The carver speaks of his work

Last updated 00:00 03/08/2007

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Ihenga, by Lyonel Grant and Damian Skinner (Reed, $34.99). Reviewed by Matiu Dickson.

This book is unique in the Maori world in that it is the only text I know which records the building of an ancestral meeting house.

It is written from the point of view of the tohunga whakairo (or master carver) Lyonel Grant in the narrative style, where Grant responds to questions put to him by the co-author Damian Skinner. It is therefore a very readable book which can be put down and returned to.

Helpfully for the reader, there is a history of the establishment of what was called the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute at Whakarewarewa, the famous tourist pa site. The institute was intended to revive the lost art of whakairo (Maori carving) and Grant was a graduate of it.

There are many anecdotal stories of the quirky habits of the master carvers, like Hone Taiapa, who taught Grant. In the instructions to the student, there is an overriding reference to being humble when talking about the quality of one's carved work.

For this reason, Grant approached the building of Ihenga meeting house in the grounds of the Waiariki Polytechnic by being fully prepared and supported by a well-known kaumatua of the time, Hiko Hohepa. This was Grant's second carved house. His preparation and the knowledge given to him are the "raison d'etre" of the book.

Coincidentally, I attended the dawn ceremony for the opening of the house, and was stunned by the awesome sensation of standing beneath the hull of a waka which formed the tahuhu (backbone) of the entire building. The wall decorations also gave a feeling of standing in the great forest of Tanemahuta. These concepts were an exciting innovation in the building of meeting houses. In my opinion the craftsmanship of the house shows the particular, and now recognisable, style of Grant's work.

The only concern I have is that the black and white photos in the book could have been of a better quality.

If they were, the reader could appreciate the intricacies of each carving which are referred to in the text. In any case, I highly recommend this book to readers.

  • Matiu Dickson is a Waikato University law lecturer who has an interest in Maori literature and the arts.

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    - Waikato Times

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