“Toi whakairo is about so much more than just carving,” says lead carver and whakairo rākau tutor and mentor, Wiremu*. “It’s about whakapapa and respecting the tapu [sacred environment] in the whare, making a deeper spiritual connection, listening to the wood speak to you, and following appropriate whakairo tikanga Māori protocols, such as karakia and waiata, to guide and protect both the carving process and the carvers.”
Together with a group of six to eight assistants at Auckland Prison, Wiremu has been working tirelessly over the past 15 months to revive the unit’s carving workshop.
Wiremu, who is largely self-taught, is sharing his mātauranga (skills and knowledge) of many years with the men – some of whom have never carved before. He explains the whakairo design process in the video below.
The whakairo crew is supported by Cultural Consultant Vikki Demant and Senior Adviser Kaupapa Māori and Whakairo Adviser Mate Webb, as well as unit staff. A rūnanga (working group) of staff and men have been formed to establish protocols regarding whakairo projects.
These days, the whakairo workshop is humming, and both staff and men are working hard to fully establish the whare with all the equipment they need. The men already have several projects under their belts.
“We are very proud of a significant pou restoration kaupapa we have completed for Whaiora Marae in Ōtara, Auckland, and feel grateful that we could give back to our community in this way,” says Wiremu.
“Another project we’ve completed is the stage-style backdrop of Tama-nui-te-ra and Tāne-rore, and props of Tama-nui-te-ra and Hine-takurua, depicting the Māori mythological origin of the haka. We created these pieces for our first celebration of Matariki as a public holiday in June this year and will use them at other future ceremonies.”
Yet another completed project is an impressive carving from a solid block of macrocarpa of the brothers Rongomātāne (Māori god of agriculture, closely associated with the kūmara) and Haumietiketike (symbolising wild food and fern root). This piece will be installed in the fruit and vegetable garden surrounding the whakairo workshop, where blessing ceremonies for the planting and harvesting of the kūmara crop are held every season.
“The men’s resourcefulness and initiative in getting the whare up and running and completing projects is incredible. Having the whare in this unit provides another vital connection to our integrated therapeutic environment,” says Vikki.
“We have our therapy team supporting the men’s rehabilitation, the vegie garden where the men cultivate fresh produce to donate to community foodbanks, and our kapa haka and te reo Māori programmes – all aimed at supporting the men to heal, gain cultural knowledge and skills, and reconnect with their whakapapa, their whānau and their identity.”
*Not his real name.