Karetao at the Pūkana exhbition.

Origin stories

Their performance was so irresistible that Kae smiled broadly, revealing his distinctive overlapping teeth – Valance Smith

Take an audio tour with Paul Diamond one of the curators of Pūkana. Paul shares stories and highlights from the exhibition.

Listen to Paul Diamond talk about ‘Origin stories’ in Pūkana

  • Transcript — origin stories

    Kia ora. My name's Paul Diamond. I'm the Māori curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, which is part of the National Library Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, and we are in the National Library gallery. In this exhibition, I was one of three curators for called 'Pūkana moments of Māori performance'. So, when you go into the gallery, you come into the biggest space in the gallery, which is an area that sort of sets out some of the foundational ideas of the exhibition. But there's an introduction panel, which has these two subtitles that the exhibition has got.

    So there's an English subtitle, 'Moments in Māori performance', which really came from my colleague Peter Ireland, who's the gallery specialist here at the library. And he said, well, all of us can remember moments when we encountered Māori performance and the way it made us feel. So we loved that because it gave us a way of structuring what was potentially huge and overwhelming to try and tell the story of Māori performance. We realized we just needed to tell a story, a collection of stories.

    But then there's also a Māori title, ‘Te ihi’, ‘te wehi’, ‘te wana’, which you often hear all those terms together, and they are three qualities associated with performance — with Māori performance — and it's like a lot of Māori terms, they're hard to translate exactly. But 'te ihi' is the idea of the quality — talks about the quality of the performance from the — of what the performer themselves produces. And then 'te wehi' is the reaction that has on people seeing the performance and experiencing the performance and then 'te wana' is the state speaks to the, sort of, state that people are in after that performance happens. So those two ideas really work together.

    So one of the first things you see when you come into the space is two carved Māori figures, and these are called karetao. So one of the other curators, Vicki-Anne Heikell said to me, what about karetao, when we were thinking about our research. And I really didn't know much about what these are. I knew that they were translated in English as puppets, but I've, sort of, come to realize that there's a lot more to them.

    And the reason they're here is because they feature in some of the earliest stories of Māori performance. And they feature in a story that's quite intriguing because it's so old about a man called Tinirau and his wife Hineteiwaiwa, who had a child, and they needed a tohunga as part of the process of giving birth to the child. So Kae was this to tohunga who came and help them with the birth. And after the child was successfully born, they wanted to thank the tohunga. They gave him a piece of cooked whale meat from their pet whale Tutunui. And the tohunga was so amazed by this whale, he asked if he could ride it home. And so they let him do that.

    They weren't keen on that, but they let him do that. They gave him specific instructions on what he had to do to get on one side of the whale, to get off on the other side. He ignored that. The whale was exhausted and died, and he and his people ate the whale.

    Meanwhile back at the whale's home, the chief Tinirau and Hineteiwaiwa were wondering where the whale was. So Hineteiwaiwa and a group of women — apparently there was 40 women — set off in a waka to find what had happened to the whale. And they didn't know what he looked like, the tohunga, but they knew he had a double tooth.

    So the woman when they arrived at this tohunga's village did all these performances, and the performances used waiata, haka. Apparently that was the first ever kapa haka group. They used these karetao, and they used taonga pūoro, traditional Maori instruments. And in the end, they did a very erotic rude explicit haka, and it made him smile.

    And so they identified who it was. They put a spell on the whole village, brought Kae, the tohunga, back to their village, and they built a replica of his house. And when he woke up, he thought he was in his own house and then they killed him. And that restored balance across those different communities.

    So the karetao are here, because they link us back to that old, old foundational story. And also I think for me learning a bit about that story is that performance always has a reason, even if it's just for fun and for entertainment. There's always a point to it the performers are always trying to get a reaction, or they're doing it for their own reason of why they're doing that performance.

    When we went to see this karetao from the Oldman collection, which is probably incredibly old that was bought by the New Zealand government from a collector in England in 1946, we noticed that Te Papa had another karetao that was donated by Alexander Turnbull. So Pūkana is the first of two centenary exhibitions commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Turnbull, the founding of the Turnbull Library. So the collection was given to the King, the country of New Zealand, in 1918 when Turnbull died, but the library didn't open till 1920. So there's a two year centenary period.

    So it turned out that this karetao was commissioned by Alexander Turnbull from Elsdon Best, the famous ethnographer, who did a lot of work in the Tuhoe area. And this karetao has ruatahuna tattooed on the back of it, which is part and the heart of Tuhoe's rohe or tribal area. And we found that we had, well, we only had one letter from Alexander Turnbull to Elsdon Best, but it's the letter that he wrote in 1899 requesting that Best ask Māori in the area he was living, to make various Maori items. And in the list of the items is a karetao for 14 shillings.

