Chapter 6, Part 2 - Taonga Koiwi nga Hau e Wha

Carvings from Mythology

Please enjoy listening to 'tangi koauau' by hirini melbourne, & richard nunns, while reading chapter 6 part 2.

 
 

When standing comfortably its legs span 23 centimetres. Not only are all the leg joints articulated so that the crab can be arranged to look natural in various poses, but the eyes also move on their stalks. This is a fascinating feature of crabs which I found unsettling to watch when I once kept a small marine aquarium, as the eyes operate individually with each looking in a different direction. Owen Mapp’s own work is strongly influenced by these and other historic traditions of bone carving, as well as the stories and forms which are unique to New Zealand. He has kindly allowed me to show some examples of his carving. The netsuke below, depicting a fly on a bone, was carved from 40,000-year-old mammoth ivory. Owen says of this piece: ‘This netsuke sculpture is illustrating the balance of life theme, “life and death”, the femur bone representing past life, and being the main leg bone of mankind it is often used for flutes in various cultures, the production of ritual sound, “breath of life”. Then the common blowfly, life in itself, that feeds and relies on death to survive. The continuous cycle.’

 Netsuke carving by Owen Mapp of a fly on a bone

Netsuke carving by Owen Mapp of a fly on a bone

Ngāke and Whataitai were two taniwha who formed and lived in Wellington Harbour, Te Whanganui-a-Tara. Ngāke broke out of the harbour and can be seen on occasions in Te Moana o Raukawa (Cook Strait), where he is protector of the ocean currents. In the 140-millimetre piece of whalebone below Owen has carved Ngāke emerging from the swirling ocean.

 Whalebone carving by Owen Mapp representing Ngāke emerging from the ocean

Whalebone carving by Owen Mapp representing Ngāke emerging from the ocean

Owen has also created many feather carvings. He told me: ‘Feathers have endless design possibilities, and it gives me great pleasure in carving them. I see feathers as symbols used by many cultural groups; as political statements, decoration of the body, totems that certain peoples use for a protective or clan sign, status symbols, fetishes to help a hunter and items used to warm the body in woven cloaks. Te Whiti o Rongomai used three albatross feathers as a peace symbol.’

 A feather bundle by Owen Mapp carved from mammoth ivory

A feather bundle by Owen Mapp carved from mammoth ivory

 Homage to Hine nui te Pō, a whalebone carving by Owen Mapp

Homage to Hine nui te Pō, a whalebone carving by Owen Mapp

Owen’s signature work, Homage to Hine nui te Pō (above), is a sperm whalebone carving, the back of which shows the natural weathering as it was when taken from the sea at Tory Channel. This piece has a personal connection for him as some of his relatives worked at the whaling station there in the 1900s. He tells that “Hine nui te Pō (great woman of the night) was a goddess who brought death to the world and lived in the underworld to receive the newly dead. It was said that she also had the power of the renewal of life and carried the waters of life drawn up into her womb. Māui wanted eternal life and decided to enter Hine nui te Pō through her vagina to drink those waters of life. Unfortunately for Māui, the fantail who was accompanying him laughed at the sight, and Hine nui te Pō woke up crushing Māui with the obsidian teeth of her vagina, so mankind never attained immortality. “Hine nui te Pō was also the goddess of dreams; hence her large all-seeing eyes. This is only part of the story of Hine nui te Pō.” Owen Mapp also introduced me to Doug Marsden, who gave me a treasured carving of Hine te Repo and Tunaroa made from the tip of an antler (shown below).

