If you liked this article share it with your friends. They will thank you later.


Matt Calman Talks to Tohunga Kaiwhakairo Caine Tauwhare

Ngā Toi Māori, Whakairo
image Image: Matt Calman

Ngāi Tahu / Tainui tohunga whakairo Caine Tauwhare has returned to the headlines for the wrong reasons after his pouwhenua Ōrongomai was stolen from its Summit Road perch at John Jameson Lookout during Easter weekend. It’s the second attack on his work in recent years. But, of course, there’s much more to Tauwhare than desecrated pou. Matt Calman (Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa) talks with the carver about his life and work.

For 11 months Ōrongomai rested overlooking Whakaraupō / Lyttelton Harbour atop its gently tapered plinth encouraging visitors to stop and rest with nature in quiet contemplation. But now only the plinth remains; solitary, silent, incomplete.

Tauwhare was commissioned to carve the pouwhenua by the Summit Road Society as an integral part of the lookout’s redevelopment. It was unveiled in June last year to mark the society’s 75th anniversary. The lookout – named in tribute to the Society’s late founder John Jameson – is across the road from the Sign of the Bellbird and offers stunning views towards the entrance to the harbour. It doesn’t seem long since the pouwhenua Te Kōauau o Tāne Whakapirirpiri, carved by Tauwhare and ākonga from the Whakaraupō Carving Centre Trust, was violently hacked down in a late-night attack in late 2021. It was installed at Ngāti Wheke’s pā site at Ōtūherekio between Rāpaki and the neighbouring Cass Bay, a place where the hapū would traditionally welcome manuhriri. Tauwhare told a Spinoff journalist at the time the pou had been welcomed and looked after by the Cass Bay locals, and it was “a really sad reflection that we still have to experience this sort of hatred and cowardice in our country”.

Ōrongomai, which took hundreds of hours over several months to complete, had equally been embraced by visitors to the lookout and particularly by the Council rangers, Tauwhare tells me. The head ranger told him they had enjoyed visiting their “favourite” pou daily to “give it a bit of a rub”. The theft has left Tauwhare utterly perplexed: “I really don’t know. The second one really boggles me. There’s been a lot of vandalism up there around the Sign of the Bellbird in the past, but this wasn’t vandalism. It was stolen.” You can sense the resignation in Tauwhare’s voice, and a mind left searching for answers. “From the community I really thought they had a sense of owning it and connecting with it. It’s such a beautiful spot up there.”

The Society’s acting president Paula Jameson says there has still been no word from Police, but she hoped continuing publicity would “prick the conscience” of those responsible. The Society was meeting to discuss the way forward at board level and in consultation with Christchurch City Council but at this stage was taking a wait-and-see approach in the hope Ōrongomai would be returned. “It’s of no monetary value to them. It can’t be sold. But in terms of the personal impact on Caine, the Society, Ngāti Wheke, Council rangers, volunteers, and the public the loss is enormous.”

There was no damage to the plinth, or the surrounding ground and the area had been searched in case it had been tossed into nearby bush. The welded bolts were carefully severed and at more than 60kg the ear-shaped totara pou would likely have needed several people to remove.

I ask Tauwhare whether he was brought up in a Māori environment or has had to reconnect to his taha Māori from scratch, like me. As with several of the pakiwaitara he tells me he begins with: “Well that’s a bit of an interesting story actually.”

image Image courtesy of The Summit Road Society

The 55-year-old was born on his father’s whenua at Te Rāpaki o Te Rakiwhakaputa (Rāpaki), near Lyttelton – the ūkaipō of local hapū Ngāti Wheke. However, a twist of fate led to him growing up in the heart of the Kīngitanga in Ngāruawāhia at the meeting point of the Waikato and Waipā rivers. Following the tīkanga on his father’s side, the first-born grandchild was traditionally handed over to the grandparents to raise. “This was quite foreign to my mum, and she wasn’t having it,” Tauwhare says. “The grandparents showed up with this pram and expected me to go with them. She packed the bags in the middle of the night, and we buggered off back up north.” His mother returned them to her Tainui roots and to Tūrangawaewae, the central marae of the Kīngitanga. At the time, Dame Te Ātairangikaahu had just begun her 40-year reign as Māori Queen.

From an early age Tauwhare, who didn’t care much for school, was interested in drawing and art. He always had a pencil and paper at hand. He was close with two of his Tainui cousins and the three of them became known as the Three Terrors. “We still get it today!” he laughs. “We got the blame for everything, but we were really mischief. So we spent a lot of time in the carving shed under the watchful eyes of our uncles sweeping the floor.”

Tauwhare’s hapū Ngāti Patupō held the honoured role of servants to the Kīngitanga and his two uncles, Dan Solomon and Herekōtuku Leonard Muru, were the tohunga whakairo. “I got a lot of mentorship from my uncles who were carvers for the Queen. I was only four or five and my father had left. My uncles took me under their wing. I was really fortunate.” Tauwhare recalls being too young to be taught much of the “hands on” techniques of carving but his uncles generously shared the tīkanga and pūrakau that surrounded and transferred to the work. “The stories captivated us and the meanings captivated us.” He spent much of his school life in Hawke’s Bay but would return to Ngāruawāhia every school holidays. “That’s home for me.”

