A Truly Collaborative Aotearoa

Words by  Irena Brooks
Roger Richardson Roger Richardson

In Partnership with Puke Ariki Museum, WharehokaSmith’s latest exhibition is informed by whakapapa and generations of Toi Maori practitioners who have come before. Exploring elements of design, space, and tradition, he gently challenges your expectations about what Toi Maori is, was, and can be.

Nekenekehia Tukua offers a vision of what Aotearoa New Zealand could be like today if Maori and Pakeha had worked collaboratively and collectively for the betterment of all people once the Treaty of Waitangi was signed.

“What if that truly had happened?” WharehokaSmith asks.

“How would our architecture have evolved? How would our modes of transportation have evolved? What would that look like today?

“If our villages and way of life hadn’t been destroyed.

“If our economic base hadn’t been eroded removed or impeded. 

“If our whare wananga hadn’t been disassembled and our creative people were able to utilise the tools and technologies of the pakeha and genuinely implement them into our society without fear of ridicule or obstruction. What would we have done with that? What would the industrial revolution have looked like for Maori, and then where would that have put us today?”

It’s a brave and optimistic vision.

“With Nekenekehia Tukua that is exactly what I’m asking us to consider.”

Describing himself as a Kaihoahoa Toi (Artist Designer), WharehokaSmith invites us to look around our world and see what is there — and more importantly, what is not.

“When I wake up in the morning, and I open my door, and I look out into the world, the constructed world, the man-made world, what is it that informs me, sparks me and lifts me, what is physically there that tells me that I’m Maori, enabled and empowered in Aotearoa?

“When I walk down the street what visual signals are there?

“My answer to this question for the last 40 years, is that there is nothing. There’s nothing there.”

“If this is the question I ask, how many others are asking exactly the same question? How many others are feeling the mamae (pain, illness) of absence? 

“But then imagine what could be there.”

The New Plymouth airport, the Pouwhenua at the new section of road into the Taranaki region at the northern end of Awakino gorge, PukeAriki in the heart of the city with its Raranga inspired, metal-woven exterior, these are all positive moves in the right direction.

“If the visual information is there, under the right circumstances then the influence is active and honoring, obvious and subliminal, empowering and positive.

“Nekenekehia Tukua is about us understanding all of this and how Toi Maori is a Taonga (treasure)— in every sense of the word. A Taonga that shouldn’t, and doesn’t, just exist in a place on its own (within a museum or art gallery) waiting for people to turn up and ogle. 

“Over time my understanding has led me to believe our Taonga are alive! and require company, stimulation, conversation, nurture and acknowledgement.”


Nekenekehia Tukua speaks with image.

One of the questions the exhibition is answering — and asking — is that the elements of design that exist within the Canon of Toi Maori, the design aesthetic, have the potential to be the architectural forms we could see in everyday life.

A truly Aotearoa base upon which to layer and build and embellish.

“To continue to build steel or concrete or wooden boxes and then put Maori design over the top is a Maori embellishment over a pakeha idea. Some would see this as acceptable and offer that there are many precedents and therefore no issue.

“In response to this, the exhibition offers an example, using a repetition of design that exists right throughout consistent with the art form and practice of toi… from the artworks that hang on the wall, to the architectural pieces, to the furniture pieces that exist in that space. That repetition is focusing on two or three elements of design demonstrating the potential to design from a purely Toi Maori perspective.” 

WharehokaSmith’s challenge within this practice is only to use the elements of toi that have been handed down through tupuna (ancestors) and evolved by past and present artisans. 

“And it’s all there, all we have to do is observe, learn, train, practice and develop an understanding of how to bring the elements together where they can function in this way.”

The aim is to maintain while reinvigorating the traditional design elements “so that when ourselves, our tamariki, our mokopuna and our visitors look at the examples they go ‘Whoa!’ And it speaks not just to your eyes but to your very soul and lifts you and makes you want to embrace it and be a part of it and learn more and create more.”

His work is very much about bringing traditional Maori design elements into a modern-day context … sometimes with traditional materials and tools and sometimes with pakeha resources. Often the two worlds are married together.

In a way, the artworks are a reflection of WharehokaSmith’s own Whakapapa Maori and Pakeha ancestry as well as a vision of what a united more applicable Aotearoa New Zealand could be.

“The act and the process of cultural disruption took away our imagery, our fashion, our transportation — took away every part,” he says with emotion, “and we, all of us, have to play our part to bring that back.

“The artists and the designers, the poets and the kai waiata, all of these things are not just art forms, they are part of who we are. That is where much of our health and wellbeing exists.

