Shapes of the Past

How one New Zealand family is preserving the ancient Māori craft of wood carving.

AMID FURIOUSLY ERUPTING GEYSERS and swirling sulfuric clouds escaping from boiling mud pools, it isn’t surprising that the New Zealand village of Tikitere was declared the gateway to hell by playwright and renowned atheist George Bernard Shaw. Local Māori were so taken with Shaw’s fervent description upon his 1934 visit that almost a century later, Tikitere is still known as Hell’s Gate.

After driving in a convoy for several hours down the country’s north island, Te Ika a Māui, photographer Adam Bryce and I reach the holiday home of master carver and sculptor Dr. Lyonel Grant. The house sits in the heart of Hell’s Gate, population 750. Grant has ties to the Te Arawa tribe Ngāti Pikiao, and, half a world away from this plucky South Pacific nation, England and Scotland. His works are held in the collections of the British Museum, the National Museum of Scotland, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, and in numerous private collections, including in North America. Our visit coincides with school vacation, so the youngest four of Grant’s eight children are scattered throughout the house. His wife Pahnia, an architect and businesswoman, is a few miles up the road overseeing a house she’s rebuilding. While Grant feeds firewood into the chimney stove, we drape ourselves over armchairs. Ten-year-old Mia draws in close to her father, surveying the spectacle of strangers. All other eyes are on Grant, eager to learn about the ancient and sacred art of whakairo [fa⋅ka⋅i⋅ro], the Māori practice of carving in wood, stone, and bone. It was brought to New Zealand by the first Polynesian arrivals who settled the island some 700 years ago, later known as the Māori.

All other eyes are on Grant, eager to learn about the ancient and sacred art of whakairo [fa⋅ka⋅i⋅ro], the Māori practice of carving in wood, stone, and bone.

Sixty-four-year-old Grant knows this area like the back of his hand. He spent his childhood a stone’s throw from the lush banks of Lake Rotoiti, the third largest of the Rotorua region’s 18 lakes. It was during this period that he began hearing stories about the distinguished carver Te Ngaru Ranapia, his great-grandfather. One of Ranapia’s many notable works included a carved flagpole for the Prince of Wales, who visited New Zealand in 1920.

“I was well aware of his exploits,” Grant says, proudly holding out a photo of Ranapia. So there was an air of inevitability when his father, Robert Grant, put a chisel in his hands at around the age of eight or nine. The moment is firmly etched in Lyonel’s mind. Grant Senior carved a tekoteko, or human figure, with the small basic chisel set — a birthday gift from his own grandmother — before handing the tools to his son. The gentle tap-tapping from the young child marked the beginning of much more than the illustrious carving career that lay ahead. This was Grant’s first step toward joining the ranks of artisans who stand as the archivists of Māori oral culture. With colonization in the mid-nineteenth century came the threat of the Māori history and traditions being lost forever, including the art of whakairo.

The physicality of Grant’s craft may explain his youthful agility and expansive posture. His arms are outstretched as he shows us around his workshop. The impressive structure of a waka, an ocean-going canoe commissioned 25 years ago, sits on rollers in a sunlight-flooded room carpeted with wood chips. It measures 55 feet, weighs almost 5.2 tons, and is made from native kauri wood. This is a repair job. The design depicts the separation of Ranginui (sky father) and Papatūānuku (earth mother) — the story of creation. Grant’s son Mokonuiarangi silently watches as we pore over the elaborate patterns and spirals, reflective of New Zealand’s flora and fauna. He’s 13, the same age Grant was when he decided carving would be his path. Mokonuiarangi playfully shrugs when I ask if he’ll pick up his father’s tools one day.


Grant has always had a preference for using wood from the mighty totara tree. High rates of deforestation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries almost wiped them out until the government introduced a sustainability program for native forests during the 1970s. When I make the analogy of an eye fillet among other cuts of beef, Grant nods effusively, then shifts our conversation 50 miles southeast to Whirinaki Forest. Totara up to a thousand years old were felled there during the late 1960s, earth and vegetation slowly covering them throughout the decades. By the turn of the millennium, the harvesting of exotic pine trees allowed access to totara that had lain on the forest floor for 40 years. “Even after all those years, there was still some excellent quality timber,” Grant recalls, the wood protected by the embrace of the land. A brother in forestry helped haul the timber out, and the wood enabled one of Grant’s more spectacular creations.

At the heart of Māori ancestral lands lies a sacred communal space: the marae [maa⋅rye]. Its main building is a large meeting house known as the wharenui [faa⋅rei⋅noo⋅ee], often ornamented with detailed carvings that include depictions of ancestors. Grant produced two outstanding examples of wharenui in the mid-1980s and mid-90s: “Te Matapihi o te Rangi” in the town of Tokoroa and “Ihenga” in the city of Rotorua. But “Ngākau Māhaki,” completed in 2009 at the Unitec Institute of Technology in Auckland, showed the artist breaking new ground. It was not merely a shell embellished with carvings; rather, Grant applied traditional architectural techniques that hadn’t been used for a century. He turned away architects and engineers, designing and building the meeting house from the ground up and taking measurements for the project by eye alone. “It was all in here,” Grant says, tapping the side of his forehead. “There comes a point where you have to recalibrate your aspirations or walk away.”

The world-class design earned accolades. Grant was the recipient of an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate and an honorary doctorate of philosophy, although he initially refused until realizing the award was not his alone. “This was for everyone who had come before me, those who had taught me.” He reels off a long list of names, including the revered master carver Hōne Taiapa. When he gets to his grandfather Lyonel Clark on his English side, who was a boat builder and mechanic, a knowing grin spreads across his face. He recalls freezing nights standing in the garage, fetching tools, learning the carver’s essential quality: patience. “You couldn’t be too quick because then he knew you hadn’t really looked, so you stayed there a while before going back, and then there would be more yelling!” Grant, smiling, acknowledged the abundance of talent flowing from both sides of his heritage.

Later, we travel to the Scion institute in the Whakarewarewa Forest park, six miles south. The chilly autumn air makes us reach for our coats and beanies. Grant introduces us to local carvers Shannon Weafer and Grant Marunui. They’re working on an impressive log of wood, the outline intact, its features yet to be revealed. There’s excitement as we discover it’s from the same totara logs taken from the Whirinaki Forest 20 years ago. We are humble witnesses to the strong thread carrying whakairo safely into the future.

Our Contributors

Kim Meredith Writer

Kim Meredith is an Aotearoa [New Zealand] based creative and writer. She recently edited "Burst Kisses on the Actual Wind," the latest collection from poet Courtney Sina Meredith (Beatnik Publishing). She is currently producing "Swimming Toward the Sun," a spoken word and soundscape album featuring Courtney Sina Meredith.

Adam Bryce Photographer

Adam Bryce is a creative director and photographer, and co-founder of the New Order and Index magazines. He has lived in London and New York, and is now based in Auckland, New Zealand.


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