Last night, for our final class on local Maori culture we went to a Whangarei marae, Kaka Porowini, to learn about carvings and tukutuku (woven panels). We were welcomed on by two elders with a short powhiri (formal welcome) which was a delightful surprise. Inside the whare tupuna (house of ancestors) was a beautiful combination of traditional and contemporary carvings and tukutuku.
Every whare tupuna has its own distinctive character and I felt Kaka Porowini to be one of the most accessible I have been in. There was a big photograph on the back wall of the Chief Porowini who is the ancestor represented by the whare. Apparently he was the last of the 'old style' chiefs who (controversially) did much to modernise the lives of his people in an attempt to improve their chances in the increasingly Pakeha dominated society of the first half of the 20th century. The structure of the whare symbolically embodies his spirit, and represents all the ancestors who came before him.
Dozens of carvings of ancestor figures line the walls and every centimetre of vertical surface is covered in symbolic designs: painted, carved, woven, so that the building functions as a history book for those with the skill to read it. Kaka Porowini is unusual in that many of the ancestors represented are women and there is equal representation given to Christianity, traditional Maori religion and other world religions (a star of David caught my eye as soon as I entered).
My favourite ancestor carving was Hine, who was depicted giving birth to two babies simultaneously. Unusually, she is carved realistically, with a beautiful human face, not the stylised faces of most traditional Maori carvings. One baby, with a realistic face, is emerging as a cesaerean birth while another, with the traditional grotesque face of a little tiki is popping out between her legs. She has long black hair with each strand beautifully carved.
My minimal abilitiy to read Maori symbols grew slightly last night, but for me, the most significant part was towards the end, when Pae stopped talking. He told us to walk around and look closely and touch the carvings. I did so, silently greeting and introducing myself respectfully and affectionately as I traced my fingers along the smooth sinuous curves outlining their thighs and shoulders. As I did so, they began to seem more like the spirits of real people than just the art of another culture from my own. I left the marae with a sense of having completed a necessary step in establishing my home in this area, having been acknowledged and welcomed by the ancestors who lived here before me and who will be keeping an eye on me.