A-hoe! major exhibition at Tairawhiti Museum

Artist breathes new life into lost waka paddle designs.

Artist breathes new life into lost waka paddle designs.

A-HOE! Gisborne artist and Toihoukura associate professor Steve Gibbs prepares a series of paintings for his January show A-hoe! The works are inspired by his studies of patterns on rarely-seen waka hoe (canoe paddles) preserved in museums around Europe, in the USA and Wellington. Picture by Paul Rickard
RECIRCULATED WAKE: The designs on patterned waka hoe (canoe paddles) came from a relationship with the sea, says Gibbs.
The similarity with the principle of fluid dynamics, known as a Karman vortex street, is striking.
Named after 20th century Hungarian-American mathematician Theodore von Karman, the Karman vortex street is a repeating pattern of swirling vortices caused by the unsteady separation of flow of a fluid around blunt bodies.
BLUE WATER: Artist Steve Gibbs made drawings in blue of 18 canoe paddles distributed among museums in Europe and Wellington. Gibbs made the patterns in blue to suggest they came from the sea. Picture supplied.
Picture supplied.

DRAWINGS of patterned waka hoe (canoe paddles) traded offshore from Whareongaonga in 1769, and later distributed among European museums, will be part of Gisborne artist Steve Gibbs’ exhibition A-hoe! next month.

During his three years of PhD research into hoe waka, Gibbs made drawings of 18 of the 22 extant paddle blades housed in museums from Great Britain, Europe and the USA.

He painted the drawings in blue to suggest the patterns came from the ocean.

“These designs came from a relationship with the sea. These hoe represent that creative genius and mastery of ocean navigation.”

Once the ocean-going migrants made Aotearoa-New Zealand their home, carving, painting and weaving were transferred from the waka to whare, says Gibbs.

The hoe are the earliest examples of what we now call kowhaiwhai.

While research has been carried out on Maori painting, no extensive analysis of the painted designs on the hoe has been made before, he says.

How the hoe came to be given to explorer Lieutenant James Cook, or to Tahitian artist/navigator Tupaia, aboard the Endeavour is not a well-known story. The disastrous first contact between tangata whenua and Cook’s men at Turanganui a Kiwa-Poverty Bay, followed by the more amicable relations at Uawa-Tolaga Bay, are well-documented. What is not so widely known is the significant exchange off Whareongaonga, says Gibbs.

On the third day of Cook’s arrival, the Endeavour became becalmed off Whareongaonga, almost half way between Gisborne and Mahia, as she sailed south.

Contact with Tupaia

By the time the Endeavour got around Young Nicks Head, people knew about Tupaia and they wanted to converse with him, says Gibbs.

Tupaia had remained on board ship the day of Cook’s first contact with tangata whenua. Onshore the following day, the Tahitian was able to communicate in te reo with Maori across the Turanganui River.

“When the boat got to Whareongaonga people jumped on board. They wanted to talk to Tupaia.”

Seven canoes with around 50 people from the Whareongaonga region approached the Endeavour. Among those in the canoes were people of Rangiwaho, hapu of Ngai Tamanuhiri.

Cook records they enthusiastically exchanged hoe for Tahitian tapa cloth. They also traded paddles for glass beads, a bag of potatoes and turnip seed. Research indicates many of the items exchanged might have been given to Tupaia, the one person they could converse with, says Gibbs.

Hoe with patterns painted on the blades are rare in museum collections. Only 21 have been located worldwide. Of these, 18 have been identified as those exchanged on October 11, 1769, off Whareongaonga.

Blessing and a curse

That the paddles ended up in foreign museums is both a blessing and a curse.

“The curse is they were removed from our cultural consciousness; they were lost from our memory. The irony is they were given to someone who came from across the sea.

“The blessing is that, if the hoe hadn’t been given to Tupaia they would have been lost.”

Gibbs, who is of Ngai Tamanuhiri and Rongowhakaata descent, and associate professor at Toihoukura school of contemporary Maori visual arts, calls his drawings of the patterned hoe the Trade Me Series.

