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March 19, 2012 | by  | in Arts Visual Arts |
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Hitch Yo’Self

When talking about my passion for art with friends and flatmates—discussions in which
I am often confronted with outright derision— two phrases frequently appear: “Yeh it’s pretty, but that’s it eh?” and “I don’t like art that has to mean something.”

These two viewpoints summarise two different, but overarching, approaches to the visual arts. One is obsessed with context and meaning; the other is purely focused on the aesthetic appeal. My position has always been that if something truly embraces and seeks to represent a meaning or context, the visual beauty follows as an inherent quality of the work. Nowhere in Wellington is this truer than at the Te Herenga Waka Marae at Victoria University.

The Maori tradition of imparting information and stories through art is an old one, but the Marae at Victoria blends this tradition with the 20th and 21st century worlds through which it has lived. Many of the Pou, carved panels, use custom wood instead of Totara, a choice that went against the grain of typical Marae construction at the time. The stories lurking behind the carved Pou, and the woven Tukutuku panels that frame them, are numerous and deeply significant, both for the people who see them, and the physical location which they inhabit.

The central Tukutuku panels represent a series of Waka docking at the central posts, reflecting the name of the Marae. Te Herenga Waka translates as “The Hitching Post for the Waka”, a name reflecting the diverse range of whakapapa, histories and cultures which have gathered at Victoria over time. Everyone’s personal journey is accepted at this meeting house, and this thematic link between the name and the art inside the Marae emphasizes this feature. The panels themselves have a simplistic, elegant quality, a calm and serene symbolic motif, blending harsh straight lines with elegant swirls and curves.

The aesthetic appeal of these works is immediate due to their grace and careful symmetry. However, they are endowed with a deeper artistic quality when considered as a statement about the mission of the Marae, and the position of the individual in relation to this objective. In this case, the art object is affirmed by its context, rather than weakened or diminished by it. The man who gave the name to the Marae is also represented in art.

Dr Wiremu Parker, a prominent Maori politician, doctor, and anthropologist; takes pride of place as the poutokomanawa, a free-standing carved figure facing the doorway to the meeting house. Parker welcomes all comers through the door, his depiction making clear the all-encompassing, multicultural colour of this welcome. He is carved in what seems to be a traditional style; that is, until the viewer looks closely at the symbols used to identify the personality of the figure. Perched on his head is a bowler hat, representing his time as a politician, and around his neck is a playful polka-dot bowtie, speaking to his time at medical school in Dunedin. An adze sits in his hands, alongside these two motifs from the Pakeha world, the adze representing Parker’s advancements in the field of anthropology in Aotearoa.

The playful mixture of traditional and contemporary symbols downplays any notion of tension between different interest groups, instead revealing the open nature of the Marae to all walks of life. However, accompanying this powerful message is a visual which is amusing and strangely comforting, even to those who do not possess knowledge of the context behind it. The power of 33 the works within this meeting house is that they have real artistic beauty even without their histories informing them; however, once the images are read in tandem with the histories, they take on a certain life, artistic narratives playing invisibly in the quiet contemplative space of the meeting house.

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The new Waharoa, or entranceway, was erected on Kelburn Parade  last December, on the 25th     anniversay of the meeting house being completed. Dr Takirirangi Smith was the original Master Carver of the house in the 1980s, when he was a student at the University. He also took charge of the Waharoa project, using the medium to honour the female ancestors of Maui, the women behind the journeys all Waka made to the hitching post.

Many who were involved in the original project have since passed away, but their presence endures within the walls and continues to inform the art which they left behind, to be treasured by others. So I implore you, whatever your view on what art should be, walk through the Waharoa, find yourself next to Bill Parker, and hitch up your Waka, for a short while at least.

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