A precious stone | Otago Daily Times News Online
Kura Pounamu has been around the world, but is finally among his own. Bruce Munro chats with Gerard O’Regan and Dougal Austin about the exhibit which explores the history, meaning and stories of Te Waipounamu’s most precious material treasure.
When Gerard O’Regan began working at the National Museum, which later became Te Papa, as a teenager in the 1980s, the late Piri Sciascia was a dynamic driving force behind the Maori revival.
Already elevated to director of the Maori and South Pacific Arts Council – and later to become kaumatua as governor-general, prime minister and cabinet – Sciascia was at the time also a leading figure in Te Maori, the exhibition which captivated the American public. before returning to New Zealand to do the same.
A key feature of the landmark Te Maori exhibition of priceless traditional artwork, which came to Dunedin in 1987, was a pounamu touchstone, Te Mauri o te Maori. This large emerald green stone had been collected in the southern mountains by New Zealand’s foremost pounamu expert, the late Russell Beck and Sciascia, who was of Ngati Kahungunu and Kai Tahu descent.
A generation later, O’Regan oversees his first major Maori exhibition in his role as Maori curator at the Tuhura Otago Museum.
This exhibition, Kura Pounamu: Our Treasured Stone, opens today in Dunedin.
He brings to the South for the first time an unparalleled traveling collection of antique and contemporary pounamu pieces.
She, too, traveled the world before coming here, and she, too, has a connection to Sciascia.
One of the new administrators of Te Mauri o te Maori, who resides in Southland, is Sciascia’s son, Tumarangai Sciascia.
“He asked if we could bring Te Mauri o te Maori from Southland to participate in the exhibition,” O’Regan said.
“It is special [local] complement of the exhibition here.
“So we have these wonderful historical threads.”
Kura Pounamu tells the story of Te Waipounamu’s most precious material taoka, the treasure. Featuring over 200 pieces of pounamu – from a 170 kg touchstone and heavy toki, adzes, to simple, intricately carved ceremonial hei tiki – the exhibit explores the traditional meaning and enduring value of the pounamu.
First exhibited at Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, in 2009, Kura Pounamu then toured China between 2012 and 2014, and was shown in Paris in 2017, said one of the exhibition’s main curators. , Te Papa’s Maori curator, Dougal Austin.
In 2019 he was exhibited in Christchurch and Nelson.
And now Kura Pounamu is here.
“The Otago Museum cares for and exhibits a lot of taoka pounamu…but this exhibit shares a larger narrative and purpose than what we would normally get to see,” says O’Regan.
“It’s nice to see the impressive mahi from our whanauka that has traveled internationally now shared here in the South.”
The exhibit is in the Museum’s 1877 gallery. Its centerpiece is an impressive hei tiki wall arranged in a spiral.
“It’s just beautiful,” says Shanaya Cunningham, Exhibitions and Creative Services Manager.
“The pounamu comes from… Te Waipounamu, so it’s only fitting that it comes home to be seen by the people and communities it comes from.”
O’Regan says Kura Pounamu is an exhibit for anyone living in Aotearoa New Zealand.
“If you think of how many New Zealanders have a pounamu taoka around their neck – Maori, Pakeha, katoa – the pounamu remains special to a very large part of our community.
“This exhibition offers the opportunity to gain insight in a way that only a specialized, dedicated and carefully curated exhibition can.”
There are many ways to view, understand and engage with each piece in the exhibit, says O’Regan.
A term used to describe this is “artifact biography”.
“It is recognizing that as taoka move through time, different aspects of their stories emerge and develop.
“Thus, each taoka has several stories. From the time it was collected as a stone, to the time it was shaped into an artifact, to the time it was reshaped into another artifact, to to the different hands he passed through, the different generations… and the different places he traveled.
“Perhaps more than anything, we see this with taoka pounamu.
“So this exhibition is a huge celebration of all that multiplicity of stories.”
Reshaping and reorienting the pounamu was common, O’Regan says.
Toki could become scissors, scissors could become ornaments.
“Particularly with the introduction of steel tools for carving…a large number of pounamu toki, adzes, have been made into hei tiki.
“You can still see something of the original shape of the adze blade in [some] hey tiki.”
