver r Dr Takirirangi Smith.

Read an edited excerpt of the interview below:

Tell us about the book.

Damian Skinner - I started the book by talking about this problem, which was really this great problem that was the reason why I wrote the book. The problem is this. When I approach taonga Māori, whether it is a carving or a meeting house, whatever it might be, I always talk to the taonga. I introduce myself, I tell them why I have come and ask if it is okay for me to do some work, some writing.

I’ve done this for a long time now, ever since going to see Pukaki, who is a very famous ancestor of people in Rotorua. This was just how I did it. Then I realised this didn’t have anything to do with the way that I wrote about these taonga.

So this whole process would happen in the approach and this conversation – although they never spoke back – but when I came to write, I would write as though they were just artworks in a Pākehā sense.

I thought, that’s a real problem, what is the nature of this disconnect between the way I behave and what I think is the right way to behave and then what I actually do when I am writing.

In 2007, something brought you further down this path that has led to this book, which was a meeting with an elder.

Damian - One of the interesting moments along this journey of thinking, ‘I’ve got to do something different’, was going to see an elder of the Ngati Rakaipaaka people, there is a meeting house called Kahungungu, he stands in Nuhaka and I was keen to do some work about him.

The local people sent me to talk to Paora Whaanga, he lives in Gisborne, so I rocked up to his house and we were talking about various things and I asked him if it was okay for me to do this work. He said, ‘Go to the paepae, the area in front of the meeting house, just before dusk and just sit there and see what happens.’

It was the most amazing moment to me, because I knew exactly what he meant and why that was an important thing to do. Because basically you were going, you were presenting yourself, and you were listening to what he might have to say and acknowledging all of the ancestors inside of the meeting house and seeing what they might have to say, feeling that it was okay.

But I also knew it was immensely different to any advice I had ever been given when I was trained to be an art historian. None of my lecturers at university had ever said anything like that. And so that was another wake up call of thinking – again - something isn’t connecting here. I’m getting all of this advice and I am understanding exactly why it is important, but when I write, I write about these meeting houses, that quality, that character, that event, that idea is not coming into what I do.

What is the definition of a Māori meeting house?

Damian - I think you have got to distinguish between the meeting house and the Whare Whakairo. My book is very much about the Whare Whakairo, which is… well, a clumsy way of saying it, but, a meeting house with artworks. A meeting house is a building, a piece of architecture, which is a hugely tapu, symbolic and significant space for Māori people. The descendants of a meeting house belong to the meeting house, in the sense that it is their ancestor.

A Whare Whakairo, the meeting house of the kind that I am writing about in the book is one that features that features the art forms of carving, weaving in the tukutuku panels that line the walls and then kowhaiwhai, which are the paintings on the rafters, on the roof.

There is multiple kinds of art forms, some Whare Whakairo have all of those art forms, some don’t have those art forms, and some just have one. There is a sense of distinction. ‘Whakairo’ is a word that is naming something like art, but it is also to decorate, to adorn, and to embellish, so it is an action as well. So a Whare Whakairo, is a meeting house that has been embellished and adorned with arts that belong to the meeting house.

Would most of Whare Whakairo have artworks in them?

Damian - That’s a good question. It’s hard to answer ‘most’, because there are so many meeting houses all around the country and I have visited hardly any of them in the big scheme of things. I would say that it is very common for people to know the meeting house as a Whare Whakairo, for a meeting house to be a Whare Whakairo with the art forms, but there are many examples that don’t have any art forms at all. Certainly it doesn’t mean that those meeting houses are any less than one that does have all of the art forms, because the meaning doesn’t come from the art itself, although that is part of the richness and the glory of the meeting house, it comes from the way that people have belonged to this particular place and this piece of architecture and the genealogical connection.