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Rongowhakaata as iwi-in-residence

In this article we will explore the exhibition, "Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow", co-curated at Te Papa by the Rongowhakaata iwi.
A crowd of people stand in a dark space next to lit up arches rickly carved. They stand before an information panel crowned by a lit up symbol. The symbol is like a red Māori tiki, humanoid but with stylized wings.
© Article text courtesy of the Te Papa Foundation, used with permission. All rights reserved.

One way in which Te Papa Tongarewa works to honour its obligations under Te Tiriti o Waitangi (The Treaty of Waitangi) and ensure that indigenous voices are platformed in the Museum is through its iwi-in-residence programme. Through this programme, iwi are provided with the space and support to curate an exhibition of their own taonga (treasures) and tell their own stories in the National Museum. One of those iwi is Rongowhakaata, whose story about being harmed by Crown treaty breaches we heard at the end of last week.

Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow

2017 saw Te Papa open its 8th iwi-in-residence exhibition with a 600 strong pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony). Ko Rongowhakaata: The Story of Light and Shadow showcased the dramatic stories, histories, treasured taonga and the exceptional artistry of the Gisborne iwi (tribe), curated by the iwi itself. More than 150 taonga from over 40 lenders comprised the exhibition, with whare whakairo (carved meeting house), Te Hau ki Tūranga at its heart. Te Hau ki Tūranga was wrongfully confiscated by the Crown in 1867. Colonial institutions have benefitted from its presence for the subsequent 100+ years, so to work with the iwi on its own presentation of their wharenui (meeting house) was a huge privilege for Te Papa. For now, with the consent of Rongowhakaata, it remains housed and on display in the museum.

Raharuhi Rukupō

It was the unique carvings on Te Hau ki Tūranga that inspired the typeface for the exhibition, which Te Papa developed specifically. Master carver Raharuhi Rukupō, along with 18 other carvers built and carved the meeting house in the 1800’s. Te Hau-ki-Tūranga represents a high point of the great carving tradition of Tūranga – and of innovation. Rukupō, alongside 18 carvers, also embraced the potential of metal tools, creating a new and dynamic phase of Māori wood carving.

Rukupō could read and write, and saw how the written word could enrich customary knowledge keeping. He was the first to carve words, based on the Māori Bible typeface, into panels of the wharenui (meeting house) – the first Māori typographer. He also embedded the written word into carvings of ancestors. Te Papa took these carvings and worked with representatives at Rongowhakaata to develop them into a typeface for the exhibition. The full story of the typeface development can be found here.

Invaluable insights

Throughout their time as iwi-in-residence, Rongowhakaata have provided invaluable insights into their history and customs. Their kaumātua (elders) have guided the museum through one of the most challenging times in its history. But they have also been there in times of celebration. They have welcomed new staff members, opened exhibitions and led the staff in waiata Māori (Māori song) countless times. All the while providing an insight into the unique customs and traditions of this innovative and creative iwi and adding richness to our understanding of the Māori world.

Further reading:

Rongowhakaata kaumatua-in-residence Thelma Karaitiana speaks of the journey from Te Kore to Te Papa.
The story behind the world’s oldest surviving wharenui
Iwi (tribes) and Te Papa
Borrowing from iwi to build the exhibition
Ko Rongowhakaata exhibition opening powhiri

© Article text courtesy of the Te Papa Foundation, used with permission. All rights reserved.
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