To enrich the visitor experience, Te Runanga o Ngai Tahu has funded Kai Tahu kaiarahi, guides, who will be present during scheduled peak periods at the exhibition.
“It’s a way to keep the show warm… They’ll give the opportunity for a bit of korero.
“Going and seeing things is wonderful. But if you can chat with someone about it, it adds another level of engagement.”
The Sciascia links between this exhibition and current exhibitions and the links many of us have with pounamu are just some of the threads woven through Kura Pounamu.
O’Regan, the son of Sir Tipene O’Regan, former chairman of the board of the Ngai Tahu Maori Trust, has ties to pounamu and this exhibition that extend in several directions.
When O’Regan jun was in charge of heritage for Kai Tahu, one of his duties was to help the iwi plan the management of his pounamu resource. As part of the Kai Tahu Treaty of the Colony of Waitangi, all of the South Island’s natural pounamu resources were reinvested into the iwi.
“We had the challenge of figuring out how we were going to manage this resource…It was a very exciting part of my job.”
He and others involved visited various sources of pounamu. The iwi also funded a pounamu research project led by Russell Beck and Michael Mason.
“Both of these men are deceased, but Russell’s stories and interpretations are here in this exhibit.”
Kura Pounamu also has a section examining traditional ways of shaping and working with pounamu. It includes a video by University of Auckland scholar Dante Bonica showing stone tool and taoka making.
“During much of my time in Auckland [studying for a PhD in indigenous rock art] my desk was next to Dante’s.
“So for me personally, when I go through the exhibit… there’s a whole bunch of wonderful messages in my museological, archaeological background that I see coming together here.”
The paths of the curator of the Otago Museum, Maori, and that of his counterpart Te Papa, Austin, who co-organized this exhibition, have frequently crossed.
Austin is of Kai Tahu whanui descent, grew up in Colac Bay, Southland. During the 1980s, he and O’Regan both studied archeology under the eminent archaeologist Kai Tahu, Professor Atholl Anderson, at the University of Otago.
“We were on the famous Shag River Mouth excavation together,” O’Regan recalled.
“Atholl was a bit of a mentor to Dougal and myself.”
Kura Pounamu’s hundreds of pieces come from all over the motu, the islands of New Zealand, but of course they all originate from Te Waipounamu.
“There is no other cultural material more beloved by Maori than the pounamu,” says Austin.
“He is so deeply rooted in the culture that he is inseparable from it, especially in Te Waipounamu.”
When the ancestors of modern Maori arrived on these shores around 750 years ago, they were already master stoneworkers, says Austin.
But they had never met a pounamu before.
“Very soon after the first settlement, they explored the landscape and discovered the available stone sources.”
They could use pre-existing techniques and technologies to shape most stones, with the exception of pounamu.
“We think it probably took them a hundred years to really start using pounamu to any great extent.
“But what was made of it was extremely durable.
“For tools, it could hold an edge much better than other types of stone.
“It’s a very nice stone too.”
Tools were probably the pounamu’s first primary use, says Austin. Then the armament, in particular the simple pounamu, symbol of the rangatiratanga, the chiefdom. And also the adornment.
Sometimes it was a mix.
“Some of the small tools, like scissors, when not in use could have been worn to tend to and serve as pendants.
“The pounamu rings that were put around the legs of the kaka were used as bait during the hunt; they are often considered as an adornment, but their origin is poultry.”
Austin has a strong affinity for the largest of Kura Pounamu’s four touchstones, the 170kg Te Hurika, which has a distinctive snowflake pattern.
Te Hurika translates to “the turning point”.
Back when Austin was curating the exhibit, he was looking for touchstones to include.
“It was part of the impetus given to Te Runanga o Makaawhio, the people of South Westland, having one of the large pieces of pounamu they had smoothed as a touchstone.”
The stone was part of a large quantity of pounamu stolen from the source on the Cascade plateau during the last decades of the last century. A part, including this stone, was recovered and returned.
“There have been a lot of thefts, on a large scale.
“It was a turning point after holding a lot of mamae, hurting, and turning that into a positive.”
Over the past 13 years, Austin has participated in all of Kura Pounamu’s exhibitions, and visited most of them, in China, France and New Zealand.
“We are now at the final stage, where he is back on tour among his own people, who have the strongest bond of all with pounamu.”