A Whakapapa of Tradition: One Hundred Years of Ngāti Porou Carving, 1830–1930

Ngarino Ellis, with new photography by Natalie Robertson


The chieftainess Te Ao Kairau lived in the north of the Waiapu Valley. Desiring carving for the meeting houses that she was having erected, she chose her nephew Iwirākau to travel to Ūawa to learn the arts of carving at the Rāwheoro whare wānanga. Iwirākau had a studious nature and practical bent, and many close connections to major lines in Ngāti Porou. Upon his return from his studies, Iwirākau added new details acquired from Ūawa to the designs and styles of the Waiapu, and became a leader of carving in the Waiapu area. When the whare wānanga later declined, such was the strength of the passing down of knowledge that the style of carving associated with them continued. And one of the strongest to survive was that of the Iwirākau School.


From the emergence of the chapel and the wharenui in the nineteenth century to the rejuvenation of carving by Apirana Ngata in the 1920s, Māori carving went through a rapid evolution from 1830 to 1930. Focusing on thirty meeting houses, Ngarino Ellis tells the story of Ngāti Porou carving and a profound transformation in Māori art.


Beginning around 1830, three previously dominant art traditions – waka taua (war canoes), pātaka (decorated storehouses) and whare rangātira (chief’s houses) – declined and were replaced by whare karakia (churches), whare whakairo (decorated meeting houses) and wharekai (dining halls). Ellis examines how and why that fundamental transformation took place by exploring the Iwirākau School of carving, based in the Waiapu Valley on the East Coast of the North Island. An ancestor who lived around the year 1700, Iwirākau is credited for reinvigorating the art of carving in the Waiapu region. The six major carvers of his school went on to create more than thirty important meeting houses and other structures.


During this transformational period, carvers and patrons re-negotiated key concepts such as tikanga (tradition), tapu (sacredness) and mana (power, authority) – embedding them within the new architectural forms whilst preserving rituals surrounding the creation and use of buildings. A Whakapapa of Tradition tells us much about the art forms themselves but also analyses the environment that made carving and building possible: the patrons who were the enablers and transmitters of culture; the carvers who engaged with modern tools and ideas; and the communities as a whole who created the new forms of art and architecture.


This book is both a major study of Ngāti Porou carving and an attempt to make sense of Māori art history. What makes a tradition in Māori art? Ellis asks. How do traditions begin? Who decides this? Conversely, how and why do traditions cease? And what forces are at play which make some buildings acceptable and others not? Beautifully illustrated with new photography by Natalie Robertson, and drawing on the work of key scholars to make a new synthetic whole, this book will be a landmark volume in the history of writing about Māori art.


Winner, 2017 Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, Judith Binney Best First Book Award for Illustrated Non-Fiction

Winner, 2017 Ngā Kupu Ora Awards, Art


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Ngarino Ellis (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou) is a senior lecturer in Art History and co-ordinator of the Museums and Cultural Heritage Programme at the University of Auckland. She is the co-editor with Deidre Brown of Te Puna: Māori Art from Northland (Reed, 2007) and with Witi Ihimaera of Te Ata: Maori Art from the East Coast, New Zealand (Reed, 2002), as well as the author of a number of scholarly articles. Her prime research focus is Māori art history, while her teaching also covers art crime (including theft, illicit antiquities, looting, forgery and vandalism), indigenous museology, and gender. Ellis is a co-investigator on the Royal Marsden Fund project entitled ‘Toi Te Mana: A History of Indigenous Art in Aotearoa New Zealand’. A Whakapapa of Tradition is based on her 2012 PhD thesis.


Natalie Robertson (Ngāti Porou, Clann Dhònnchaidh) is a photographic artist and senior lecturer at AUT University. Robertson has an MFA from the University of Auckland. Her research terrain is at the intersection of photographic and moving image practices with indigenous knowledge. She has exhibited extensively in public institutions throughout New Zealand and internationally, including a solo exhibition, Te Ahikāroa: Home Fires Burning (2014), at the C. N. Gorman Museum at the University of California, Davis, in 2014. 

March 2016, 248 x 200 mm, 304 pages, colour illustrations
Hardback, ISBN 9781869407377, $69.99