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Wednesday, 22 May 2019 10:39 pm

Traditional Maori forms re-imagined by artist Darren Ward

Jun 23rd, 2017 | By | Category: Featured Article, Front Page Layout, News

Weltec’s creative students experimented with a range of materials in the recreation process.

It lies there, suspended underwater, in a back-country Ngati Pourou stream.

An orb of sticks and twine. Although expertly crafted, it seems to have taken on its own form in the final stages of

its assembly, its various parts locking together with isometric precision as though they were always meant to. An

upwards lurch pulls it from the murky world. Breaking the surface of the water, a writhing mass of black is

revealed. An old man and his grandson rejoice there in 1980s New Zealand. The hinaki, or eel trap, has done it’s


Fast forward to 2017. The grandson, now an adult, is designing his own trap. However, no eel will ever be caught

in this one – It will be suspended not underwater, but rather from the foyer ceiling of a new institute of creativity.

In fact, at eight metres long, and comprised of a range of industrial materials and hi-tech features, the grandson’s

creation will be quite the departure from those that have come before, thanks to his fusion of engineering and


In 2003, Darren Ward quit his well-paid engineering job to pursue an uncertain new career in Maori art and

design. Fourteen years later, the now well-established artist and Weltec teacher has been commissioned to

design a large sculpture of a hinaki (traditional Maori eel trap) for the foyer of Te Auaha, the New Zealand Institute

of Applied Creativity campus due to open on Cuba St in 2018.

The project will draw on his familial roots in the East Coast, and on his engineering knowledge. The sculpture is

going to be made out of aluminium, and incorporate fibre optics in connection with programmable LED’s. It’s the

kind of work that aspires to translate traditional Maori culture into a contemporary, multi-faceted artwork.

Amid a work-cluttered Weltec creative classroom, Darren reflects on the journey that led him here.

“Growing up, I was introduced to my whanau from a young age. I knew who my family were. So, I spent a lot of

time going back to the coast, where we would be taken to the marae. Everything would happen around the

marae. being here, we’re sort of… not dislocated, but… away from our family. And we don’t have a lot to do with

many of the marae around here. So whenever we went back home, we’d always go back to it.”

He says life around the marae was often busy. If there wasn’t a tangi (funeral) on, there was a 21st, or cleaning

up to do, or even just paint to re-touch.

“I suppose my mother was very conscious of the fact that we were growing up as urban Maori, so I thank her for

is being mindful of that, and always taking us back home all the time. Back to the marae, back to our

grandparents place on the East Coast, back to Rotorua where a lot of our other whanau are from as well. And I

think it was those seeds, that were planted in the back of my head, that made me decide when I was 30-

something – actually, it was closer to forty – that I had had enough. So that kind of inspired me to look further into

(my maori heritage).”

He says he had always had a fascination for Maori art, but never really did anything about it. It wasn’t until about

22 years into his trade – when he realised he wasn’t enjoying it as much as he did when he was younger – that he

decided to make a bold step, and change his direction.

“All I knew I wanted was to do Maori art. I didn’t know where it was going to take me. I didn’t know any of those

questions. You know when you have a desire for something and a passion for something? I just felt i needed to

go and do something about it.”

And so Darren quit his job.

He smiles at the memory of his father, a Pakeha man, thinking at the time that it was the most selfish thing he

could do, due to Darren having a young family back then.

“A lot of people think, ‘art: where does that take you?’ And I didn’t even know myself. The only reason I did it was

because I had my wife’s support. She basically thought, if that’s what you want to do, then… do it.

“So, I became a student.”

The Hetet School of Maori Art is located in Waiwhetu, in the Lower Hutt region of Greater Wellington. Co-founded

by master carver Rangi Hetet (80), who rose to recognition as one of the carvers at the Waiwhetu meeting

house in the 1950s, the Hetet school offers classes in carving, twining, basketry, and garment-making. Both

Rangi and late wife and weaver Erenora Puketapu Hetet taught at the school for many years, and their children –

together with their families – continue to live on the premises. In 2003, while both Rangi and Erenora were still

actively working there, Darren decided to enrol at the Hetet school.

