Te Rau Karamu Marae and the Cosmic Tree

Reuben Friend visits Massey University’s stunning new marae.

Ko te pū, te more, te weu, te aka, te rea
Te waonui, te kune, te whē, te kore, te pō

Ki ngā tāngata Māori, nā Rangi rāua ko Papa
Ko tēnei te tīmatanga o te ao

You might know this song. Its soulful melody feels meaningful, even if you don’t understand the words. I first learnt it at Hoani Waititi Marae in the early 2000s, and remember feeling as if I had memorised secret information, like the cheat code for a video game that unlocks a bunch of hidden levels. The lyric sheet included an image of a tree with its root system exposed, with these words embedded in the image like an anatomical flowchart. I hadn’t thought about this memory for some time, until earlier this year when I entered Te Rau Karamu Marae at Massey University in Wellington. Te Rau Karamu is a doorway to those hidden levels, unlocking subterranean chambers and celestial realms, like a real-life RPG.

My first encounter with Te Rau Karamu is on the morning of 27 March 2021. The sky is still dark, but hundreds of manuwhiri have already poured in from around the motu, gathering at the Pukeahu Campus for the dawn opening. In between pandemic lockdowns, we are all feeling fortunate to take part, greeting friends and colleagues with smiles and harirū. It is a reunion of sorts, in the carpark in front of the marae complex, with many having not seen each other in months or even years. Word on the street is that this masterpiece, nearly six years in the making, has been a challenging project for all involved. People are swapping ‘he said, she said’ stories about the construction when a karanga rings out, calling us to attention. Like meerkats, four hundred people peek up in unison, observing the rituals of the atea. 

There are no obvious ancestral figures depicted on the tōtara waharoa or on the face of the house, though people are pointing out star constellations embedded across the front maihi and amo of the meeting house. Made from handmade ceramic disks, carved by uku artist Wi Taepa, they demarcate the seasons, from Matariki and Puanga on the left to Rehua on the right. This is the first clue to the conceptual intent of the house. It is not a whare tupuna, but there is whakapapa in those stars.

Entering the whare, Te Whaioranga o Te Whaiao, we are greeted by the haukāinga on the left and manuwhiri on the right, as per Te Āti Awa kawa. With an impressive line-up of orators, artists, and politicians on both sides of the pae, the mana in the room is palpable. Instinct tells me it is probably more comfortable to sit in the second or third row. Taking my seat at the end of an aisle, I am impressed by the tukutuku-inspired imagery on the back wall, where a poutama-patterned parquet of native timbers generates an optical illusion of depth. This effect, combined with the heavy wood treatment, creates a subterranean feeling, which sparks a flood of memories, with the earworm of that song and the drawing of that tree percolating in my mind.

Te Whaioranga o Te Whaiao meeting house interior, showing the stepped poutama panel design on the back wall.

In front of me, I see Tāne Mahuta extending in all directions from the realm of Papatūānuku, like a sprouting seed preparing to break through the earth’s surface into te ao mārama, the world of light. Looking up further, there are images of trees, stars, clouds, birds, and insects. The entire whare is a giant flow chart, tracing connections between earth and sky, and the complex systems of life that exist in between. A thousand years of knowledge and artistic influence have been invested into these walls. It is a feast for the eyes and imagination. 

The timber wall panels were carved using computer-aided technologies. This tech and the style of kōwhaiwhai speak strongly to the design aesthetic of Ngataiharuru Taepa, an artist with whakapapa to Te Āti Awa and Director of Māori Arts at Massey University. Taepa played a key role in the development of the marae but is reluctant to be named as project lead. His humility reminds me of a soundbite by Wu Tang Clan’s Method Man, about the Wu forming like Voltron, where no individual is more important than another, but one just happens to be the head. 

Te Whaioranga o Te Whaiao meeting house, showing ko¯whaiwhai and whakairo paintings by Saffronn Te Ratana, Hemi Macgregor, and Ngataiharuru Taepa.

Looking up from the wall panels, our necks crank backwards, and stay that way for some time, enthralled by the intricate painted kōwhaiwhai on the ceiling. There are naturalistic trees in warm browns and cool blue-greens, reminding me of the late-nineteenth-century figurative paintings on Te Whai-a-Te-Motu meeting house in Ruatāhuna, similarly depicting birds, trees, people, and forest life. These designs are the contribution of Saffronn Te Ratana, a painter whose Tūhoe whakapapa is evident in her use of colour and naturalistic imagery. 

