New Zealand High Commission London, United Kingdom

Te Pouihi at New Zealand House

Te Pouihi at New Zealand House

Te Pouihi, “inspired pillar”, which dominates the reception area of New Zealand House, was carved by Inia Te Wiata in the basement of New Zealand House over a seven year period from 1964 to 1971.

Carved from one giant 600 year old totara tree felled in New Zealand native bush and shipped to Britain, Te Pouihi stands 51 feet and rises four floors from the base in the reception area of New Zealand House.

Sadly, Te Wiata’s death occurred before the Pouihi was completed, but his sons completed the carving under the guidance of Piri Poutapu, the man who taught Te Wiata to carve many years before. In terms of continuous work, the Pouihi took more than 18 months to carve.

Te Pouihi was unveiled in 1972 by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Guide to Te Pouihi

First level of carving

The heroic figure of Kupe faces visitors to New Zealand House in the traditional stance of welcome. He wears a rapaki (skirt/kilt) and holds a mere pounamu (greenstone weapon) in his right hand with the fingers of his left hand around the blade, a symbol of his peaceful intentions. He has a moki Ariki (a chief’s facial tattoo) while his thighs have the puhoro pattern tattoo. He represents Tangata Whenua, host of the land – in this case welcoming visitors to New Zealand House.

Tangaroa and Hinetuatai stand on Kupe’s right. They are carved in the elaborate style of Ngati Porou, the great master carvers of New Zealand’s East Coast. Sky Father and Earth Mother, Rangi and Papa, were the parents of Tangaroa, God of the Ocean, who married Hinetuatai, Maid of the Surf. Between them they fashioned all mortals out of the earth.

To his left is the plain but beautifully carved Taniwharau which represents the Waikato River Maori. On the opposite face of the first log is the Hine-atahua, the beautiful maiden. She is unmarried and carries her baby brother in a plain korowai (cloak) while her parents are hunting or planting. The pattern on her headband is Aramoana or pathway to the sea.

Second level of carving

Two different images of Tiki, the first man on Earth, stand above Kupe.

Tiki handed down his wisdom as a guide for future generations. One image is plain in the traditional style but Te Wiata broke away from tradition and carved the other in a modern or cubist style of his own. He had in mind expatriate Maori who leave New Zealand to live abroad.

To the left is a moa with two moa hunters. Kupe took the news of seeing hundreds of these giant birds back to Hawaiki. This carving represents the Ngai Tahu, South Island Maori, who had no distinctive carving style. The elaborate feathers are in the style of Ngati Porou.

The two other faces of the second carving can best be seen from the Mezzanine balcony. The facing carving, above the Maori woman, is the only other example of Te Wiata’s break with traditional style. This is the modern cubist concept of ancient figures, usually depicted on a Pou Pou (upright carved post in a Marae). The elaboration is the Kopere Pataka or Tara Tara o Kai (filled with food) pattern.

To the left of this and above the Waikato carving is Koruru – the night owl. These are two night hunters on a nocturnal pigeon spearing expedition. The una unahi pattern is based on the lower figure, and a plain koru spiral on the upper.

Third level of carving

This section contains some of the most intricate and beautiful parts of the whole sculpture. Three of the elaborately chiselled figures, facing towards the front entrance, represent the Te Arawa tribe of Rotorua, and show Hatupatu, ancestor of Te Arawa being delivered by a midwife. Tradition tells us that he was given the power both in fighting and in eloquence of words by taking the treasures of Kura Ngaituku (a forest spirit). He was one of the few Maori mortals who had actually met and conversed with a spirit. Many of today’s Te Arawa claim direct descent from Hatupatu.

Facing the reception counter are two figures undecorated but of distinctly virile appearance. The upper figure is Mahuika – the Polynesian Pluto. She had fire in all her fingers and toes. Maui took part of this fire and threw it into the forest where it dwelt in the trees – Kaikomako, Mahoe and the Totara. In particular, the Kaikomako still preserves the Goddess of Fire who can be coaxed out to serve the uses of man.

The lower figure is that of Toi Kai Rakau, the ancestor of the Urewera people. He was from the land of volcanoes and hot springs.

On the left is Kopikopiko. He represents Taranaki where this style originated. This form is highly convoluted and is left plain, apart from some decoration around the eyes, fingers and toes, and he has a head at each end. It originates from the time when the mountain Taranaki lived with his wife Ruapehu and Tongariro and Ngauruhoe. One day Ruapehu was unfaithful with Ngauruhoe, and in the ensuing fight, Taranaki was beaten and retreated to the west. He left a trail of twisted valley which this carving evokes.

The fourth side of this third carving shows two highly decorative figures one above the other. These are in the style of the Ngati Whanaunga, Maori from the Gulf of Thames.

The most striking feature of this carving is the pair of lovers, Turongo and Mahinerangi – ancestors of Te Wiata, who tells their story himself:

“These two figures represent the ancestors of the Waikato and the East Coast, Ngati Porou. When Turongo was a young chief, he wanted to know something about Maori carving, so his father said the only place they have a school is over in the East Coast. He made his way over to the East Coast to learn and after six months or so a runner came back from the East Coast. Turongo’s father who was in the Waikato received a message from the great chief on the East Coast. ‘I see you have sent your son over here to create man out of wood, but I also see that he is also interested in creating man out of flesh, and what are you going to do about that?’

So the message was sent back. ‘Creation has been going on for a long time. Let them get on with it.’ Mahinerangi was the daughter of this chief of the East Coast and this was what the chief was concerned about. Was it going to be alright for the two tribes to mingle or not? Indeed the wish came, let them get on with it from the Waikato chief, and the East Coast chief agreed so there was a big marriage between the Turongo and Mahinerangi. When she arrived in the Waikato she was seven months pregnant and this was the birth of Raukawa, and that is my tribe of the Otaki, and so I thought we had to get in there somewhere."

Behind them are two plain figures who represent the Tainui tribe. The lower figure is that of Te Arawa, High Priest of the Tainui canoe, while the upper is Hoturoa, the captain.

The other carving on this section represents Tawhaki, husband of a sprite who was estranged after a quarrel over the customs of their tribes. She tells him that to reach her again he must climb to heaven up a tree. At the feet of the tree is a kiwi, guiding him up as a piwaiwaka (fantail) and awaiting him at the top is a keruru (pigeon). Such realities as birds are not normally represented in Maori carving.

Final carving

The top carving is a single figure of Maui the legendary demigod who caught a mighty fish which turned out to be the North Island of New Zealand – Te Ika a Maui – the great fish of Maui. He is depicted as a character of great physical strength, heaving on his fishing line. He stands with his feet planted firmly on two fern fronds from which protrude the two canoe prows.

With grateful thanks to Beryl Te Wiata for the use of material from ‘Most Happy Fella’, her biography of Inia Te Wiata.

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