Again! When I wake up in the morning and I don’t have anything that tells me visually who I am, then my wairua (spirit) is being deprived, my Mouri (essence/spark/life force) is being cut off.

“So the challenge with this exhibition is to ‘Bring It’”

“As a Maori and Pakeha I believe I must help, guide, support and direct that process where I can…and through my skill set be an advocate for this. 

“My kaiako (teacher) Te Miringa Hohaia, asked me why I was learning to carve.

“I said ‘I’m going to be a rock star carver’ and he gave me a metaphorical clip around the ear and a boot up the bum. He said ‘you need to find a way to enable our toi, to enable our people.’ That was his wero (challenge) to me and his greatest gift. 

“Nekenekehia Tukua is a response to that wero. If it bears fruit then we’ve been successful.”


WharehokaSmith believes the way forward is “to learn from” not dwell on the past.

“You know that saying … the definition of insanity is repeating the same thing and hoping for a different outcome? For me, if I stay in that place of insanity, hoping that it will change, I’m condemning myself and undermining all the effort and sacrifice of those gone before me. That’s not fair on or honoring Tupuna.”

His focus, and that of the exhibition, is to demonstrate that negotiated collaborative process now — 182 years late, but better late than never.

One of the more important things the Pakeha paradigm could and should learn from Matauranga Maori, he believes, is how to work with this planet, the earth mother, Papatuanuku.

“One of the korero I have within my practice, is ‘where are all the natural resources?’ Gone! Or reserved. Or inaccessible. “I too am guilty, either by participation or observation or inaction … in any case I clearly understand the cause and the loss. 

“Despite more and more evidence, the actions and human response is unforgivably slow. Witnessing this I’m content to give way to loss if loss means “Rahui” (reserve, restraint or restriction). If this action eventuates into new forests, clean water, thriving eco systems, safe, untouched and unmolested for generations.

“The lesson for the uninitiated is that a rahui on anything is not to upset an industry or take away the financial opportunities of anyone or an assertion of authority for the sake of it, but rather because if we don’t stop, we will go extinct, we will die. Resource will die. Papatuanuku will die and one doesn’t have to be Maori to understand that. 

“Does this mean we go elsewhere to look for it — potentially. Do we look for it, find it and extract it to a point where we destroy our whenua as a result? Kao (no)! That’s insanity. Humans have to learn to work within the Tikanga, the boundaries, through the understanding of the whakapapa, the origin of that material. And if or when we bring that behaviour within the practice of industry and individuals today, then by this very principle we will effect change.”

Promoting taha Maori is only one part of the equation — WharehokaSmith recognises the value and embraces other cultural resources and technologies within the practice.

“There’s tools of our tupuna that have been replaced with the tools of our coloniser — that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because that’s part of our evolution. 

“We could have kept using our stone adze, but actually, we realised this steel’s pretty damned good. And now we’ve got some electricity that drives that steel along, so we don’t even have to swing it anymore.”

Just as WharehokaSmith despairs of material waste and overuse, he also despairs over the waste of human resources.

“Within all cultures some may say it’s the normal way of things … you know, the cream will rise to the top.

“What if we could also enable those who aren’t the cream but who are still very much ‘good milk’, to benefit?” 

It is here the wero laid down by Te Miringa re-emerges.   

“If you truly believe in what you’re doing then at some point you have to step off the edge, have courage and maintain that belief in the kaupapa and trust everything positive within yourself. Listen to your instinct not your fear, believe you will fly and not fall. 

Do this and dispel all of those negative korero that hold you back. 

If the kaupapa flies you fly, your people fly… 

Our Tupuna are right there holding us up.


There are three hui wananga taking place within the exhibition. 

Art Design & Architecture

With leaders from art, design and architecture and Iwi this wananga will explore the challenge Nekenekehia Tukua presents, potential and opportunity, culture and partnership. Taranaki-based artists, designers and architects are invited to join the conversation with Iwi leaders.


The Govett-Brewster Art Gallery education team will present their work on an education model for the arts. Taranaki-based educators, Artists, and others with an interest in art education are welcome to join with Iwi leaders in these discussions

GLAM — collaborative engagement with Maori artists

How the GLAM sector (Galleries, Libraries, Archives and Museums) can engage collaboratively with Maori artists. Discussing Memorandums of Understanding, Taonga, whakapapa and relationships using the intentions of Te Tiriti o Waitangi as a guide. People working in the GLAM sector, Artists and Iwi leaders are invited.

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