‘It’s powerful korero’
Stepping out of the classroom and into history, a group of Year 9 students and staff from Ngata Memorial College have brought the past forward by restoring two carved gateways in Tikitiki, learning their history and preserving them for others.
“Restoration is a very important process that prevents decay and rot and greatly lengthens the life and existence of valuable taonga,” says Lionel Matenga, a master carver and visual arts teacher at Ngata Memorial College.
“To be given a chance to help restore and bring our taonga back to its fullness of life, for me, displays the respect and honour we bestow on our tupuna and culture.”
The first gateway leads into the urupa in front of Rahui Marae and stands along State Highway 35, leading up to Saint Mary's Church.
The project has a dual purpose — restoring the gateway for future generations and teaching students about carving and history.
“It is a powerful whakapapa here and students are taking that in,” Te Rahui Marae pakeke (kaumatua) Nehe Dewes says.
“They learn about their whakapapa, their genealogy. To me, that is the beauty of Lionel. He talks, talks, talks, all the time sharing our stories.
“It is not just a paint job. It's much, much more. It's powerful korero.”
The restoration work teaches the students about themselves, their past and future, Mr Dewes says.
“It is a privilege and an honour for them to be doing all this restoration. They will remember this for the rest of their lives.”
Zion Rickard, one of the students who helped with the restoration, says it was about more than just extending the life of the gateways.
“There are many opportunities we take from whakairo/carvings,” Zion says.
“It teaches us where we come from, where we have stemmed from, our tupuna, and what they put here for us to enjoy.”
Zion says he has been fascinated by whakairo for a while and decided to join the project to understand his history better.
“I wanted to get more involved with my tikanga, to find out what my ancestors brought here. I wanted to get involved with something that is important to me.”
Ngata Memorial College principal Peter Heron says the school is bringing community and culture into the classroom.
“We are working hard to develop a local curriculum and the renovation work allowed our students to learn transferable skills around culture and specialist Maori crafts.”
The students were totally engaged in the restoration processes and braved cold weather conditions, Mr Matenga says.
“On arrival at Te Rahui Marae, our pakeke Nehe Dewes and residential Minister Harata (Lottie) Bennett formally welcomed us and had a karakia before any restoration mahi commenced.”
The restoration took five days to clean, paint, and replace 42 paua eyes at the urupa's gateway.
“Our nannies cooked beautiful meals that kept our students' tummies full and warm,” Mr Matenga says.
The gateway into the urupa was carved in the 1970s at New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua by students of the school's head carver, Hone Taiapa, who has a brother buried in the urupa.
As a master carver and teacher, Mr Matenga is always around the marae doing projects or looking around for work to be done for the community, Mr Dewes says.
While he was completing his Master's degree in visual arts at Wintec in Hamilton, Mr Matenga led a two-year restoration of Tikapa Marae.
The second carved gateway at Saint Mary's Church was carved in memory of Lady Arihia Ngata, Sir Apirana Ngata's wife.
The carving was done under the guidance of tohunga whakairo (expert carver) Hone Ngatoto after the church was built in 1924.
Before the gateway restoration began, the students and Mr Matenga had a cup of tea and kai with Reverend Matanuku Kaa and his wife Kura Kaa to learn about the church's history.
Lady Arihia taught many locals the weaving patterns that still decorate the church walls, says Reverend Kaa, who has been restoring the church with his wife for the past two decades.
Sir Apirana Ngata designed Saint Mary's Church in Tikitiki to commemorate the Ngati Porou soldiers who died in World War 1.
Above the altar at the head of the church, two stained-glass soldiers look up towards Jesus in the Garden of Eden, a religious scene taken from an older image where soldiers have replaced angels.
The two soldiers in the image are captain Pekama Kaa and Second Lieutenant Henare Kohere, who whakapapa to Reverend Kaa.
“That was the mastermind of Apirana. He took out the angels and put those soldiers in the Garden of Eden, kneeling in nobility at the foot of Jesus — isn't that brilliant?”
Even with the stories passed on and restoration completed, Mr Matenga says there is plenty more work to do.
“We have got so many marae in this region so there is a deep need for restoration and work still to be done.”