Chapter 6, Part 1 - Taonga Koiwi nga Hau e Wha
Carvings from Mythology
Please enjoy listening to pitch blacks remix of ' Te Pō' by richard nunns and hirini melbourne while reading chapter 6, Part 1.
Although my carving is inspired by, and devoted to, the Māori art tradition, my research has shown me that bone is a medium that has been treasured throughout human history and in most cultures. The first bone carving I ever encountered was a gift from a family friend who was a missionary in India. It was a tiny ivory bookmark (below) 17 millimetres wide featuring an elephant, which, though I was only six years old at the time, became one of those things that remain personal treasures.
When I began carving I had to make my own slow way through trial and error. Fortunately there are now courses offered in the craft, and the book Bone Carving by Stephen Myhre is available to make learning easier, providing a proven and recommended skillbase of the techniques and concepts of bone carving in a New Zealand context. After several years of carving on my own I met Owen Mapp and Norman Clark, who had both been carving bone for some time. When I visited Owen he introduced me to some of the bone treasures from around the world which are now part of the Eriksen Mapp collection. I am indebted to Owen and Hanne Eriksen-Mapp for allowing me to reproduce their photos of items from their collection. Owen first showed me an African village scene from the Congo (opposite) which was carved from hippopotamus ivory in the 1870s. He explained that it is a ritual gift carving, depicting the people of the carver’s village wearing a mix of African and European clothing
I was astonished to hear that it was collected by Andries de Bloeme, a Dutch trader who had lived in the Congo area for many years and had travelled with H. M. Stanley as a guide and interpreter in the search for Dr. David Livingstone during the 1870s. When Owen added that Andries was the great-great-grandfather of his daughters Tahi and Tamara, I was overwhelmed to be holding this treasured family heirloom. Among further treasures was the kris (keris) handle below, carved from deer antler and mounted on a Damascus steel blade, crafted in the 1980s in Bali. It depicts the elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh (Ganesa), who is the son of Siva and Parvati and the god of wisdom, good luck and prudence, as well as being the guardian of travellers and the remover of obstacles.
The delicate colouring in the very fine engraving on the Chinese ducks and geese below makes them prized, even though they were carved from cow bone and plugged with inserts to make them appear like ivory.
I was delighted by the set of small figures below, which were carved by Inuit hunters in Alaska from fossil walrus ivory, caribou antler and sinew. These animal talismen were carried to aid the hunter in his communication with the animals. During the course of his hunting they gathered ‘power’, and would be handed down to his sons. They were collected in Barrow in the 1880s though they are probably much older.
Owen told me about a great Inuit carver called Happy Jack, though his real name was Angokwazhuk. He was born in the village of Ayasayuk, in Cape Nome, Alaska, and died in 1918 during the influenza epidemic. Happy Jack was a hunter until he lost his feet from frostbite and started carving in the 1890s. Happy Jack carved the Inuit dog whip handle below from walrus ivory. It depicts a kayak, a fox, a seal and a Billiken, which was a figure designed and patented in Missouri in 1908 by Florence Pretz, and apparently took its name from the company that created the figures. Billiken became very popular talismen in several countries, and Happy Jack carved them in ivory. Over the years they became accepted as Inuit god figures and good luck charms.
Michael Hooker, a Kiwi friend with an interest in art who is now living in Canada, traded my carvings for books on native American art, and I thus developed an appreciation of native art from that side of the world. As well as small works that are worn, Inuit carvers produce sculptural works from whale skulls and vertebrae, or even reindeer antler, like the one below from Greenland of a ritual tupilak figure. These large pieces create powerful shapes holding wondrous stories. Michael also sent me books featuring art from tribes of the Canadian northwest coast. With an introduction from him I have had the privilege of meeting some of these artists and watching them at work. Animal forms are a focus of their carvings too, as in the whale tooth below, carved by Mark Bronson, which features a frog and a person. The work of Canadian carvers has striking similarities to Māori art, with both having a similar approach to stylisation. When I became aware of the similarities of both art and myth, I looked more closely at Māori carvings where on first inspection the animals do not seem to be represented with the prominence one would expect from their importance in the traditions. I subsequently discovered that this was not in fact the case, but because they were so stylised one had to know the story being told by the carving in order to recognise them.
