CULTURE - NGATI Porou academic Ngarino Ellis has lived in Auckland for decades but, when it was time to research her doctoral thesis, she cast her eyes home to her tribal territory on the East Coast.
And some of what she discovered had particular resonance. She believed that many of the carvings held by Auckland Museum, for example, once belonged to O Hine Waiapu, “on whose porch my grandmother Emere Kaa was born in 1901”.
Ellis this week took part in the University of Auckland’s spring graduation ceremony, having completed her thesis, A Whakapapa Of Tradition: Ngati Porou Carving 1830-1930, after 15 years of hard slog.
And her work will be seen by many more than those who approved its acceptance. It has been confirmed that it will next year be published as a large-format, hard-cover book by the Auckland University Press.
The Press says that will greatly increase public knowledge about Ellis’s subject, the Iwirakau School of carving — based in the East Coast’s Waiapu Valley — and its “top six carvers” Hone Ngatoto and his uncle Hone Taahu, Riwai Pakerau, Te Kihirini and Tamati Ngakaho who worked on projects including Hau Te Ana Nui o Tangaroa (1874), Porourangi (1888), and St Marys Church in Tikitiki (1926).
Most of the carvings created at Iwirakau are still on the East Coast. However, at least 200 are overseas and to view them Ellis visited over 20 museums on various trips to the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Scotland, Australia and the Pacific.
“My thesis argues for visual traditions to be seen as whakapapa (genealogy),” she says, “with a distinct beginning, middle and end”.
The book resulting from Ellis’s thesis will be a substantial tome — some 80,000 words illustrated with 250 colour images, shot by Natalie Robertson (also Ngati Porou) — with a mock-up of its early production to be showcased at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair.
It is dedicated to the late Hone Kaa and historians Judith Binney and Roger Neich.
And tentative talks are also under way to see an exhibition of the images installed at Tairawhiti Museum to coincide with its launch.
“Our aim is to return to East Coast communities — and Ngati Porou carvers in particular — images and ideas that have been discovered during the course of this project,” Ellis said.
Study in the arts is not new to Ngarino Ellis (Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou) whose father, painter Robert Ellis, taught at Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts for 40 years.
Following in his footsteps, his daughter has since 1997 been a member of the university’s Art History faculty, with a particular focus on art crime and Maori art history.
She was this year appointed co-ordinator for the Museums and Cultural Heritage Programme in the Faculty of Arts, and will in 2013 teach a new paper on indigenous views on heritage studies.
She has previously published for a mainstream audience — joining Witi Ihimaera in co-editing Te Ata: Maori Art from the East Coast, New Zealand (2002), and working with Deidre Brown to co-edit Te Puna: Maori Art from Te Tai Tokerau (2007).
A Whakapapa Of Tradition will be her first solo publishing venture.