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Pou Kapua at Te Puea Marae

Carving embodies Pacific’s spiritual world

By Paul Titus

Under a large white tent at Te Puea Marae in Mangere a multi-cultural group of carvers is at work shaping the massive trunks of several kauri trees to tell the story of the Maori view of creation and the migrations of Pacific peoples.

When completed a steel frame will join them together in a single carved column, named Pou Kapua, that will stand four and half stories (20 metres) tall. While acknowledging God throughout, Pou Kapua narrates Maori’s deepest histories and beliefs.

Leading the project is master carver Wikuki Kingi junior. Of Tainui, Te Whanau a Apanui, and Ngai Tahu descent, Wikuki is the son of Wikuki senior and Evelyn Kingi. Wikuki senior is one of New Zealand’s pre-eminent carvers and has the status of tohunga whakairoa; Evelyn is Waikato representative on the governing body of the Methodist Church’s Te Taha Maori and an elder on the Church’s Council of Conference.

Wikuki jnr says the idea for the carving took shape early in 2002 when the Auckland City Council wanted to install a public artwork that would mark the America’s Cup but also have a long-term presence in the city.

“One of the proposals was to build the Pillars of Hercules in the harbour. None of the proposals paid tribute to New Zealand culture, and people said to me ‘You’re a carver, why don’t you carve something’.

“We had already carved a 64 foot high pou ihi at Houpou Houpou Endowment College near Ngaurawahia, so we thought of making powerful public statement of who we are that recognises and pays tribute to where we come from.”

The skill base of carvers to carry out the project was already at hand. Because both his father and grandfather were both carvers, Wikuki has always been around carving. He has carved for 30 years and is involved with six carving schools around New Zealand as well as one in Perth.

“The only thing we needed was to get a hold of some wood. We approached Te Rarawa of Hokianga, and they gave us some big wind fall kauri trees. It is appropriate the trees come from there because the central figure in the carving is the great explorer and navigator Kupe, who first landed in Aotearoa at Hokianga.”

Along with Kupe, Pou Kapua depicts Tangaroa, guardian of the oceans, Rangi and Papa and their children, Nga Atua – the gods of war, wind and different aspects of life.

A central figure in the carving is Matakerepo, who held the sacred knowledge of the gateways to the heavens. In the carving she takes the form of a serpentine taniwha.

Wikuki says Pou Kapua is a real piece of Kiwiana because tribal groups from around the country have contributed material and/or permission to use their special symbolic patterns.

“Tuwharetoa donated totara and rimu, and my whenua on the South Island donated greenstone. We have large paua shells from Colac Bay, way down in Southland so we draw elements from throughout the country.”

But the vision for Pou Kapua extends beyond New Zealand to the whole of the Pacific. Tongan, Samoan, and Cook Island carvers have been invited to participate in the project and add their design elements to it. Carver Frank Fulmer from the Tlingit Indian people in Alaska has added an image of the killer whale.

“We want to bring a Peruvian carver out to work with us because the kumara and the calabash gourd originally came from there. And we are in discussion with some Aboriginal artists as well,” Wikuki says.

The Pou Kapua project has also had positive spinoffs for the community. Ten of the carvers working on it are young men who were long-term unemployed but have now achieved NZQA certificates in carving.

Current plans are for Pou Kapua to be placed at the Telestra-Clear Pacific Event Centre in Manukau when it is finished at the end of 2004.