Each ceiling panel depicts different rākau, bearing fruits, flowers, insects, and birdlife that signal seasonal change. The treetops reach up into more star constellations. Hemi Macgregor’s abstract kōwhaiwhai painting converges here with Te Ratana’s naturalistic rākau, yet their styles remain distinct enough to occupy their own space within the broader composition. The two share artistic connections through their mutual Tūhoetana, with Macgregor also connecting to the East Coast through Te Iwi o Rakaipaaka and Ngāi Kahungunu. Painted whakairo patterns along the house’s central tāhuhu ridgeline merge into the aesthetic of Taepa’s wall panels, grounding the starry celestial realms of Ranginui into the landscape via the sky-lined trees of Tāne and the forests of Hinewaonui. Taepa, Te Ratana, and Macgregor have collaborated in the past, most prominently with Ka Kata te Pō (2011) at Auckland Art Gallery, an installation that brought to life the colours, movement, and two-dimensional figurative imagery of kōwhaiwhai painting as a three-dimensional sculpture. 

The artists, however, are quick to remind me that the marae is not an art installation. The creative energy and brilliance of this house is a symbol of mana and importance, but a marae is more than the artwork that adorns it. Te Rau Karamu has been developed as an Indigenous space for knowledge sharing, encoding mātauranga Māori of te taiao (natural environment) into the fabric of the building; literally, in the instance of Kura Puke’s fibre work, where narratives of the celestial realms of Rangi-Tūhāhā and the acquisition of knowledge through Ngā Kete o Te Wānanga have been sewn into the sound insulation on the front interior wall. The cloud-like imagery at the wall’s apex recalls the prophetic paintings and whakairo at Mana Ariki Marae, in Taumarunui. The connection between Mana Ariki and Te Whai-a-Te-Motu, houses built to recognise prophetic leaders, suggests a spiritual layer running through the environmental concerns of this house. 

Kura Puke, a Te Āti Awa artist and Associate Dean Māori at Massey’s Toi Rauwhārangi College of Creative Arts, extended her interest in textiles into fibre optics and lighting, carefully concealing the LED fixtures by bouncing light off surfaces, creating a feeling of energy emanating from the whakairo, kōwhaiwhai, and tukutuku. The atmospheric lighting continues on the marae atea and into the whare kai with such brilliance as to be nominated for a 2021 Best Award from the Designers Institute of New Zealand. Working with Athfield Architects and Studio Pacific to realise this vision was an expansive team of artists and cultural experts that included Robert Jahnke, Israel Tangaroa Birch, Stuart Foster, Maihi Potaka, Inahaa Te Urutahi Waikerepuru, Te Ngaruru Wineera, Kurt Komene, Chaz Doherty, Rangi Mataamua, and Kura Moeahu. 

Te Whaioranga o Te Whaiao meeting house, with Te Whaioranga o Te Taiao dining hall behind.

I return to Te Rau Karamu on the evening of 31 July 2021 for a hākari prepared for manuwhiri attending the Sandy Adsett: Toi Koru exhibition and symposium at Pātaka Art + Museum, in Porirua. We spend the evening within Te Whaioranga o Te Whaiao, hearing directly from the artists who built it. The house is warm and I feel like a kākano cocooned in soil. I almost fall asleep, until Adsett starts offering difficult questions about the future of marae arts. Not all of the answers issued seem satisfactory, but equally the artists don’t seem too impressed with some of the questions either. It is like watching the History Channel, narrated by two competing broadcasters. There are differences in opinion, with each side emphasising personally nuanced perspectives, but there is also a lot of love in the room. Adsett’s influence as a curator and kōwhaiwhai exponent can be seen in Te Rau Karamu through the collaborative and multi-stylistic curation of artwork in the whare. In 2019, Taepa and Te Ratana worked on Adsett’s Te Huki Hou meeting house in Raupunga—a whare that can be described as an art gallery of sorts, with Adsett curating the artists to incorporate a range of individual styles into a coherent overarching design. 

Te Whaioranga o Te Taiao dining hall, showing exterior design by Israel Tangaroa Birch.

