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Master carver of the house

Ngati Porou master carver Lionel Matenga talks to Shaan Te Kani about his latest project, and his journey in the Maori art form . . .

Before Lionel Matenga entered the realm of whakairo, his journey started off much like an untouched timber plank.

Free from sketchings, etchings or engravings, the one thing that was there was the potential to be crafted into a masterpiece.

Thirty years later and the Te Whanau a Pokai descendant has just helped to breathe life back into his whare tipuna — also named after the ancestor Pokai — at Tikapa Marae on the East Coast.

A rededication ceremony and unveiling of the whare took place last week, and was attended by hundreds from throughout the country.

Lionel led the restoration of the carving project for the front of the whare, as well as the kowhaiwhai, the painted rafters.

It was a major project that took two years to complete and was just one part of the overall renovation and restoration project of the marae.

The whare had sustained major damage to its carvings from Cyclone Giselle in 1968.

It was the same storm that caused the sinking of the Lyttleton-Wellington ferry, the Wahine — New Zealand’s worst maritime disaster.

Now 50 years later, the whare has finally been restored.

A fulfilling experienceIt has been a fulfilling experience for Lionel, especially in the connections that have been made throughout the process.

It has not only helped him to gain his Master’s degree, it also helped him to reconnect and give something back to his whanau, forge relationships between his people and other iwi, acknowledge the teachings of experts in Maori art, and pass knowledge on to the next generation.

“In 2016, I enrolled to do a Master’s degree in visual arts at Wintec in Hamilton and I had to find a project to complete my degree.

“I knew restoration work was being done on our whare tipuna. Our people had a vision of a carving that would go on the front of our meeting house Pokai.

“I met with our marae trustees and whanau and they agreed that I could lead this project.

“My grandmother Erina Matenga (nee Grant) is from Tikapa. It was through her connection that our people supported and agreed for me to do this work.”

It was an extensive project where carvings needed to be recreated for the mahau, the entire front of the meeting house, and the inside of the porchway.

“It was a unique project in that our people allowed me to do this work away from home,” says Lionel, who is a teacher at Forest View High School in Tokoroa.

“I engaged 40 students to help me with the mahi (work). Once completed, we brought 30 taonga back to Tikapa.

“The installation took about nine days and I brought my students to carry out that work also. These students all whakapapa to Ngati Raukawa, Ngati Tuwharetoa and Tainui waka, and now they have a connection to Te Whanau a Pokai through their contribution to this project.”

What was also significant was that the timber came from Titiraupenga, an ancestral mountain of the Tuwharetoa iwi, situated behind Tokoroa.

“Pouakani Trust sanctioned, in support of the project, for the timber to be used,” says Lionel, whose wife Te Aroha Matenga is from the region.

“My wife’s people have been significant in the blessing and giving of what they have to Te Whanau a Pokai.

“Ngati Tuwharetoa started the process by performing a karakia for the trees. Then they were given the honour of completing the karakia ritual at the unveiling ceremony last week.

“Ngati Raukawa also attended the unveiling as they allowed me to be able to carve here in Tokoroa.

“A friend of mine, master carver Hohepa Pene, also contributed. He is a tutor at Te Wananga o Aotearoa based in Huntly and some of his students helped to carve one side of the porchway. So there again is the Tainui involvement.

“These are significant points to mention, because these are connections.

“My job was to facilitate the whole carving project. The best way to do that was to involve people.

“Part of the carving depicts these connections through the ancestral mountains of Titiraupenga and Pureora, back to Hikurangi and Pohautea on the East Coast.”

It is a connection reflected in Lionel’s own journey of whakairo and Maori arts.

“I live in Tokoroa, but my carving journey began in Tairawhiti. I was one of the first students to go through the art programme at Tairawhiti Polytechnic in 1987-1988, which was before Toihoukura, The School of Maori Visual Arts, was established.

“My initial influence was the late Ivan Ehau. He instigated Toihoukura, and encouraged me to pursue carving and Maori art.

“Another person who was instrumental for me was Whaipooti Hitchiner. She was a tohunga raranga (master weaver) of the Nukutere Whare Wananga.

“Whaipooti, Gladys Ruru and Polly Whaitiri were key people who pushed our Maori arts.

“So all that is happening now has come from people who put in the work 30 years ago. These have been instrumental people in my development.”

Reconnecting with being MaoriIvan was also someone who helped Lionel to reconnect with being Maori.

“My dad was brought up in Tikitiki. His mum was from Tikapa. But I was brought up in a totally different world not knowing where I was from.

“Before I enrolled at Tairawhiti Polytechnic I had been living a totally different life to what I do now. I was playing cricket overseas in England.

“When I came back I enrolled on to the Tairawhiti art foundation course.

“Initially I wanted to do Pakeha art, but one day Ivan saw me and said, ‘Boy, have you thought about Maori art?’

“Then he showed me some of the Maori artforms and said ‘would you be keen?’

“I said yes, and he said, ‘come with me boy’.

“And once I had a taste, I was hooked.”

After completing his foundation course, Lionel went to Waiariki Polytechnic to study Maori art and design, followed by a teaching degree at Waikato University.

“That constituted all of my art learning. I have spent over 20 years teaching in high school, working with young people.

“I have worked on a range of restoration projects including four other meeting houses, and I have taken my high school students with me to help.

“That has been one inspiration from Ivan. He would take us to different marae.

“We would do mahi at these marae, from general maintenance to just helping to alleviate the workloads of our people.”

But the restoration of Pokai is by far the biggest project Lionel has been involved in.

“It took two years but our pakeke Morehu Te Maro would always encourage me to take my time. ‘We’re not in a rush,’ he’d say. There was no pressure. So I couldn’t ask for better people to support me.

“Our main brief from our pakeke was that these carvings were to be carved in no other style than Iwirakau, who was a great tohunga of whakairo on the East Coast.

“What a great honour. I’ve studied Iwirakau carving, and what an amazing opportunity it has been to recreate his style of carving.

“I have been carving for 30 years now and to get to a level where I am involved in a project like this, and my students are with me, has been amazing.”

Te Whanau a Pokai carver Lionel Matenga led a project to recreate the front ofhis whare tipuna Pokai at Tikapa Marae, in the East Coast style of Iwirakau. Picture by Natalie Robertson