    So these two figures, which we are so privileged to have as part of the exhibition, on loan from Te Papa, are there for all these multiple reasons. They are acknowledging our founding donor, Alexander Turnbull. They tie us back to these really early foundational stories about performance, and it's just great that they're here with us for the duration of the exhibition.

    There's been a revival of karetao in recent years led by people, including a man called James Webster. So in the exhibition, we have photos of James and his wife performing with some of the karetao that he's been carving. And then we've also got material to do with another, sort of, rendition or a version of an old story and one maybe that's better known to people about Maui and his brothers and his exploits and how he fished up the North Island Te Ika-a-Māui, along with other things.

    But this was a production that was done by Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, who are very well known young Māori performers. But this happened earlier on in their career when they were — they'd formed a group called the Humour Beasts. And what's interesting is that that was in the early 2000s when their own solo careers were really starting to take off, and Taika Waititi had done a short film called ‘Two Cars, One Night’. Jermaine Clement was in The Flight of the Conchords.

    But at that time, they also did this production called ‘The Untold Tales of Maui’. So what we have in the collection is a poster from that, which is mimicking the Māoriland style that was used by Pākehā to sort of represent Māori. And it was a bit patronising, but what these guys have done is use that to answer back that, sort of, representation.

    So they've got two images of themselves that look a lot like daguerreotypes or really old prints. And the one of Taika has Māori prints and then the negative number just like prints in our collection and Jermaine's one has noble savage on it. So it's very, very clever, and this production was hugely successful. It was commissioned by Taki Rua theatre. It sold out before it opened at Bats, which is admittedly a small venue.

    Then it toured around the country. The Māori Women's Welfare League supported it to go to the South Island. And it was about Maui. It was set in the — it was set in the time of Michael Jackson and moon walking, and that main character played by Taika was a boy called Tama who lived with his father Tutanui. He was the son of Tutanui. And his mother didn't know what to do with them, because all he wanted to do was moonwalk every day.

    So she sent him to see his nanny, who was played by Jermaine Clement. And nanny had lost two legs at Chunuk Bair. So it was Jermaine kneeling in front — behind a blanket. And nanny told Tama about his illustrious ancestor Maui and all these things he'd done. And the two — these two actors played all the characters, and they played all of Maui's brothers and they used puppets. And all the brothers were called ‘Bro’.

    And then when Māori fished up the North Island. They said, ‘oh, Maui, you're a legend’. So I haven't even seen the production, because it was very — it was so popular, it was pretty hard to get tickets for this. But Ariana Tikao, who's another curator of this exhibition, did see it and can remember.

    But we've got colleagues here at the library who thought this poster was actually an old poster from the early 1900s. These guys have done such a clever job at representing that. So why this is here is, again, it links us into one of our old foundational stories from these ancient ancestors, but it also shows how Māori performance is happening over time, and it's sort of acknowledging and honoring two of our current practitioners in Māori performance.

    Any errors with the transcript, let us know and we will fix them: digital-services@dia.govt.nz

  • Transcript — origin stories

    Kia ora. My name's Paul Diamond. I'm the Māori curator at the Alexander Turnbull Library, which is part of the National Library Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa, and we are in the National Library gallery. In this exhibition, I was one of three curators for called 'Pūkana moments of Māori performance'. So, when you go into the gallery, you come into the biggest space in the gallery, which is an area that sort of sets out some of the foundational ideas of the exhibition. But there's an introduction panel, which has these two subtitles that the exhibition has got.

    So there's an English subtitle, 'Moments in Māori performance', which really came from my colleague Peter Ireland, who's the gallery specialist here at the library. And he said, well, all of us can remember moments when we encountered Māori performance and the way it made us feel. So we loved that because it gave us a way of structuring what was potentially huge and overwhelming to try and tell the story of Māori performance. We realized we just needed to tell a story, a collection of stories.

    But then there's also a Māori title, ‘Te ihi’, ‘te wehi’, ‘te wana’, which you often hear all those terms together, and they are three qualities associated with performance — with Māori performance — and it's like a lot of Māori terms, they're hard to translate exactly. But 'te ihi' is the idea of the quality — talks about the quality of the performance from the — of what the performer themselves produces. And then 'te wehi' is the reaction that has on people seeing the performance and experiencing the performance and then 'te wana' is the state speaks to the, sort of, state that people are in after that performance happens. So those two ideas really work together.