After discussions in the meeting house, we are welcomed into the whare kai, Te Whaioranga o Te Taiao, though, as a crowd, we get caught outside, as all eyes are transfixed by its glowing brilliance. Israel Tangaroa Birch’s well-known light-refraction painting practice has been expanded to an unprecedented scale across the entire face of Te Whaioranga o Te Taiao. His unaunahi fish-scale designs etched into shimmering steel illuminate the dining hall with a brilliant array of blue, green, and purple light, thanks to an LED lighting algorithm that shifts the colour spectrum across the building in time with tidal movements in the harbour—creating a lunar- and tidal-phase clock that signals the appropriate times for gathering kai moana. Inside the whare kai, Robert Jahnke’s tukutuku-inspired neon sculptures generate an optical illusion of endlessly reflective pātiki fish patterns, which will entice the imaginations, if not the appetites, of the manuwhiri lucky enough to be dining here. 

The conversation between the two artists goes beyond their love of seafood, with Birch attributing his bold use of colour to the Taharora meeting house in Waipiro Bay, which Jahnke infamously painted with a brilliant tutaewhetu blue in 2001. Jahnke attributes this influence to the nineteenth-century master Riwai Pakerau, a descendant of the Hīngāngāroa and Iwiraākau schools of art from the Tairāwhiti region of the East Coast. These sites hold close links with the famed Te Rāwheoro School at Uawa, from which many designs unique to Aotearoa were developed prior to the arrival of Europeans. 

Like Adsett, Jahnke’s influence as an artist and educator is an important part of the artistic lineage of Te Rau Karamu Marae. Taepa and Te Ratana worked on the Taharora meeting house, contributing kōwhaiwhai paintings to the mahau, and, alongside Birch and Macgregor, are alumni of Jahnke’s Toioho ki Āpiti School of Māori Visual Arts programme at Massey University in Palmerston North. 

With Birch and Jahnke in the whare kai is a huge Robyn Kahukiwa painting, retained from the original Kuratini Marae whare that previously stood on this site. The Kuratini whare was originally sited on Buckle Street in 1977 as part of Wellington Polytechnic. This simple prefab classroom was relocated to the current Pukeahu Campus, becoming an important venue for the revitalisation of te reo Māori in Wellington, with classes run by Te Huirangi Waikerepuru, Te Ariki Mei, and others. Waikerepuru and educator Mereiwa Broughton laid down the kaupapa for this new whare, and, though both would sadly pass before the new whare was completed, their legacy lives on through it. (The name Te Rau Karamu was gifted by Te Kāhui Rongo o Te Awa Tapu o Whanganui, a collective of tohunga who whakapapa to Taranaki, Whanganui, and Te Whanganui-a-Tara.)

Delving into the roots of Te Rau Karamu Marae to understand the motivations that informed its creation and the art that adorns it, it becomes clear to me that it is not a new institution. While celebrating Massey University as the umbrella for the art school here in Wellington, the marae asserts a Māori institutional framework that precedes the arrival of Western academic art training, locating Aotearoa New Zealand as the school’s main source of inspiration. 

I call the artists again in September, asking for their blessing to share this knowledge with Art News readers, and they remind me of Tuohu meeting house at Matatina Marae in Waipoua. Like the whare kai at Te Rau Karamu Marae, it had a life before it was relocated and rededicated for its current purpose. Matatina is the family marae of celebrated Māori ceramic artist Manos Nathan, who passed away in 2015. Nathan provided conceptual input into Te Rau Karamu through the concept of Rākau Tīpua—trees that connect the earth and sky, symbolising creation as a holistic system. This concept is common to many Indigenous cultures and is often referred to as the Cosmic Tree. The Reverend Māori Marsden provides a Tai Tokerau understanding of this concept as a visualisation of life as an organic process, from the germination of a seed to te pū (the shoot) and te more (taproot), through various stages of development, to reach te ao mārama, the world of life. Nowhere have I seen this concept articulated and revealed more clearly than at Te Rau Karamu, a creative space informed by an Indigenous understanding of art, environment, and cultural landscape in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Te Whaioranga o Te Whaiao meeting house, Massey University, Wellington, viewed from Te Rau Karamu marae atea, showing Wi Taepa’s ceramic constellations on the maihi and amo. All images courtesy Toi Rauwhārangi College of Creative Arts, Massey University.

Published in Art News Spring/Summer 2021

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