“And so my learning began”, he says. “I was 30 something, I had two young children, and I had just left a high

paying job to go on the student allowance. So it was a tough, tough decision. A couple years into it I thought, ‘oh

my god, have I made the right decision?’Because we were living from week to week. But I stayed in there, stayed

in the fight, because I knew I was going to go somewhere. I just didn’t know where.”

Although Darren had spent the previous year – 2002 – at another course, he left after feeling like what he was

learning just wasn’t enough. He says it’s when he got involved with the Rangi and Eranora – who he saw as

mentors – in 2003, that his learning process truly begun.

“I stayed with the Hetet whanau for a few years, and my interest in Maori art grew”, he says. “They introduced me

into one of their whanau businesses.”

Darren is referring to the tours of their studios that the Hetet whanau ran over that time.

“So I learnt to make and play the traditional Maori instruments, and I would play them for the tour groups.”

And it all went uphill from there.

“I would have my own product lines, and I would supply them to their shop. They would give me an order, I would

full that order, and they would sell it. Then I started spreading further afield. I got some work into Auckland, some

work down south, a gallery in Queenstown. So it started to grow.”

However, the art and craft industry is known for being a fickle beast and – as many things do – it all went.

“So I actually jumped back into my trade again”, he says. “And from there, 2009 came about [the Global Financial

Crisis] and that hit us really hard – actually, it hit the world really hard – and everyone was going out of jobs. So I

thought, “I’m going to be stuck in my trade forever”, which was not what I wanted.

“It was pretty tough times.”

Then something happened that would change Darren’s life yet again.

“I got a phone call – totally out of the blue – from the head of school (Weltec) at the time for creative technologies,

and they asked me if I would be interested in a job.”

In 2012, and two years into his teaching career at Weltec, Darren headed back to the East Coast – to his whanau

– to learn the craft of traditional Maori trap-making. He was taught by his uncle, 85 years old at the time, “although

you would never know”. This man showed Darren how to harvest materials from the bush, how to prep them, and

how to create the traps themselves, among a range of other skills. Darren says that although he has childhood

memories of his grandfather setting eel traps on the East Coast – and he himself showing interest – returning as

Darren’s uncle taught him the craft of traditional Maori trap-making.

an artist allowed him to see the traps from a new perspective.

“I fell in love with the form, and the shape. I thought they looked really sculptural, ” he says.

Darren started to think about how the traps could be made using the same design principles – the same

methodology – but with different materials, and how that might affect the look and feel of the trap. So, upon his

return to Weltec, he introduced Maori trap-making into his classes, and while working alongside a team of

students, the experimentation begun. The ex-engineer has a vast understanding of materials, and fencing wire,

MDF (fibreboard), steel, and cable ties were among the purposefully industrial and glossy articles used in the

recreation process.

Before long, the Weltec building was full of hanging eel traps unlike any that had ever been seen before. Darren

says the sculptures opened a conversation with people – a chance to tell the story of the trap.

“Even to this very day, a lot of our family back on the East Coast still use these traps, they still make them the

same way, they still harvest the materials the same way.”

Then one day, an architect for 2018’s Te Auaha campus saw the sculptures, and all went from there. Darren

begun work designing a far larger-scaled one for the new campus’s foyer.

“I’m going to make the frame out of aluminium, and I’m going to use 3d printing technology in it as well”, he says.

“Plus, it’s going to have fibre optics on it, which are going to be connected to LED’s, and powered by a micro-

computer. So we will be able to programme the LED’s to do all sorts of things.

“There’s this real digital kind of component to this project.”

It sounds pretty high tech for an eel trap.

“For and eel trap, yes”, agrees Darren. “The humble trap.”

“One of things I have been really interested in since I have been (at Weltec) is technology, and how that comes

into Maori art and design. So that’s what really excites me now. But, the whole thing is based around sculpture.”

Darren comes across as humble. He still bone carves, he still supplies work to galleries here and there, he still

does commission work … and he does still complete much of his work by hand. He likes to do things the

traditional way.

“One of the things that I have been responsible for is bringing the concept of whanaungatanga (connection) into

mainstream classes. So there’s a sense of family, there’s a sense of being together, there’s a sense of working

together and cooperating with one another. It’s about ensuring you all get to the end result together. It’s about

unity… a concept that people find hard these days.

“So, for me, as much as the students loved making (the eel traps), I think they started to learn a lot other things


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