Wero Tāroi (Nga ̄ti Tara ̄whai, c.1810–80) is a legend. Biographical information is scarce, but he is not a complete enigma. Half a century after his death, he was described as the ‘carving expert of all Te Arawa’ by the Nga ̄ti Tara ̄whai leader and historian Kepa Ehau. His influence endures in the mahi toi of his pupil and collaborator Tene Waitere (Nga ̄ ti Tara ̄ whai, 1853–1931) and subsequent generations of Te Arawa carvers. Lyonel Grant (Ngāti Te Takinga, Ngāti Pikiao, Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Ngāti Rangitihi, Te Arawa) acknowledges his pivotal role and inspirational creativity.
There are many artistic typologies at play in a carved house, from the ancestral figures carved on poupou to the symbolic kōwhaiwhai and tukutuku. But it is the tekoteko (the carved figure attached to the gable) that sets the tone. It is the most prominent figure as you navigate the marae ātea, before entering the house as hou kāinga or manuhiri. Carved late in Tāroi’s career, the Houmaitawhiti Tekoteko was recently exhibited at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery in the exhibition Tēnei Ao Tūroa: This Enduring World.
Tāroi was in the vanguard of carvers who adopted metal chisels, replacing traditional stone tools, in the early nineteenth century. Their arrival corresponded to the transition from waka to whare as the primary mahi toi of tohunga whakairo. Tāroi revelled in the depth, intricacy, and increased speed of production that metal chisels enabled. Stylistically, his carving is notable for deep volumes and figure-on-figure carving schemes. He balanced traditional carving styles with innovative and at times bold cross-cultural imagery, exemplified by figures in motion and figures sporting Western dress, particularly hats and boots.
Houmaitawhiti is a tupuna who links Te Arawa with their ancestral homeland of Hawaiki. The father of Tamatekapua, the captain of Te Arawa waka, he instructed his son to search for new, peaceful lands to the south. Tāroi carved him in the mid-1870s, about five years before Hinemihi o Te Ao Tawhito, the whare that is the subject
of the Mark Adams photographs in the Adam Art Gallery exhibition. Hinemihi’s tekoteko is similar. Both feature prominently articulated arms, naturalistic faces, and pōtae (hats)—a bowler hat for the Hinemihi tekoteko and what looks like a top hat for Houmaitawhiti.
Over two metres high, the Houmaitawhiti Tekoteko is imposing. Its scale enables it to include the figure of Te Wharetoroa, a tiaki of the Lake Rotoiti area, in the form of a mokomoko, or lizard, a device frequently employed on Te Arawa carved houses as an interlocutor between the living and the departed, this world and the underworld. It also features a prominent koruru (gable mask) at the base—a defining attribute of carving within Te Arawa and the Ngāti Pikiao rohe—carved with highly defined rauru spirals to his cheeks. Other houses to feature such a striking koruru are Hinemihi o Te Ao Tawhito and Te Takinga at Mourea, and the pātaka Te Pua ̄ wai o Te Arawa, carved by Tāroi in the 1870s and housed at Auckland War Memorial Museum Ta ̄maki Paenga Hira.
The kawa, or convention, for selecting a tekoteko figure will vary from iwi to iwi and house to house. In some cases, the tekoteko will represent the father, grandfather, or a key figure deeper into the ancestral line. For example, Lyonel Grant chose the tupuna Atuamatua to stand atop the carved house Ihenga (1996) on Tangatarua Marae at Toi Ohomai Institute of Technology in Rotorua. Atuamatua was the father of Houmaitawhiti, who in turn was Ihenga’s great-grandfather, an indication of the interconnectedness of these foundation tūpuna figures.
Today, Wero Tāroi’s Houmaitawhiti Tekoteko, now nearly one hundred and fifty years old—along with a number of other carvings by Tāroi—is in the care of the Rotorua Museum Te Whare Toi o Te Arawa. A replacement has been carved to stand atop Houmaitawhiti at Pounamunui Marae on the shores of Lake Rotoiti. The house, now well into his second century, continues in service to his people.