The contemporary creative casting back to the past to craft taonga for the future
A bronze foundry at the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute? Surely the bronze era belonged to ancient civilisations in parts of the world far removed from Māori's Pacific roots of wood and stone?
Not so, says Eugene Kara, a bronze expert not to be quibbled with.
As the head caster at Te Ahi Komau, the institute's bronze foundry, he's the go-to man to explain why it is that Māori and the alloy are legitimately synonymous. Note that word alloy: Eugene's firm about that - mistaking bronze for metal is a common misconception.
"From a cultural perspective it's very much up there in the Māori craft hierarchy, bronze comes from minerals that, in turn, come from the land making it part of the Ranginui [sky father] Papatūānuku [earth mother] story of creating this land of ours."
NZ Māori Arts and Crafts Institute (NZMACI) has embraced the significance of bronze by including it with its traditional carving and weaving wananga (schools). Its establishment was a crucial component in the institute's recent multimillion dollar upgrade.
The foundry's first project was a whatarangi (food store house) close to the Rotowhio marae entrance.
The whatarangi can't be missed – it's huge, and Eugene worked on it from day one.
Its completion signalled the start of restoration work on the recently unveiled and rededicated Government Gardens Te Arawa World War One Soldiers' Memorial. The pou (posts) and tekoteko (carved figures) surrounding it were cast at NZMACI by Eugene and his team from their badly decayed 92-year-old predecessors.
Which begs the question, what the heck does this talented Eugene Kara bloke know about carving and bronze sculpting?
Five words say it all – a heck of a lot.
They were his specialist subjects during his student and tutoring days; he has a Masters degree from Auckland University's Elam School of Fine Arts and his own studio where he creates commissioned pieces.
These include the can't-be-missed stylised tekoteko beside the Waikato Expressway's Cambridge exit and a bronze sculpture on the University of Waikato's campus; his brief there was to produce a piece representing the harvesting of knowledge.
Creativity is carved into his bloodline. His Hawke's Bay-based father's life has been devoted to preserving Māori cultural practices, while his mother's is steeped in Māori crafts. A number of his nine siblings embrace various aspects of Māori art forms, raranga (weaving) included.
"I was the second youngest; ours was a house of full-on noise."
His secondary schooling was at Te Aute College where he claims he wasn't academically strong. He'd have got away without further elaboration if he hadn't dropped into the conversation that he loved his rugby.
It took a bit of squeezing before he admitted to playing in the 1st XV, tempering the achievement by saying rugby was compulsory.
That's the thing about Eugene; he's far too modest by half, one of those types whose reticence is an interviewer's nightmare. But we press on, unearthing how he transitioned from Te Aute to the then Waiariki Polytechnic (now Toi Ohomai).
"It was where I could indulge my passion for the arts . . . I had some marvellous mentors, master carver Lyonel Grant, sculptor George Andrews (Our People, June 23, 2016).
"We called him Papa George."
His graduation came with a diploma in art, design, sculpture and carving. He was one of a handful of creative contemporaries to feature in a Rotorua Museum Young Guns exhibition saluting their individual talents.
"That was pretty special. Why were we chosen? Dare I say it? I guess we were seen as cutting edge, working in different media with some innovative processes. It was the start of careers that launched us into the trajectory."
Eugene's trajectory took him to Te Awamutu, headquarters of Wananga o Aotearoa.
"Dr Buck Nin [leading contemporary Māori artist] saw my Waiariki work, invited me to establish the wananga's arts programme for students to give back to iwi and whānau."
In 2004 he enrolled at Elam, "spending two-and-a-half years learning a lot about structural concepts and cultural beliefs". He majored in sculpture and casting.
It was knowledge he transported back to WIT where, for the next 13 years, he tutored mostly in sculpting and carving, before heading the department.
"Those were pretty challenging times working through five restructurings. When I started tutoring, [the late] Arapeta Tahana was CEO. He really gave us as Māori a sense of pride that things were possible, living our culture to the fullest, learning how it could benefit the whole community.
"It was inspiring working with students to unlock their full creative potential and having the chance to establish a Memorandum of Understanding between Waiariki and Whitecliffe College of Art and Design, meaning our students didn't have to move to Auckland."
On the personal front, he met and married Luana Hunt, now working with the Ministry of Education.
"Ours was a classic meeting for Rotorua people of our age group: The Towers [nightclub]. We've been together 25 years, she whakapapas to the East Coast."
Eugene's creative genes have flowed into the couple's daughter, Maioha, presently studying for her own fine arts degree at Massey University, Wellington.
"In vacations, she's worked with me in the foundry, that has been a great satisfaction for me."
His move to NZMACI came in 2013. "The opportunity came up for me to work on the whatarangi; it was something totally new, there were no templates to work from, we were essentially establishing a house of bronze from scratch. I picked up the project, helped establish the foundry, developing it under the [institute's] cultural umbrella."
Now the Soldier's Memorial mahi [work] is finished, what significant venture comes next?
"I've put a proposal to the board to consider a five-year project that will celebrate Whakarewarewa's most celebrated guides; Sophia, Maggie Papakura, Bella, Rangi and Bubbles. I can see these wonderful women's descendants standing shoulder to shoulder with their sculptures sharing their stories with our manuhiri [visitors]."
Bronze casting's not easy on the body. "It's heavy work; we use a lot of chemicals."
Because of that, Eugene can't visualise the foundry being his forever job.
"My vision for its future is the new technicians who are coming through, taking it over and moving it to the next level."
Born: Waipukurau, 1973
Education: Tamatea Primary and Intermediate (Napier), Te Aute College
Family: Wife Luana, daughter Maioha. Large extended whānau
Iwi affiliations: Ngāti Koroki, Kahukura (both of Cambridge area on paternal side. "They're from the larger Tainui vessel." Ngarauru, Te Ati Haunui a Paparangi (maternal side).
Interests: "The arts have always been my number one." "I'm very conscious of my health and wellbeing, going out in the forest, mountain biking, I was one of the Trails Trust's first members, the outdoors in general. I love the ocean to swim and surf in, not fish."
On Rotorua: "Rotorua has nurtured the creativeness inside me."
On himself: "Gee, I guess along the lines of relentlessly ambitious while trying to be humble at the same time."
Personal Philosophy: "It's changed over time, becoming less about the ego that comes with ambition to being kind, loving, generous with your time."