“Toi whakairo is about so much more than just carving. It’s about whakapapa and respecting the tapū 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.”

Wiremu (not his real name), lead carver and whakairo rakau tutor and mentor, together with a group of six to eight assistants in Auckland Prison’s special treatment unit, have been working tirelessly over the past 15 months to revive the unit’s whakairo whare.

Wiremu, who is largely self-taught, is sharing his mātauranga (skills and knowledge) of many years with the men – some of whom have never done whakairo before.

The whakairo crew is supported by Cultural Consultant Vikki Demant and Senior Advisor Kaupapa Māori and Whakairo Advisor 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 establish the whare with all the equipment they need. The men already have a number of projects under their belts despite many months of Covid-19 lockdowns and various ongoing restrictions at the prison to keep everyone safe from the coronavirus.

“We are very proud of a significant pou restoration kaupapa we have completed for Whaiora Marae in Ōtara, Auckland, and feel grateful that that we could give back to our community in this way,” Wiremu says.

First celebration of Matariki as a public holiday

“Another project we’ve completed is the stage-style backdrop and props 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 despite the limitations that Covid-19 have placed on our activities, is incredible,” Vikki says. “Having the whakairo whare in this unit provides another vital connection to our integrated therapeutic environment.

“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.”


Whakairo revival at Auckland Prison


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