 Aroha Hinapóuri, an antler carving by Doug Marsden depicting Hine te Repo and Tunaroa

Aroha Hinapóuri, an antler carving by Doug Marsden depicting Hine te Repo and Tunaroa

I named it Aroha Hinapōuri because their story was one of tragic love. Owen and Doug are New Zealand carvers who have made a name for themselves in the contemporary Japanese netsuke scene, with Owen having three netsuke in the collection of T.I.H. Prince and Princess Takamado. As I studied netsuke and created some of my own I realised that, like the Māori carvings that I loved to work with, Japanese carvings also encapsulate the myths and the creatures which are important to the retention of a culture. Simply seeing a subject brings to mind the stories and messages associated with it. When I visited relations in Los Angeles I was made aware of the art of the nearby First Nation, Zuni people, renowned for their animal fetish carvings (see below). From an intricate cosmogony about the status of animals and birds as guardian figures and the power of different stones, they produce a dazzling variety of powerful small carvings that enrich the lives of people well beyond their tribal lands. These are carved in bone and a colourful variety of stones, making them precious through their form and philosophy.

 An example of a Zuni bear carving

An example of a Zuni bear carving

I now find that I look for bone items wherever I go, and often gain inspiration from what I see. I found the ivory icon opposite among many similar ones in the treasures of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, demonstrating the skills and empathy with a precious material that is evidence of a great tradition. After a trip to Thailand my neighbour brought me back the intricately detailed family of lizards opposite, complete with a fly being consumed. The patterning of the skin texture is an indication of the hours spent observing the subject and painstakingly reproducing it.

 Ivory icon from Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Ivory icon from Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

 A deer antler carving of lizards from Thailand

A deer antler carving of lizards from Thailand

When visiting museums I am often delightfully surprised by the number and variety of carved bone exhibits from all around the world. The highly detailed model of the ship St George (following page) is from the collection of the Nelson Provincial Museum, and is probably made from ‘Dieppe ivory’. The city of Dieppe, in France, had developed a reputation for ivory carving, and when large numbers of French prisoners of war from the Napoleonic Wars of the early 1800s were incarcerated in Dartmoor, some turned to making model ships to sell to the guards. Real ivory was unavailable there, so any available bones were used, from meat bones supplied with their rations to those from deceased prisoners buried in shallow graves in nearby fields that had become exposed by the weather. It was sold as ‘Dieppe ivory’ to make it more acceptable.

 Model of the ship St George, carved in ‘Dieppe ivory’, Nelson Provincial Museum

Model of the ship St George, carved in ‘Dieppe ivory’, Nelson Provincial Museum

American whalers also used their spare time to decorate bone, adapting the Inuit tradition of etching on bone and inking the lines. Much of this scrimshaw was done on sperm whale teeth, like the one below that depicts a couple dancing.

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The wealth of worldwide bone carvings from even the earliest times of humanity are inspirational to me, because they create links to the past and links between cultures. A 40,000-year-old vulture wing-bone flute from Europe sounds just like an albatross wing-bone koauau that can be heard today accompanying a Māori voice. I realise that the influence of being exposed to other traditions one admires is, to a certain degree, subliminally absorbed. The delicate intricacies of Japanese netsuke challenge me to add details that may never be noticed by most observers, for my aim is to create pieces that catch an observer’s eye from a distance and continue to hold interest as they are examined more closely. While I endeavour to remain true to Māori traditions, I acknowledge that other influences have been formative in my work. The encouragement given by my supportive extended family has made it possible for me to devote myself to this absorbing and time consuming craft. Having friends throughout the country and beyond who devote themselves to ideas and causes that will benefit others and whose support adds purpose to my craft is also greatly encouraging and appreciated. I am fortunate to live and work where the tide comes up so far that it sometimes covers the beach road that leads to our home and my studio, where I enjoy the ancient kānuka and a number of large kōwhai, tī, kauri, tītoki, ginkgo and olive trees that I have planted around us over the years. What began as just a hobby, which I hoped would help me unwind after a day’s work teaching children, has become an absorbing career. It was with much apprehension that I decided to make it my job, as I dreaded losing the vital interest it gave me as a hobby. Thirty years later however, I am delighted that although it is my job it remains a cherished hobby too. Being able to work from home and create treasures, like the wētā below carved from a whale’s tooth, continues to give me a personal experience that is deeply satisfying, hugely enjoyable and, most of all, enriching to my life.

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Clea Pettit