Writing about taonga in the Whanganui Regional Museum collection can be hard because we are so spoilt for choice. Sometimes, however, taonga like the arapaki in the Museum, select themselves.
Arapaki, or tukutuku, are unique because it takes two artists working together to complete every arapaki, one working from the front and the other from the back.
Requiring patience, co-operation, concentration, good communication and trust in your artistic partner, arapaki are not for the faint-hearted as a lapse in any one of those attributes could mean weeks or even months of work having to be undone to correct a mistake, and then redone.
The tauira (pattern) of the Museum arapaki is known as Whanganui Mumu. Mumu traditionally has one or two tauira, which use colours to create a checker board look.
Whanganui Mumu is different because several different tauira form the mumu design, each with a specific meaning. These arapaki have nine different tauira: Poutama, Kaokao, Niho Taniwha, Takitoru, Pātikitiki, Papakirango, Whakarua Kōpito, Purapura Whetū and Roimata Tōroa.
Unraveling the history of these arapaki reveals the strands of people and time who have been woven together. The first strand is Pineāmine Taiapa of Ngāti Porou.
Born in Tikitiki in 1901, Pineāmine carved over 100 whare tīpuna (ancestral houses) around Aotearoa. He was a renowned tohunga (expert) in many fields: whakapapa (genealogy), kōrero ō mua (history) and toi Māori (arts) - specialising in whakairo (carving). He was also an author, lecturer and teacher. Pineāmine was one of a group of tohunga brought to Whanganui to help adorn the Pūtiki Church in the 1930s.
In 1970 Pineāmine was asked if he would assist with a Toi Māori project at our Museum.
Dubbed Expo 70, the decision was made to start a substantial project to maintain a momentum to revive Toi Māori. The project would produce four arapaki with kōwhaiwhai surrounds for the entrance to the Māori Court at the Museum and a pou whakairo (a carved post). Pineāmine guided and taught those working on the project, while starting on the pou whakairo using toki (adzes). Visitors were amazed.
Maude Rēweti, one of several involved in making the arapaki, reflected in 1994:
There were whāriki on the floor and there were kuia sitting there making their kits. Some of these were given to the museum ... It was a way of coming together, of talking together, singing together, it was lovely. We're very grateful to Cliff Whiting and Pine Taiapa.
After the expo, the arapaki moved to Pūtiki Marae for completion. More than 200 people attended the ceremony in 1970 when Mr Tamahina Paamu dedicated the arapaki at the Museum.
Henry Bennett and Cliff Whiting also worked on the arapaki project, assisting with the collection of traditional resources used - kiekie, pingao and toetoe - and the preparation of the panels. Stems of toetoe (kākaho) are set side by side vertically, and then securely trussed to narrow slats of wood lying horizontally, to create a giant lattice board with tiny holes. Pingao and kiekie are threaded through to make the desired tauira. All this needed to be prepared months before the Expo started.
Henry Bennett was a hard worker, a visionary and a respected kaumātua and leader who achieved much for Māori locally and nationally, especially in education and Toi Māori. He was one of our Museum kaumātua until his death in 1998.
Cliff Whiting, of Te Whānau Apanui, became an internationally acclaimed artist who, amongst many notable achievements, carved the Te Papa Marae, Te Hono ki Hawaiki. Between 1969 and 1972 he lived in Whanganui, working as the Māori Arts Advisor for Whanganui schools.
After the Expo, Pineāmine returned home entrusting the poupou to Cliff Whiting to finish.
Depicting Turi Arikinui, captain of the Aotea waka, this poupou is at Te Puni Kōkiri, on Victoria Avenue. Pineāmine also directed Cliff to help restore local whare tīpuna (ancestral houses).
At the weekends, Cliff, Henry, Jim Templeton, local kuia and their whānau restored many places including Pūtiki and Koroniti, and even created new toi for Koroniti and the Pūtiki Parish Hall. Once others heard about them, they were asked to help other iwi.
In 2016 an earthquake-strengthening project at the Museum began and the arapaki were removed for safe storage. Upon inspection, it was obvious that some conservation work was needed before reinstallation.
Whanganui has someone who recently learnt how to do this. Trina Taurua, Kaiako Rāranga (Weaving Tutor) at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa, learnt these specialist skills with conservators Jim Schuster and Dean Whiting (son of Cliff Whiting) when she helped with the Pūtiki Church restoration in 2017. Trina spent four days learning with Jim and Dean before they had to move to their next job. They returned regularly to monitor progress.
As Trina and her tauira (students) restore these arapaki, they too will become a part of something that began in 1930 with Pineāmine at the Pūtiki Church. Continuing through Pineāmine to Cliff Whiting and local whānau at the Museum in 1970, down through Cliff's son Dean Whiting at the Pūtiki Church in 2017, to Trina and her tauira now. Just like our Whanganui Mumu arapaki, weaving together people and time.
Āwhina Twomey is Kaitiaki Taonga Māori and Kaiwhakaako Māori at Whanganui Regional Museum.