Hei Korowai Mo Ruatapuwahine

Artist: George Nuku
Location: Hawke's Bay, New Zealand
Year: 2014
Researcher: Kelly Carmichael

In 2014 Nuku completed a carved work at his marae in rural New Zealand in the wharekai Ruatapuwahine (communal dining and recreation hall). Marae are a collection of buildings and open space, but also spaces of great cultural meaning and fundamental to Maori culture. A marae serves important religious and social purpose – a place where Maori culture can be celebrated, the language spoken, histories retold and where customs can be upheld and taught to a younger generation. Marae are the site of important ceremonies and of the occasions that mark lives – such as farewelling the dead and supporting the grieving, welcoming visitors and meeting intertribal obligations, or celebrating happy occasions. Marae are by nature public and communal places, serving the community. A marae is central to Maori life and community, especially in rural areas. In contemporary society their centrality to life remains, some existing as urban marae in the heart of city centres.

Traditionally, marae buildings are richly adorned in with carving, woven panels and painted ceiling rafters and remain living museums of these art forms. In sculptor George Nuku’s biggest project to date, a carved ceiling at his ancestral home Omahu Marae has been created in polystyrene.

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Carving is highly prized in Maori culture and Nuku presents a contemporary face to an ancient art form, offering a 21st century reinterpretation of materials and marae decoration. Nuku sees this as part of his role as an artist in the continuum of a vibrant, living and dynamic Maori culture, commenting “Tradition is about the ongoing process of being innovative….I want to make things my ancestors haven’t seen before… I can’t just photocopy what they did… I don’t think they want us to do that. We need to realise there is a divinity to every material, to every thing”. While Nuku’s shaped and etched Perspex works can appear as ghostly sculptural offerings, the polystyrene toi whakairo (carvings) express complex political and cultural ideas in strong sculptural forms. The carved ceiling in the wharekai Ruatapuwahine (dinning hall) is a metaphor for the cloak of Ruatapuwahine, a female ancestor of Nuku’s tribe. Acting as a cloak, the ceiling is understood to protect and nurture her tamariki (children or descendants) and the marae’s manuhiri (visitors). Many traditional carving patterns are used, the art work offering ancient koru, pūhoro, kaokao, niho taniwha and mangopare patterns in a contemporary execution.

Created with the participation of the community and other local marae, Hei Korowai Mo Ruatapuwahine has a unifying logic based on the natural world and traditional Maori myths and understanding of the world. Detailed panels running down Ruatapuwahine’s cloak are carved representations of living creatures that inhabit the rivers and waterways surrounding the marae, important food sources for the tribe. These panels are considered to express the prestige and mauri (life spirit) of the animals while acting as a call to preserve their environment. Carved triangular elements in the ceiling are ngā tini marae, all the marae and habitations that existed and continue to exist in this place.

One pattern employed by the sculptor is known as ‘kaokao’. This derives from an upper torso posture and is a metaphor for the marae’s people to be strong as in the haka (an ancestral dance or challenge proclaiming strength and prowess), and to act and work collectively in unison to attain movement and momentum. Over 1,000 small triangles were cut from the larger panels, depicting Ruatapuwahine’s descendants who are scattered across the world, like the triangles over the art work. George Nuku’s choice of geometric designs in the ceiling speak to the traditional woven panels lining the wharekai’s walls and its spiral patterns connect to the pare (lintel carving above the entrance). Lights inside suspended carved cubes form Māori star constellations and suggest an indigenous Māori understanding of the cosmos. The carved cubes appear to float above the dining hall, defying gravity as their medium defies convention.

This project arose at a meeting held at the marae back in November 2013. George Nuku and his brother Darryl spoke to the hapū about how to solve the acoustic problems in the wharekai, proposing a polystyrene ceiling and community involvement. At the following Omahu Marae Trust meeting in December 2013 the project was approved. It took a period of 5 weeks over December 2013 and January 2014 to complete the whole project, including planning, designing, carving and installation.

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency