Seeing the soul of Whakatane


Mataatua, Te Manuka Tutahi. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

It takes about the same time to drive to Whakatane as it did for me to crawl down the Southern Motorway from the Southside to Auckland Central – the view is  better down here.  I’m going to Whakatane to see the Mataatua Wharenui – the House that Came Home and to have a look in the Whakatane Library and Exhibition Centre at the 2014 Molly Morpeth Canaday competition entries. Years ago,  as a student  I visited Whakatane and the older marae running along the strip of land facing the sea.  Also years ago, I would spend hours in and around the large “meeting house” and canoe in the Auckland Museum,  looking and touching carvings and patterns.  Today I will learn that the Auckland Museum meeting house is “the twin of Mataatua”.

I’m early for one of the facilitated and guided visits to  Te Manuka Tutahi Marae and the Mataatua Wharenui so I drive very slowly along the road past the marae and look out towards the statue on the rock . There are all sorts of people everywhere, walking, talking, having a picnic – and this is a weekday workday.  A replica of the canoe Toroa is guarded within its wharewaka.    As always the shoreline into the river is heavy with bleached white wood and large drifted tree trunks.

My journey through Ngati Awa and the Mataatua Wharenui begins in a modern information education centre.    I sit through a brief, powerfully poignant visual presentation of the post- colonisation history of Ngati Awa, the building and loss of Mataatua – there is instant communication of the desolation of land loss and the determination of a people to stand again.

Despite the resurrection of the building, it is still heartbreaking to see the cause of historical damage – the building erected with the carvings as exterior wall covering.  It’s even more bizarre to hear that when it was erected in the Otago Museum pieces of the carvings were cut off so Mataatua would fit in the then available space.  Returned to Ngati Awa in 1996 by a Waitangi Tribunal Special Deed of Settlement Mataatua began its own journey of intensive restoration.   In 2011 One hundred and thirty years after Mataatua was first broken down, packed and sent overseas it was reopened.  I left the viewing room immediately aware of the both the importance of this House to Ngati Awa and of the earlier  lack of understanding of the meaning  and value of the structure and its components.  The words of Tahi o te rangi say it all – “Let their shame be their punishment”.

It’s not appropriate to describe the guiding process  as “a tour” it’s an educative experience.  In  “The Forest of Knowledge” – glowing wooden panels, imagery and explanations – introduce mythology, belief, history, philosophy and environmental relationships.  I now understand the female image on the rock – it’s not just a statue anymore. The walk across the Courtyard to the formal entry to the Te Manuka Tutahi Marae is through native flaxes, grasses and mosses.  There is a flag.   From the front of the marae complex there is a clear outline of the supporting buildings’ bird-wing roofs referencing the importance of the guiding saddleback cries to arriving migrants.   I stand just in front of the large carved gateway  to be called on the marae.   I always find the call of the karanga emotionally piercing.

Inside Mataatua is like being in a traditional cathedral.  The cultural presentation continues.  There are explanations and there is “a light show” – this is artistically interesting.   Then I walk around the walls the symbolism of the structure and construction is explained,  the ancestors are described and explained. I am shown the artistic differences between images carved traditionally and those carved with more modern tools.  Portions of carvings where restoration work has been undertaken and inserted are pointed out.   The level of restoration is superb – the sheer amount of replacement tukutuku weaving is daunting (the historical treatment of the house has meant that the original tukutuku panels are too damaged to be incorporated in the restored structure).  There are  aspects of the building that prompt my comment – the seamless and almost unobtrusive integration of security and safety technologies, lighting and visual technology without detracting from the artistic and traditional sense of Mataatua.    The dragonlike fierceness of some of the carving which is intensified by the enormous and distrinctive white teeth within the carvings.

I feel quite drained as we walk over to the other contemporary building – the Wharekai for cold drinks and snacks – cheese, olives, crackers and sliced tomatoes.   Les my guide makes me a pot of tea.  The dining room, like the information and educational area is an experience in itself.  Glassed walls.  Tables set with heavy white linen and  heavy white crockery embellished with the image of the saddlebacks.   This is a big contemporary restaurant and function facility.


Rosemay Balu visiting Mataatua Wharenui. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

I ask all sorts of questions – how would the original carving panels around the entry to Mataatua have been?  Coloured black, historically would there have been a fire lit within the structure itself for warmth and light.  I’m asked to complete a visitor’s assessment of the visit.  My guide asks to take my photograph (and that’s the photograph on the email sent out to artists to introduce them to ARTbop online gallery)    It has been a memorable experience.   I leave with the visitors’ guide.  Like everything I have seen and experienced today it is of the highest level of artistic presentation and engagement.

What did I discover going down to Whakatane?  That on my doorstep is an icon and a presentation that maintains itself as a cultural experience not a tourist show.  You pay to participate in the visitor experience at Mataatua The House that Came Home. I felt it was more than value for money.   I also felt it was not only a personally worthwhile experience, it made me happy to contribute to such an incredible work of art.  I also decided that if I had visitors to New Zealand or from outside the  Bay of Plenty I would take them to our Tauranga Art Gallery, the Mission Cemetery, St Georges in Gate Pa, and drive through “the Mount” but I would take them to spend the bulk of the day in Whakatane – why.  Mataatua and The Exhibition Centre and the continuation of Whakatane as a bustling coastal rural “village” New Zealand town and that incredible coastal view as you drive there and back.  I sat outside at Poppy’s Cafe drinking tea looking at the red bouganvillea growing down the lane opposite. There were notices at the beginning of the main street telling cars to slow for pedestrians.  There were vehicles crawling by with their driver’s and occupants shouting hello out the window and men in utes giving that traditional rural male slight finger raising  from the steering wheel nod of hello.  A better memory than empty shops.


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