ONE man’s artistic homage to an ancient ancestor has inspired one of New Zealand’s most extraordinary works of art.
On the shores of Lake Taupo – which Maori refer to as the beating heart of New Zealand’s North Island – the Mine Bay rock carvings have become one of the country’s most popular cultural tourism destinations.
The carvings depict the visionary Maori navigator Ngatoroirangi who guided his people – the Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa tribes – across the Pacific in a traditional double-hulled waka or wooden canoe almost 1000 years ago.
It took an astounding four years to complete the Mine Bay carvings, sculpted into a rock face 14 metres above the water – but it wasn’t long before tourists began finding their way across the lake to view them.
Work on the carvings, designed and created by master carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell, began in 1976.
“I am the 27th generation to Ngatoroirangi,” Brightwell said. “He navigated the Te Aroha canoe, which all the Te Arawa tribes descend from. Eight hundred years ago he arrived in this area and I wanted to commemorate that. That’s how it began.”
Brightwell said while out on the lake he saw a huge rocky alcove – and inspiration struck. “It was like this voice called out. I saw an image of a tattooed face and I decided I would sculpt Ngatoroirangi.”
His first step was putting together a tattoo plan for the image of Ngatoroirangi. He also wanted to demonstrate the Te Arawa style of art, a traditional art form unchanged over the centuries.
“I did many sketch plans but the main thing I had to come up with was how to put it onto the stone. So I had to clear all the rock face to make it level and we had to clear it away all by hand.
“I decided to use three-tier scaffold and one piece of string, with a weight at the end to give me a line through the centre.”
Brightwell used string line horizontally, vertically and diagonally to map out the overall drawing.
Three others worked on the three levels of the scaffolding and he could tell by the sound of the tapping if something wasn’t quite right.
“That’s how precision minded I was, and I was representing my ancestor. As a descendant of Ngaroroirangi I had to present him in perfection, or didn’t want do it at all.”
Each intricate design has a meaning.
“Follow the centre line of the carving right up the top of the tikitiki (or the top knot) and that’s the celestial side of his being.
“The strand connects you to his centre, called the matakite or the third eye – that’s the spiritual eye. That’s the aho (centre of your being) connecting him to mother earth.
“We call the lip tattoo on Ngatoroirangi (the chevron) Matakokiri – the shooting star or comet – because he is a descendant of the star gods. Under his chin, we call that the hokioi – the eagle wing under his lip. He was supposed to fly from A to B.
“The design on his nose signifies his power of discernment.”
In recognition of the cross-cultural nature of New Zealand, Brightwell carved two smaller figures of Celtic design, which depict the south wind and Ngatoroirangi stopping the south wind from freezing him.
The main carving is more than 10 metres high and took four summers to complete. The artwork is his gift to Taupo.
Brightwell and assistants Te Miringa Hohaia, Steve Myhre, Dave Hegglun and cousin Jono Randell took no payment other than small change donations from local bar patrons to cover the cost of the scaffolding.
He says he never imagined the carving would become a tourist attraction, but he is pleased it has.
And he has a message for the many tourists who come to see the carvings.
“I would want them to understand how Maoris see the artwork and to appreciate our heritage. I would want them to understand that they are looking at an 800-year-old event.
“I just say, ‘soak it all in’. If you feel connected, I am happy about that. And if you are respectful to my culture I’ll be happy with that as well.”
If you go...
TO SEE the Mine Bay rock carvings, you need to head out on Lake Taupo.
There is a range of ways to do this including kayaking and sailing.
Cruise from Taupo town to the rock carvings with either Chris Jolly Outdoors or on the vintage Ernest Kemp, sail on the Barbary or the Fearless, or kayak with Taupo Kayaking Adventures – www.newzealand.com/au