While we were visiting artists on the northwest coast of Canada, my wife Julia pointed out that the recurring phrase we all used as we talked about our work was ‘same here’. As I thought about this I became even more interested in myths and the parallels between those of different cultures. The stories I had grown up with — of Māui fishing up the North Island, catching the sun to slow it down and create order in the days, learning how to make fire, adding barbs to fish hooks and many other exploits — were paralleled in the stories of Raven, who, like Māui, was also a trickster. These characters and their myths helped to explain the mysteries of various natural phenomena. When I returned home I carved Raven and Māui on a piece of antler that had the shape of a traditional Canadian goat-horn spoon handle, and named it Same Here to remind me of the wonderful experiences of that trip (see below). Years later when the Le-La-La Dancers from Victoria came to visit, their leader, Chief Henry Seaweed, developed such a liking for the piece and its story that I decided to give it to him to take for a while to British Columbia.
Interestingly, George Taylor, from the Kwakwaka’wakw Nation, who was our host and became a good friend showed me a bear carved on a totem pole and asked if I knew who it was. I realised that with a Māori carving I could likely do the converse, and ask what animal a particular human-like figure represented. My study of these carvings has helped me to gain an understanding of why I was so attracted to Māori carving, because through it I can express my love of nature and mythology in a way that allows others to appreciate and treasure their values.
Owen Mapp also had some carvings from the Canadian northwest, and he showed me the orca below carved in the 1950s from moose bone by the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands. They show certain similarities to Māori whale carvings, with the flipper of the top one depicted as a hand.
Owen also introduced me to the exquisite Japanese and Chinese netsuke carvers, whose tradition of excellence impressed me greatly. The netsuke is a carving that is passed under the obi (belt) of a kimono to hold in place an inro, or container, hanging from it. The inro could hold various objects, such as a selection of medicines or a fashionable smoking set. A small, carved bead called an ojime would be added to keep the container closed. The detail on these small carvings is often extremely fine. Once, when I was shown some netsuke in a case, I quickly passed a tiny Buddha, thinking ‘I’ve seen lots of Buddha carvings and they are nearly all the same.’ The owner suggested I look again, and I saw that it actually depicted a giant Buddha, with men on ladders busily working all over it with buckets and cloths to give it a thorough clean. Owen assembled the set below, carved in Japan in the 19th century, from items in the J. & D. Glover collection, and explained that the ivory netsuke is a Dutchman with a sword, thought of as a comical figure by the Japanese at that time.
The ojime agate bead holds the double cord of the lacquered wooden inro box, thus securing the multiple compartments together. The inro hangs from the netsuke secured by the obi. The crafting of these sets continued as a unique tradition of artistry and miniaturisation until the 20th century, when the adoption of western-style clothing caused them to go out of fashion. However, netsuke carving is again being practised as an art form and appreciated by the many collectors of these special treasures. A huge hall of the British Museum is filled with hundreds of tiny netsuke, seldom more than 50 millimetres high, and each telling a myth or fable, or with some cultural wisdom encapsulated in their minute form. I have a clipping about the short life of Shoko, a netsuke carver who was so involved in his carving that he worked himself to an early death at the age of 54, and carved only 75 finished pieces. One piece, which is just 10 centimetres high, took five years to create — two years of detailed research followed by three intense years of carving at every possible moment. Many netsuke depict significant creatures or beings from mythology. One example illustrated below is the mythical water sprite called Kappa, who is often portrayed with turtle- and monkey-like features. He can be extremely fierce and is apt to harm people, but his strength comes from a drop of liquid lying in a concave depression on the top of his head.
As Kappa can appear in human form, it is always prudent when meeting a stranger to bow to him. Kappa’s innate reaction to return politeness means he will bow back, causing the liquid to fall out and render him harmless. The toad and the gourd that Kappa holds in this carving also have their own stories, so a lot of meaning is packed into this small 53-millimetre-high carving. This similarity of telling myths in carving inspired me to create a netsuke and nguru set called Hine Moana (below), where I have used the functional form of a netsuke set but carved items that tell stories from Aotearoa in the style of traditional Māori art. The inro representing Hine Moana, the sea goddess, was carved from antler with a whalebone lid, and contains the whale-shaped nguru flute shown in front of it.
The ojime is a tiny kina, or sea urchin, carved from the honey-coloured inner core of a whale tooth, and the netsuke depicts a whale carved as it might be by a Japanese netsuke san on one side, and by a Māori kaiwhakairo on the other. The design for the reflected whale image below, carved from a whale tooth, is similar to the netsuke of the Hine Moana set, but the images are reversed. As the same whale might swim past the shores of both countries, I have depicted the differences in how the carvers may perceive it, as well as the similarities.
Larger carved objects from Japan, which were usually placed in a shrine, are called okimono. They share the same attention to detail as netsuke, as shown in the remarkable crab (below) from the private collection of Henry Balfour. It was carved during the Meiji period, around 1860, and is signed Sho-zan.