    So one of the first things you see when you come into the space is two carved Māori figures, and these are called karetao. So one of the other curators, Vicki-Anne Heikell said to me, what about karetao, when we were thinking about our research. And I really didn't know much about what these are. I knew that they were translated in English as puppets, but I've, sort of, come to realize that there's a lot more to them.

    And the reason they're here is because they feature in some of the earliest stories of Māori performance. And they feature in a story that's quite intriguing because it's so old about a man called Tinirau and his wife Hineteiwaiwa, who had a child, and they needed a tohunga as part of the process of giving birth to the child. So Kae was this to tohunga who came and help them with the birth. And after the child was successfully born, they wanted to thank the tohunga. They gave him a piece of cooked whale meat from their pet whale Tutunui. And the tohunga was so amazed by this whale, he asked if he could ride it home. And so they let him do that.

    They weren't keen on that, but they let him do that. They gave him specific instructions on what he had to do to get on one side of the whale, to get off on the other side. He ignored that. The whale was exhausted and died, and he and his people ate the whale.

    Meanwhile back at the whale's home, the chief Tinirau and Hineteiwaiwa were wondering where the whale was. So Hineteiwaiwa and a group of women — apparently there was 40 women — set off in a waka to find what had happened to the whale. And they didn't know what he looked like, the tohunga, but they knew he had a double tooth.

    So the woman when they arrived at this tohunga's village did all these performances, and the performances used waiata, haka. Apparently that was the first ever kapa haka group. They used these karetao, and they used taonga pūoro, traditional Maori instruments. And in the end, they did a very erotic rude explicit haka, and it made him smile.

    And so they identified who it was. They put a spell on the whole village, brought Kae, the tohunga, back to their village, and they built a replica of his house. And when he woke up, he thought he was in his own house and then they killed him. And that restored balance across those different communities.

    So the karetao are here, because they link us back to that old, old foundational story. And also I think for me learning a bit about that story is that performance always has a reason, even if it's just for fun and for entertainment. There's always a point to it the performers are always trying to get a reaction, or they're doing it for their own reason of why they're doing that performance.

    When we went to see this karetao from the Oldman collection, which is probably incredibly old that was bought by the New Zealand government from a collector in England in 1946, we noticed that Te Papa had another karetao that was donated by Alexander Turnbull. So Pūkana is the first of two centenary exhibitions commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Turnbull, the founding of the Turnbull Library. So the collection was given to the King, the country of New Zealand, in 1918 when Turnbull died, but the library didn't open till 1920. So there's a two year centenary period.

    So it turned out that this karetao was commissioned by Alexander Turnbull from Elsdon Best, the famous ethnographer, who did a lot of work in the Tuhoe area. And this karetao has ruatahuna tattooed on the back of it, which is part and the heart of Tuhoe's rohe or tribal area. And we found that we had, well, we only had one letter from Alexander Turnbull to Elsdon Best, but it's the letter that he wrote in 1899 requesting that Best ask Māori in the area he was living, to make various Maori items. And in the list of the items is a karetao for 14 shillings.

    So these two figures, which we are so privileged to have as part of the exhibition, on loan from Te Papa, are there for all these multiple reasons. They are acknowledging our founding donor, Alexander Turnbull. They tie us back to these really early foundational stories about performance, and it's just great that they're here with us for the duration of the exhibition.

    There's been a revival of karetao in recent years led by people, including a man called James Webster. So in the exhibition, we have photos of James and his wife performing with some of the karetao that he's been carving. And then we've also got material to do with another, sort of, rendition or a version of an old story and one maybe that's better known to people about Maui and his brothers and his exploits and how he fished up the North Island Te Ika-a-Māui, along with other things.

    But this was a production that was done by Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, who are very well known young Māori performers. But this happened earlier on in their career when they were — they'd formed a group called the Humour Beasts. And what's interesting is that that was in the early 2000s when their own solo careers were really starting to take off, and Taika Waititi had done a short film called ‘Two Cars, One Night’. Jermaine Clement was in The Flight of the Conchords.

    But at that time, they also did this production called ‘The Untold Tales of Maui’. So what we have in the collection is a poster from that, which is mimicking the Māoriland style that was used by Pākehā to sort of represent Māori. And it was a bit patronising, but what these guys have done is use that to answer back that, sort of, representation.

    So they've got two images of themselves that look a lot like daguerreotypes or really old prints. And the one of Taika has Māori prints and then the negative number just like prints in our collection and Jermaine's one has noble savage on it. So it's very, very clever, and this production was hugely successful. It was commissioned by Taki Rua theatre. It sold out before it opened at Bats, which is admittedly a small venue.