In his early 20s, Tauwhare was sent into the army which brought him to Burnham military base on the outskirts of Ōtautahi / Christchurch, closer to his father’s Rāpaki roots. He had no choice. His army stint had been mandated by the courts. It was either the army or prison, he says. And it led to friction with his whānau at Ngāruawāhia. “My uncles sat me down and said, ‘We don’t join the army. They’re the enemy’. And they taught me a lot of history that I wasn’t aware of, that grandparents and parents never spoke about – the invasion of Waikato [by the Government in the 1860s] and the atrocities that happened there. I didn’t want to go into the army, but it was better than a jail cell.”

Following his time in the army and still in his 20s, Tauwhare completed an art course in Christchurch and searched for someone who could teach him carving. He approached various carvers, many of whom were doing it “for a living” and finally rang and spoke with a kaumātua at one marae who told him there was nothing for him in the South Island and “he would have to go to prison to find someone to teach him around here”. Disillusioned he returned to Ngāruawāhia and came under the tutelage of tohunga whakairo Dean Flavell. The birth of his daughter – the first of his five children – then prompted his return to Rāpaki in 2002 so he could connect to his father’s whakapapa – for his children to have both sides. “My aunties who were the kaitiaki of that land gave us a place to stay. My uncles and my North Island whānau always said to me, knowing that my pito was buried here up on the maunga … that some time I had to come back. I didn’t understand it but that was something that was always instilled in me.”

Tauwhare says while there are some early examples of whakairo which have survived in Te Waipounamu there is a less recognisable style in the South Island compared with carving styles which emerged in the North. The people of the south were far more nomadic, and there was also more of a concentration on carving pounamu than on whakairo, he suggests.

image Image: Matt Calman

Tauwhare “utilises the guidelines of our ancestors and how carving styles traditionally came about” to inform his work, drawing on the local natural features. His carving reflects this place, he explains, and is different to the style he would be using if he had stayed in Ngāruawāhia.

To explain, Tauwhare cites the example of carvers who lived around the base of Taranaki maunga using a more rounded form to depict the mountain while those who lived further away depicted their view of the maunga as having a sharper peak. “These subtle differences are reflected in the carving,” Tauwhare says. “How whakairo comes about, firstly, is it’s always trying to appease the ātua. When a group of people live in an area for a period of time, and are able to observe nature, they would notice a particular bird, for example, and how it conducted itself in nature, how it maybe got kai. That needs to be honoured and remembered. We’ll take a bit of that bird and put that there. Take that bit more and put it here. Our ancestors looked at these things and asked, ‘What’s the learning we get from that bird or that fish, or that tree? What’s the influence they have on the rest of the environment?’. Those kaitiaki and those learnings are mish-mashed into the style of art and what it looks like. It’s to remember.”

Funding from the John Key-led National Government helped Tauwhare establish the Whakaraupō Carving Centre Trust in 2010. The conversation with the kaumātua about having to go to prison to learn carving had stuck with him. He wanted to fill that void with a place where he could pass on his mātauranga to others. “Bugger going to jail!” The seed was planted decades earlier following a trip of Rāpaki locals to Ngāruawāhia. After returning, a moko of Sissy Briggs asked her why there weren’t carvings at Rāpaki like they had up north. The project was later championed by his great aunt Dawn Kottier and Noeline Allan who gained support from the local community. Tauwhare was shoulder tapped to get it established.

“Within six months of this dream we got it all put together with 13 students, equipment, the building, funding, the lot. It was awesome.”

In recent years Tauwhare and his whānau have left the Centre and also Rāpaki itself, and returned to the embrace of his “second whānau” to live at Burnham military base in order to heal after a cancer diagnosis and treatment. He has thankfully moved on from cancer and will soon begin work carving a six-metre wide waharoa (entranceway) for manuhiri who visit the base.

While he looks ahead to other carving projects, he would work on a replacement for Ōrongomai if asked. He had intentionally made the pou look “less Māori looking” after his more traditionally carved pou, Te Kōauau o Tāne Whakapiripiri, was destroyed. While Ōrongomai may have been more contemporary in style the pou was still rooted deeply in local Ngāti Wheke history, commemorating a battle which took place between Wheke and Kāti Māmoe rangatira Mawete from the time Ngāi Tahu first settled and claimed the harbour. “Wheke, he stopped and took a bit of time out to listen and to get used to the environment,” Tauwhare explains. “It was Mawete who was a bit more blasé and noisier and that’s how he got found and the battle ensued.” The title Ōrongomai drew on the dual meanings of peacefulness and all the senses except sight. “And when you add the mai into it, it means to hear. It literally means, to make a peaceful place hear. In a modern context it’s encouraging you to come up here, listen to nature and get in touch with the environment. It’s not far from the hustle and bustle. Just come and chill out. It could be the difference between what happened with Mawete and Wheke.”

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Fill in your details below.