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Whakairo students embrace culture to create living work

Oct 31st, 2011 | By | Category: Arts/Entertainment, Featured Article, Features

WAKA WORK: Sam Palmer, Kimihia Soloman, Rakairoa Hori, Crane Amaru and Hector Busby with James Molnar

CARVING is a huge part of Maori history, ancestry and culture and James Molnar is someone who shares his art and passes on and preserves his culture.

He studied at Whitireia Polytechnic gaining a Diploma in Craft Design in 1994 and a Diploma in Whakairo (traditional Maori carving) under the tutelage of Takirirangi Smith in 2006.

These days, James is teaching the same whakairo course he graduated from and includes his students in his own commissions to help them learn.

James has worked on various commissions including a group commission with Kaihatu (director) Cliff Whiting on Te Hono Ki Hawaiki, or ‘Te Marae’ at Te Papa National Museum.

His most recent commission is the waka Te Hononga, which now stands on Wellington’s waterfront.

POUTAMA CARVERS: Sam Te Kira and Tuehu Harris at work

The students who helped with Te Hononga learned from many influential carvers, waka builders and artists in their work on the waka, including James Eruera, Hector Busby, and Takirirangi Smith.

Within this work was a huge focus on the culture as well as the art, and during the process James says the group observed the usual traditions, histories in their carving as well as learning more about themselves.

“I often think of waka as point of conflict. Not in a violent way, but because it causes people to think. There’s a purpose, which comes around whakapapa and identity.”

James traces his own whakapapa through Ngai Tumapuhia-a-rangi, Rangitane, Ngati Raukawa and Ngati Kuia iwi, and is from Paranui Marae in Foxton. His grandmother was Waina Ieni Ropiha and his grandfather was Waaka Kereru Rei Paku.

As his whakapapa and history influences his art, he encourages his students to research their own backgrounds and  trace their own whakapapa in order to find their carving style.

“Their background is all about how they identify themselves. Some just go back home to talk to whanau about it and learn that way.

“I want these guys to be comfortable with their skills, and to be able to produce their own art in their own culture. Whakapapa is a key part of carving. It’s our written language. If you look at wharenui, the tupuna (ancestors)  – there’s a whole korero about that person. It’s something which is pure. It’s timeless,” he says.

“Wood is a living thing, and anything done by hand resonates creativity. You can see the marks where they’ve carved into the wood. It gives a unique quality, but the first thing to do is acknowledge who and where they are in life.”

Takirirangi Smith, James’ whakairo tutor and recent former colleague at Whitireia, agrees carving is about whakapapa and identity and learning history from art.

“Carving conveys the traditional philosophical narrative of how Maori see the world through their culture. In carving, those stories are called whakapapa korero and they connect people to other people and every living thing in the world and how the world came about.

“Waka are really important traditionally and [there is] a very spiritual component to them because every tribe has a historical waka which connects them to hawaiki, the homeland.”

James says both waka and whakairo are also important in that they are community things. “Carving is very much a group effort.  You can’t row a waka on your own.”

Rakairoa Hori (25) (pictured right) is one of James’ students and someone who has learned from both James and Takirirangi. He says the experience has been very important to him.

“It’s a cultural experience for me and not much young Maori are able to experience that. Continuing this practice can benefit our culture so it may not be lost – the art of canoe making. Just being involved is something that has helped me to learn better and faster.”

He also says it was good to be able to learn from people from different fields of carving.

“For me, it’s just being under their guidance to work with them and learn from them as much as I could,” he says.

James says the thing he found great about being a tutor in whakairo is that it is easy to relate to.

“We are all students at one level or another,” he says.

James identifies himself most strongly as an artist, with an invested interest in supporting Maori art and taha Maori (the Maori perspective).

With this in mind, he is looking towards building on his teachings at Whitireia, hoping to incorporate aspects of drawing, painting, jewellery carving, weapon making, and graphics.

“What this allows me to do is to stay in the Maori side of things. Ninety percent of my work is about Maori culture. Where I acknowledge it, that’s where I’m at ease,” he says.

He talks about not knowing Te Reo Maori, and how it has been something of a limitation in his work, but something he could get past through his art.

“It’s not a part of art, it doesn’t limit art because art is a language in itself.

“It’s about using personal imagery to create magical stuff, not copying others. It’s about individuality and independence. We use culture to change how they [the students] look at things. It could apply to everything.

“The cool thing is that it will be around when we are gone. Hopefully the community will latch onto this and embrace it and take good care of it.”

HANDS ON: Kimihia Soloman and Rakairoa Hori

James Molnar with the Poutama Carvers and their finished product

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is a Whitireia journalism student.
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  1. I purchased 2 prints of James Molnar . Korowai of ones past and natures Cloak back in 2007 from a gallery I called into in Poirirua Art for Arts sake can you tell him that they are outstanding and to keep painting! Thanks

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