    Then it toured around the country. The Māori Women's Welfare League supported it to go to the South Island. And it was about Maui. It was set in the — it was set in the time of Michael Jackson and moon walking, and that main character played by Taika was a boy called Tama who lived with his father Tutanui. He was the son of Tutanui. And his mother didn't know what to do with them, because all he wanted to do was moonwalk every day.

    So she sent him to see his nanny, who was played by Jermaine Clement. And nanny had lost two legs at Chunuk Bair. So it was Jermaine kneeling in front — behind a blanket. And nanny told Tama about his illustrious ancestor Maui and all these things he'd done. And the two — these two actors played all the characters, and they played all of Maui's brothers and they used puppets. And all the brothers were called ‘Bro’.

    And then when Māori fished up the North Island. They said, ‘oh, Maui, you're a legend’. So I haven't even seen the production, because it was very — it was so popular, it was pretty hard to get tickets for this. But Ariana Tikao, who's another curator of this exhibition, did see it and can remember.

    But we've got colleagues here at the library who thought this poster was actually an old poster from the early 1900s. These guys have done such a clever job at representing that. So why this is here is, again, it links us into one of our old foundational stories from these ancient ancestors, but it also shows how Māori performance is happening over time, and it's sort of acknowledging and honoring two of our current practitioners in Māori performance.

    Any errors with the transcript, let us know and we will fix them: digital-services@dia.govt.nz

Discover more from the exhibition

Hei tīmitanga

Tā te pūrākau he whakatakoto i te tūāpapa o te ao tangata. I tētahi o ngā pūrākau, i muri i te patunga a te tohunga nei a Kae i te tohorā mōkai a te rangatira nei a Tinirau, ka ārahina e te wahine a Tinirau e Hineteiwaiwa tētahi tira wahine ki te kāinga o Kae, kia kitea, kia mau hoki ia i a rātou. Nā te kore e mārama ki te āhua o te kanohi o Kae, ka tohutohungia ngā wāhine kia tahuri ki te whakakatakata i te iwi kāinga, e puta ai ōna niho tāpiki, arā, mā ōna niho ka mōhiotia ai ko Kae tērā. Ka tākina e ngā wāhine ētahi pūrākau mā te whakamahi i te waiata, i te haka, i te karetao, ka whakatangi taonga puoro, ā, i te mutunga ka whakakitea te pōtēteke, he kanikani hemahema, na, tino katanga i kata ai, ka mau a Kae.

Hei te pūrākau o Tinirau rāua ko Kae ka kitea he take mō te tū ki te kanikani, ki te whakakite. Ko te take i konei, he waitohu i a Kae, e taea ai ia te patu e te whānau o Tinirau, hei whakaea i te hara.

Ka kōrero nuitia tēnei pūrākau me ētahi atu, tae atu ki ngā kōrero mō te korokē nei mō Māui e ngā whakatupuranga i muri mai. Mā ēnei kōrero ka ako tātou i te pūtakenga mai o ngā mahi a te tangata, ngā whakahihikotanga, ngā pūmanawa, ngā ngoikoretanga, ngā kaha, me ngā tikanga a te tangata, a te iwi – he pēhea hoki e tika ai te kawe kē, te pare hoki i ngā tikanga ki tahaki i ētahi wā!

Origin stories

Storytelling lays down the foundations of culture. In one traditional Māori story, after the tohunga Kae kills Tinirau’s beloved pet whale, Tinirau’s wife Hineteiwaiwa leads a group of female performers to Kae’s village, so they can find and catch him. Not knowing what Kae looks like, the women are advised to make the villagers laugh so they can identify Kae by his overlapping teeth. The women tell stories using waiata, haka and karetao (puppets), play taonga puoro (traditional instruments), and finally perform an erotic dance that makes Kae smile, sealing his fate.

The story of Tinirau and Kae illustrates how performance has a purpose. In this case, to identify Kae, enabling Tinirau’s whānau to kill him and restore balance.

This story and others, including those about the exploits of the mischievous demigod Māui, are told and retold by successive generations. They teach us about human motivations, talents, foibles, capabilities and tikanga – and how it’s ok to break the rules sometimes!

Pūkana exhibition showing exhibition cases and a poster and karetao.

Feature image at top of page: L to R: Karetao gifted by Alexander Turnbull to Dominion Museum Ref: ME003639. Karetao from Oldman Collection held by Te Papa Ref: OL000175. Photo by Mark Beatty.