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When Tukiri Tini talks about whakairo, or carving, his kōrero is rich with the whakapapa of master carvers from his iwi and whānau back in Te Whakarewarewa geothermal valley.
Now the Rotorua-raised artist is creating high-profile taonga and carving out his own place in the capital. He talks to Rachel Helyer Donaldson.
At 26, artist and carver Tukiri Tini (Ngāi Tahu, Tainui and Te Arawa) has contributed to taonga that are held around the world, from Beijing to Chile, Los Angeles and Rarotonga. Tukiri is proud of his work overseas, but his main focus is “to create authentic taonga Māori for our people here, in our homeland”. It’s one of the driving forces behind his business, Toi Whakairo, which translates as the art of carving. Set up with his partner Kāmaia Takuira-Mita (Ngāti Rongomai, Ngāti Rangiwewehi, Ngāi Tahu, Sāmoa) in 2017, Toi Whakairo aims to “develop, design and share the art of whakairo with whānau and friends”.
Working eight-hour days from his garage studio in Miramar, Tukiri creates taonga – from weapons such as taiaha, tewhatewha and patu, to larger pieces like poupou (wall panels), and waka huia (treasure containers). Depending on the piece, he uses hard woods like maire and rata, or softer timber like tōtara, rimu, and kōpara.
Most customers come to him via word of mouth, or through social media. Tukiri’s pieces are specifically made for his customers. A bespoke taonga is for life: “It will be handed down, generation after generation.”
He is driven by the need to perpetuate his art form, once in danger of dying out. Growing up in the centuries-old geothermal village of Whakarewarewa in Rotorua, Tukiri was very aware of the great whakapapa, or lineage, of master carvers from the area.
Tukiri studied with master carvers Clive Fugill and James Rickard at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Craft Institute (NZMACI), part of the huge tourism venture Te Puia, in Whakarewarewa. They were once students of master carver Hone Taiapa – a student of the first Wānanga Whakairo, set up by Sir Āpirana Ngata in 1927 to ensure the survival of Māori carving. After graduating, Tukiri spent four years alongside Rickard in Te Puia’s marae restoration team, helping iwi across Aotearoa to restore and preserve their whare. Tukiri has since completed a second degree in whakairo at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, in Huntly, studying with master carver Hohepa Peni who learnt under master carver Tuti Te Kaokao.
At Rotorua Boys’ High School, where he was a prefect, Tukiri studied painting, and he started out as a graffiti artist. It taught him how to achieve scale in his carving. Whakairo was similar to graffiti in the way it’s laid out his tutors explained, “but in a Māori form and manaia [figures], representing tūpuna and ancestors and kōrero”.
Tukiri aspires to be like his cousin Tony Thompson, a master carver and tutor at NZMACI. “He’s the most amazing carver. He’s a real generational carver – he could do his style, he could do all the other carvers’ styles”. Whakairo passes on the kōrero, or history, of each tribe. Every iwi has a different way of carving, so it’s important to know every style. “Our goal through Toi Whakairo is to keep the art of whakairo alive, to provide a safe place for our people to purchase authentic taonga Māori.”
Some people can feel “whakamā, too shy”, to receive a taonga, particularly if they don’t know their whakapapa or don’t speak te reo Māori. “I want to break that. If you’re Māori, that, to me, is enough for you to receive a taonga.”
As an artist, there are several pieces he’s particularly proud of. He carved two taonga in memory of his late uncle, Te Arawa rangatira (leader) and historian Mauriora Kingi. They are used as trophies at the Te Arawa regional kapa haka competition and the national kapa haka competition Te Matatini.
Last year Tukiri was a finalist in the inaugural Kiingi Tuheitia Portraiture Award for a pou, exhibited at New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata. It was in honour of his father, a descendant of Tainui. “It was a symbol of thanks for the history and knowledge that he’s passed down to me.” The pou itself was a symbolic representation of his tūpuna, Hoturoa, and his voyage across the Pacific on the Tainui waka, “and a nod to the Kiingitanga [the Māori King movement]”.
His latest work is his biggest. Tukiri spent much of 2021 at his father’s house in Rotorua working on a pou whenua of his ancestor Umukaria, a great chief of the Tūhourangi tribe. The 4.2-metre, 800-kg pou was one of five taonga commissioned by Rotorua Lakes Council. Tukiri was amazed, he says, to be given the job of carving the main chief, over his older cousins.
“My auntie Watu Mihinui, one of the main kaitiaki of Te Whakarewarewa, said it was time for a new generation to come through and share their interpretations of how we would display our ancestors.” He was “really honoured and privileged to do it, but man, I felt the pressure”. It was a tough seven months, but whānau bolstered him with their support. Umukaria now stands in the Te Pūtake o Tawa forest hub. Tukiri is proud of creating something lasting. “I’m still lost for words. But it was an awesome experience.”
Since then, the commissions have been non-stop. Kāmaia, 27, handles the business side of Toi Whakairo, and also works as a mātauranga Māori adviser for the Ministry of Education, and runs a sustainable and ethical clothing line, Ara. In future the couple (who had their first date at Kāmaia’s Nan’s house in Whakarewarewa in 2016) hope to undertake collaborations between Toi Whakairo and Ara, and get into tā moko (tattooing).
Tukiri moved to Wellington two years ago, to advance his business. “It was hard in Rotorua when there’s a carver or ta moko artist or flax artist or weaving artist on every street, every corner. I didn’t like standing on any of my elders’ toes, I’ll come back when the time’s right.”
Coming to Te Whanganui-a-Tara was “the best decision for me”, he says. Miramar, where he and Kāmaia flat with a friend and Tukiri’s nephew, is a “very awesome community”. So is the whole of Wellington. “It’s a very artsy city.” Meanwhile Tukiri’s name is getting out there. “It’s so funny how this all works out. Part of me was thinking, I’m going to miss my home. But I got down here, and this whare reminds me of home. I feel really safe here.”