He is now working on a collection of paintings inspired by the drawings. The drawings and paintings will be exhibited in a show called A-hoe! at Tairawhiti Museum from January 21.

“Part of the work is about the cultural disconnect. The first two days were disastrous. What I’m interested in is the first peaceful encounter that took place off Whareongaonga.”

Having researched the hoe and Maori painting, and along with his life-long connection with the ocean (Gibbs is a world waveski champion), he sees his role as one of kaitiaki and as educator.

“I have a cultural responsibility to bring these things into the light,” he says.

“This is about bringing the designs back to show we are all part of this creative genius.”

DRAWINGS of patterned waka hoe (canoe paddles) traded offshore from Whareongaonga in 1769, and later distributed among European museums, will be part of Gisborne artist Steve Gibbs’ exhibition A-hoe! next month.

During his three years of PhD research into hoe waka, Gibbs made drawings of 18 of the 22 extant paddle blades housed in museums from Great Britain, Europe and the USA.

He painted the drawings in blue to suggest the patterns came from the ocean.

“These designs came from a relationship with the sea. These hoe represent that creative genius and mastery of ocean navigation.”

Once the ocean-going migrants made Aotearoa-New Zealand their home, carving, painting and weaving were transferred from the waka to whare, says Gibbs.

The hoe are the earliest examples of what we now call kowhaiwhai.

While research has been carried out on Maori painting, no extensive analysis of the painted designs on the hoe has been made before, he says.

How the hoe came to be given to explorer Lieutenant James Cook, or to Tahitian artist/navigator Tupaia, aboard the Endeavour is not a well-known story. The disastrous first contact between tangata whenua and Cook’s men at Turanganui a Kiwa-Poverty Bay, followed by the more amicable relations at Uawa-Tolaga Bay, are well-documented. What is not so widely known is the significant exchange off Whareongaonga, says Gibbs.

On the third day of Cook’s arrival, the Endeavour became becalmed off Whareongaonga, almost half way between Gisborne and Mahia, as she sailed south.

Contact with Tupaia

By the time the Endeavour got around Young Nicks Head, people knew about Tupaia and they wanted to converse with him, says Gibbs.

Tupaia had remained on board ship the day of Cook’s first contact with tangata whenua. Onshore the following day, the Tahitian was able to communicate in te reo with Maori across the Turanganui River.

“When the boat got to Whareongaonga people jumped on board. They wanted to talk to Tupaia.”

Seven canoes with around 50 people from the Whareongaonga region approached the Endeavour. Among those in the canoes were people of Rangiwaho, hapu of Ngai Tamanuhiri.

Cook records they enthusiastically exchanged hoe for Tahitian tapa cloth. They also traded paddles for glass beads, a bag of potatoes and turnip seed. Research indicates many of the items exchanged might have been given to Tupaia, the one person they could converse with, says Gibbs.

Hoe with patterns painted on the blades are rare in museum collections. Only 21 have been located worldwide. Of these, 18 have been identified as those exchanged on October 11, 1769, off Whareongaonga.

Blessing and a curse

That the paddles ended up in foreign museums is both a blessing and a curse.

“The curse is they were removed from our cultural consciousness; they were lost from our memory. The irony is they were given to someone who came from across the sea.

“The blessing is that, if the hoe hadn’t been given to Tupaia they would have been lost.”

Gibbs, who is of Ngai Tamanuhiri and Rongowhakaata descent, and associate professor at Toihoukura school of contemporary Maori visual arts, calls his drawings of the patterned hoe the Trade Me Series.

He is now working on a collection of paintings inspired by the drawings. The drawings and paintings will be exhibited in a show called A-hoe! at Tairawhiti Museum from January 21.

“Part of the work is about the cultural disconnect. The first two days were disastrous. What I’m interested in is the first peaceful encounter that took place off Whareongaonga.”

Having researched the hoe and Maori painting, and along with his life-long connection with the ocean (Gibbs is a world waveski champion), he sees his role as one of kaitiaki and as educator.

“I have a cultural responsibility to bring these things into the light,” he says.

“This is about bringing the designs back to show we are all part of this creative genius.”

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