Brian Flintoff assures me that we first met in 1979. He dates our meeting on the authority of his wife Julia and is, naturally enough, cautious of questioning her. For my part, it seems longer but it matters not – we’ve known each other for a long time. We met in Picton where I was telling traditional stories of Te Ao Māori to a group of Julia’s pupils most of whom were Māori . Brian was sitting at the back listening. He became particularly engaged by the tradition of the taniwha, Kaiwhakaruaki, (he who makes you vomit) which explains so many of the place names of the Motueka region. Some weeks later, back in Wellington, a package arrived in the mail. It contained a magnificent whalebone pendant cradled in a handsomely carved wooden waka ipu. It is a thing of beauty – quirky but beautiful. I still wear it frequently. I wore this taoka whenever I “dressed up” in a suit for meetings of the Ngāi Tahu Māori Trust Board and before long I could look around the table and every member of the board was wearing one of Brian’s carvings. This was well before the Wellington journalist, Frank Haden, was writing derisively about “bone people” – well before it became common for New Zealanders, Māori and Pākehā, to wear such markers of Māori and New Zealand identity. Later, he was to meet the late Bill Solomon, the founder of the remarkable Whale Watch Kaikōura enterprise and Bill was to entrust him with whalebone and whale ivory that had come into his keeping. Some of the extraordinary outcomes of that relationship are seen in this book. Two of them, from the biggest tooth I have ever owned, or seen, are from a tooth I gave to Brian to carve as a gift for Bill. It is formed as a diving whale. Still later, I called him at short notice to produce a piece I could wear for a documentary series I was presenting. I wanted to be able to set a microphone in it so I could talk on camera without wires trailing behind. He still had the smaller off-cut from the taoka he’d carved for Bill. In next to no time, it seemed, I was resplendent in a gorgeous whale ivory pendant which I wore on camera for the whole of the series. They remain two of the finest examples of modern bone carving I have seen or held.
Today I can look at someone wearing a bone pendant and recognise Brian’s work instantly. His carving is everywhere and still marked by that individual quirkiness and fine design and finish that has become his hallmark. I am proud that some of his carvings in this book are mine. Each has its own kōrero, or story, but each is a fresh interpretation of the traditions in which he has steeped himself – old stories, old symbols, emerging in a fresh light through the prism of his imagination and artistry. In later years, Brian was to engage with the late Hirini Melbourne of Ngāi Tūhoe, the man responsible for the renaissance of traditional Māori musical instruments. They were joined by Richard Nunns and this creative trio was to become the spearhead of an indigenous musical movement that has surged on since Hirini’s death to become a new feature of the New Zealand cultural landscape. Brian Flintoff’s instruments have been at the heart of that movement. Brian grew up at Colac Bay on the coasts of Foveaux Strait, Te Ara-a-Kiwa. As Upoko of Awarua (Bluff) I think it is reasonable that I be forgiven the suspicion that in some way Brian Flintoff’s art is founded on the intrinsic virtues of the Murihiku region, imbued with the creative influence of my own ancestral shores. It is not, however, an argument that I would push too strongly. I have to acknowledge that, beyond the obvious merits of his background, there is the creative genius of the artist, the individual vision and the individual imagination. Brian manifests a unique passion for telling ancestral stories in old forms but in new ways – and telling them beautifully. My tūpuna would be profoundly envious of the treasures that we in our time are able to wear and display. They are treasures as beautiful as those of old. Brian Flintoff has taken an ancient art form and imbued it with new life. It now evolves and grows in a way that could not have been imagined even fifty years ago. He has been at the centre of that new life. That is his gift to us.
Tā Tīpene O’Regan Upoko, Awarua Kāi Tahu