Nga Toi Whakairo, He Mana Tangata*

9 November 2010

A landmark in the development of prison art in New Zealand occurred recently when pou whakairo carvings by prisoners were permanently installed at the North Shore District Court in Auckland.

Minister for Courts Georgina Te Heuheu (left) and Programmes Manager for NRCF and Auckland Prison, Mark Lynds (right) at the unveiling ceremony.Unveiled by the Minister of Courts Georgina Te Heuheu, the ceremony revealed the extent of vision, support and the goodwill of stakeholders and community alike.

The two five-metre works made by prisoners from the Northland Region Corrections Facility and Auckland Prison had their genesis 14 years earlier when the District Court building was opened in 1994.

It was thought then that its marae style architecture overseen by Ngati Whatua should eventually feature alongside the steel girders forming the amo, the carved works of prisoners. 

Idea revisited

The idea was re-visited in June 2010 when the Inside Out exhibition by prisoners in Northland Region Corrections Facility was opened at the Mairangi Art Centre.  Within weeks the Department, the Mayor and his deputy, Ngati Whatua Bastion Point, the North Shore City Council, the North Shore District Court and the Mairangi Bay Art Centre – activated the project.

Ngati Rangi (Nga Puhi Kaitiaki) were informed, and within a very short period of time a 40-tonne truckload of totara was delivered to the prison. By the beginning of July four carvers were contributing all available hours to the project.

The work was carved by a senior Nga Puhi carver in the style of his iwi – tangata whenua of the rohe or area in which the prison is located.

Children of two schools, Northcroft Intermediate and Hato Petera, responded to the formalities of powhiri and blessing with wero, kapahaka, and waiata. 

The Manager of Programmes at Northland Region Corrections Facility and Auckland Prison, Mark Lynds, says the works are the best ever produced by the carvers.  There were natural synergies and “the works fitted because they belonged”, even though the carvers had minimal knowledge of the building, its design or dimensions.

Decision-making and choice

The thinking behind the work, he says, was continually about decision-making and about choice.  When you walk into the court, two massive beams run from floor to ceiling representing the amo of the marae.  One side represents life, the other, death.

Marilyn Wilson, Court Manager at North Shore District Court, said she was delighted with the gift of pou for the atrium of the building. 

“They are remarkable works of art and the stories they contain are fitting for their setting. 

“The pou symbolise two things – firstly, that mistakes can be made, but secondly, that there is always a way to make amends and the opportunity to work towards a better future. 

“We have had many positive comments about the pou from visitors to our courthouse and it is a real pleasure to have them displayed here.”
While the works make broad statements about choice, a closer look at these two five-metre carvings reveal myriad on-going choices and decisions that ensure line, cut, depth, breadth and aesthetic are met.

Skills transferred to other areas of life

In the daily practice of art making, especially when working to deadlines, fluency within the medium increases; creative choices and decisions are rapidly made. These skills transfer into other areas of life and living and are a foundational element in the rehabilitative process.

Another ground-breaking aspect of this installation is that quality prisoner art acts as an enabler; a vehicle that allows safe engagement with prisoner art by public audiences. Over time, and with the support of stakeholders as demonstrated by the North Shore communities, quality New Zealand prison art exhibitions, installations, performance and publications can be designed to support the healing process and help reduce the polarities between crime and its victims.

The ownership and visibility of prison art by arts networks, galleries and communities will strengthen understanding of the prisoners who must eventually return to live amongst them.

* Where the arts flourish, there is human dignity


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