Contemporary art work pays homage to ancient Māori navigator

One man’s artistic homage to his ancient ancestor has inspired one of New Zealand’s most extraordinary works of art.

One man’s artistic homage to his ancient ancestor has inspired one of New Zealand’s most extraordinary works of art.

On the shores of Lake Taupo – which Māori refer to as the beating heart of New Zealand’s North Island - the Mine Bay rock carvings have become one of New Zealand’s most popular cultural tourism destinations.

The carvings depict the visionary Māori navigator Ngatoroirangi who guided his people – the Tūwharetoa and Te Arawa tribes - across the Pacific in a traditional double-hulled waka or wooden canoe almost a thousand years ago.

It took an astounding four years to complete the Mine Bay carvings, sculpted into a rock face 14m above the water, but it wasn’t long before tourists began finding their way across the lake to view the work.

Work on the carvings, designed and created by master carver Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell, began in 1976.

“I am the 27th generation to Ngatoroirangi,” said Brightwell. “He navigated the Te Aroha canoe, which all the Te Arawa tribes descend from. Eight hundred years ago he arrived in this area and I wanted to commemorate that. That’s how it began.”

Brightwell said he was out on the lake and saw a huge rocky alcove, and inspiration struck. “It was like this voice called out. I saw an image of a tattooed face and I decided I would sculpt Ngatoroirangi.”

An orally taught artist, Brightwell’s first step was putting together a tattoo plan for the image of Ngatoroirangi. He also wanted to demonstrate the Te Arawa style of art, a traditional art form unchanged over the centuries.

“I did many sketch plans but the main thing I had to come up with was how to put it onto the stone. So I had to clear all the rock face to make it level and we had to clear it away all by hand. I decided to use three-tier scaffold and one piece of string, with a weight at the end to give me a line through the centre,” he said.  

Brightwell used to string line horizontally, vertically and diagonally to map out the overall drawing.

Brightwell had three others working on the three levels of the scaffolding and he could tell by the sound of the tapping if something wasn’t quite right.

“That’s how precision minded I was, and I was representing my ancestor. As a descendant of Ngaroroirangi I had to present him in perfection, or didn’t want do it at all.”

Each intricate design on the rock carving has a meaning, Brightwell says.

“Follow the centre line of the carving right up the top of the tikitiki (or the top knot) and that’s the celestial side of his being. The strand connects you to his centre, called the matakite or the third eye - that’s the spiritual eye. That’s the aho (centre of your being) connecting him to mother earth.

“We call the lip tattoo on Ngatoroirangi (the chevron) Matakokiri – the shooting star or comet because he is a descendant of the star gods.  Under his chin, we call that the hokioi - the eagle wing under his lip. He was supposed to fly from A to B. The design on his nose signifies his power of discernment.”

In recognition of the cross-cultural nature of New Zealand, Matahi carved two smaller figures of Celtic design, which depict the south wind and Ngatoroirangi stopping the south wind from freezing him.

The main carving is over 10 metres high and took four summers to complete. The artwork is Matahi's gift to Taupō. He and four assistants, Te Miringa Hohaia, Steve Myhre, Dave Hegglun and cousin Jono Randell, took no payment other than small change donations from local bar patrons to cover the cost of the scaffolding.

Brightwell says he never imagined that the carving would become an iconic tourist attraction but he is pleased it has.

And he has a message for the many tourists who do come to see the carvings, “I would want them to understand how Māori’s see the artwork and to appreciate our heritage. I would want them to understand that they are looking at an 800-year-old event.”

“I just say, ‘soak it all in’. If you feel connected, I am happy about that. And if you are respectful to my culture I’ll be happy with that as well.”

The carvings have become an iconic cultural attraction for the Taupo region and a demonstration that traditional Māori knowledge and skills continue to be passed from generation to generation.

Travel Tips

To see the Mine Bay rock carvings, you need to head out on the water of Lake Taupo. There is a range of ways to do this including kayaking and sailing.

Cruise from Taupo town to the rock carvings with either Chris Jolly Outdoors or on the vintage Ernest Kemp, sail on the Barbary or the Fearless, or kayak with Taupo Kayaking Adventures.