Carving out a key discussion

Carver James York works on one of his carvings. Photos: Supplied
Carver James York works on one of his carvings. Photos: Supplied
Colac Bay carver James York headed to the Antarctic yesterday to help put the finishing touches on one of the first examples of traditional Maori carving on the continent. He spoke to Rebecca Fox before his trip. 

Being the first Maori carvers to work on a piece of traditional art in the Antarctic is pretty special, James York says.

"I'm looking forward to it. It's just around the corner."

The Colac Bay, Southland, carver (Ngai Tahu, Nga Puhi) is finding the reality of the trip to the Ice is just starting to sink in.

"It's surreal. I don't think I really know what to expect."

He and fellow carver Poutama Hetaraka, of Whangarei (Ngati Wai, Ngai Tahu), are carving panels to surround a door on Scott Base, New Zealand's headquarters on the Ice.

The project has been made possible under the Antarctica New Zealand Community Engagement Programme.

A carver for 30-odd years, he has been involved in many community projects but admits this one is special.

It has not been without its challenges, given both carvers live at different ends of the country, he says.

Conversations about the theme of the works and what should be depicted had to take place over the phone to ensure they fit together.

They decided to focus on climate change as it is an issue facing not only the Antarctic but the rest of the planet.

"It's a wero [challenge] really - what are the leaders of nations actually doing about this problem of climate change?"

York, also a member of the local Oraka Aparima Runaka, lives on Colac Foreshore Rd and is daily witness to the impact climate change is having in his small corner of the world.

James York and his dog Mana on the Colac Bay foreshore.
James York and his dog Mana on the Colac Bay foreshore.
Rising sea levels and increasing king tides have caused coastal erosion to the road, leading to a section being closed off.

"I was brought up around here and lived here on and off all my life. All this time in the natural world makes it easy to see the changes that are happening in our environment.

"That's what I'm most interested in getting more familiar with while we're down there. How is what's happening in Antarctica affecting the sea and therefore, the rest of the world?"

Both had got their pieces to the stage they are happy with but had left some work still to be done. The works cannot be photographed until they are unveiled.

"We'll carry on down there, get some inspiration while we are there."

The trip will be the first time the pair have come together with their work.

York is carving the pare, or lintel, across the top of the door out of rimu and totara - woods that symbolise a "lot of different people".

While he also carves stone and bone and has done tattooing, wood remains his favourite medium.

"It has a lot to do with customary practices. I think wood is a harder medium to work with - it doesn't happen fast. There is a longevity to it and I suppose that is what I trained in, it is my foundation."

The project also came with some different challenges, such as making sure the woods are bug-free before their trip to the Ice.

York also had to undergo a rigorous medical exam.

"It's been an interesting journey."

The project is part of a five-year programme led by Niwa, and offers a Maori knowledge (matauranga Maori) perspective to the scientific monitoring research being conducted in the Ross Sea Marine Protected Area, established just over a year ago.

The monitoring programme is directed by Niwa principal scientist Dr Matt Pinkerton with Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research ecologist Priscilla Wehi leading the Matauranga Maori component.

"Antarctica ecosystems are key indicators of climate change. That's why monitoring them, and protecting them, is critical," Wehi says.

"In the Matauranga programme, we observe what's happening with two eyes - one eye using the strength of indigenous knowledge and worldviews, and the other eye with the acute sight of scientific research. The challenge is for us to use both ways of seeing to overcome the critical environmental challenges we face."

A pou (carved pole) was erected in 2013 at Scott Base, carved by Ngai Tahu master carver Fayne Robinson, who is advising on this project, along with Ngati Wai tohunga whakairo (master carver) and kaumatua Te Warihi Hetaraka.

"Toi whakairo was our form of recording and transferring knowledge and history down through the generations, long before we used a written language," Hetaraka says.

"We are using whakairo to have a conversation in and about the wellness of Antarctica. The wellbeing of Papatuanuku starts with Antarctica. It's an indicator, a litmus test for the rest of the world."

Hetaraka, the father of Poutama Hetaraka, has been an invaluable source of oral history which formed the basis of the concepts for the carving, and will come to life as a door lintel. The side frames of the doorway are called whakawae, and have been carved at the Hihiaua Cultural Centre in Whangarei.

Poutama Hetaraka says he is not only looking forward to experiencing a completely different environment but also to "seeing matauranga Maori become more and more embedded in conversations about environmental management of the Earth and Antarctica in particular".


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