Artist and adventurer Nepia-Clamp shares love of the sea and culture

‘The waka becomes your island at sea’.

‘The waka becomes your island at sea’.

“While you are onboard you are all family and have to work as family, the waka becomes your island at sea, your whenua, your place to stand — so if you don’t look after it, it is not going to look after you,” Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp says.
Picture by Rebecca Grunwell
Waka hourua Tairawhiti arrived in Gisborne’s port on Christmas Eve. It was built in Auckland and will be an education voyaging canoe available to every local school student. Picture by Josie McClutchie

An internationally-recognised artist, carver, voyager, sailor and pioneer — Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp has spent much of his life at sea. Leighton Heikell talks to him about his experiences and his 27-year-long dream.

Turanagawaewae translated means a place to stand.

It is, in essence, where we feel most empowered and connected, it is our place in the world, our foundation, our home.

But for much of Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp’s life, his place to stand has not been on solid ground, rather sailing in the realm of Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea.

Nepia-Clamp, an internationally-recognised artist, carver, voyager, sailor and pioneer, has spent much of his life travelling the Pacific Ocean on traditional Polynesian waka.

But his most recent voyage is on land, educating generations about the stories and experiences of his voyaging ancestors and offering an educational hands-on experience onboard a waka hourua, floating classroom.

Twenty-seven-year-old dream realised

The waka hourua is named ‘Tairawhiti’. It is his 27-year-old dream realised and it sits majestically in Gisborne’s Marina.

It was a wet day when I met with Nepia-Clamp so I went to his home in Gisborne, guarded by an unmissable 14-foot tall artwork depicting Tangaroa.

It just so happened he was five minutes late, he apologised and said he was finishing off a discussion with a community youth group about waka hourua.

Nepia-Clamp was raised in Bulls where his family had established their home, but never forgot his roots back to Te Tairawhiti. He is of Rongowhakaata, Ngati Porou and Kahungunu decent.

As Bulls is not a coastal community, his passion for the ocean didn’t flourish until he left the town in his late teenage years.

However, the idea to teach people of the great Polynesian voyagers stems back to childhood memories in Bulls.

“Back in 1969 there was an event for the bicentennial of Cook and at school we were taught that Cook was the greatest navigator the world had ever seen and Polynesians and Maori were nothing but accidental drifters.

“It lodged in my mind at a young age and I would go home and tell Mum what I learned at school and she would tell me, ‘No son, you come from a proud line of Polynesian and Maori voyagers’ and she drilled that into me almost every night.”

Waka building

In his early 20s Nepia-Clamp became involved in waka building.

“I wanted to do something in my life that made a difference with how our history was taught. I started by assisting waka building projects and later focused on project managing the build of waka hourua.

“It has been something in my mind and in my heart to speak of what our ancestors did since I was a kid.

“Thinking about how intelligent our Polynesian/Pacific/Maori ancestors were in a scientific sense to be able to construct these vessels to be watertight and able to explore the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, thousands of years ago, strikes me with awe.

“I wanted to acknowledge the mana of my ancestors and not let generations following me forget that and teach them the true history of our people.”

Crew member on 'Te Aurere'

In 1992 Nepia-Clamp was a crew member on “Te Aurere” the first traditional voyaging canoe in approximately 700 years to make the return voyage to Rarotonga, the point of departure for what is known as the great migration.

He spent more than 10 years sailing around the pacific, living in different countries and working on different projects.

In 1995 Nepia-Clamp represented New Zealand protesting against the nuclear testing at Moruroa on the Cook Islands Voyaging canoe “Te Au O Tonga” alongside the Rainbow Warrior.

His said sailing is one of his loves.

“My longest voyage has been 24 days but once you are in the 24-hour sailing routine, you can stay out there for an unlimited time provided you have sufficient water and food.

“I’ve never been sick of a voyage, I have always just loved every bit of it.

“I love being on the water and the feeling at one with Tangaroa and my voyaging ancestors — it is such a peaceful feeling.

“But it has not always been smooth sailing.

“I have been in 100-foot swells in the middle of a cyclone, I was never scared and I always had faith in our Atua and ancestors to see us through and faith in our waka too.

“I remember something Mau Piailug, who was the Micronesian navigator, said to me ‘the canoe is your mother, look after your mother and your mother will look after you’.

“While you are onboard you are all family and have to work as family, the waka becomes your island at sea, your whenua, your place to stand — so if you don’t look after it, it is not going to look after you.”

Each waka has a life of its own

Nepia-Clamp has project-managed eight waka hourua builds in his life time, each waka now has a life of its own.

“There is one in Tahiti, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Auckland, Tauranga, Napier and now a waka hourua in Tairawhiti.

“When I visit the other waka, what makes me so proud is seeing the confident young people coming through and getting involved with each waka. The waka takes on a life of it’s own and everyone involved become a part of a potentially life changing experience.

Pioneer in the Maori art world

Nepia-Clamp has also been a pioneer in the Maori art world.

In 1984 he became the first New Zealand Maori to carve a bicultural totem pole with an American Indian/First Nation artist, in the United States of America.

He created the canoe prow at Heipipi Park in 1990 which was the first public Maori art in Gisborne.

The artwork acknowledges the amazing feats of his Polynesian/Pacific/Maori voyaging ancestors and just happens to be the largest canoe prow in the world and is currently a key component of the Tairawhiti Navigations Project.

“While managing a medical clinic, a Pakeha nurse told to me ‘I love the canoe prow and when I see it I know that I am home’.

“That really resonated with me. It was awesome to know that some Tairawhiti people feel a sense of connectivity to the piece.”

Tangaroa

The art in the front yard of his home, Tangaroa, was completed in 1999 with a plan to be sunk into the ocean as a diving feature for Turanganui a Kiwa.

This project still has the capacity to be realised but will only happen if local support is forthcoming.

Nepia-Clamp believes he is deeply connected with his ancestors and a lot of his work is influenced by them through his dreams.

“Many projects have been actual dreams such as the canoe prow and the waka hourua.”

Community support, like-minded people

However, he quickly acknowledges that one person’s dream is of no importance or use to anyone unless you have community support and like-minded people who also share that dream. This is where I have been very fortunate with the Tairawhiti Voyaging Trust (TVT), whose trustees share the vision of our waka hourua project.

Nepia-Clamp who holds a health degree, has worked in the health industry for a number of years and said it was something he carries through to his current practice.

“I believe I still work in health from another perspective, the healing that can happen through the waka hourua project. It has the capacity to help people know where they come from and identify with what their voyaging ancestors accomplished. And feeling a sense of pride within themselves is acknowledged as a form of healing.”

Nepia-Clamp ran for council and despite not being elected he said the experience was a great one.

He is also a trustee of Te Ha 1769 Sestercentennial trust. He is excited about the waka playing a pivotal role in the celebration of 1000 of Polynesian/Pacific/Maori voyaging and being used in the Te Ha commemorations next year.

The floating classroom will begin to work with the curriculum this year across schools in the district.

Nepia-Clamp said other ventures were also coming to fruition.

The TVT Education committee is working closely with school principals to develop the education programme.

“We are also working closely with Activate Tairawhiti, Air New Zealand, ECT and MBIE to progress our tourism venture which is becoming clearer, we even have our own dedicated caterers for tourism and corporate sails.

“We would be providing that hands on experience, you can’t beat it.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister Shane Jones spent time on board the waka last week and Nepia-Clamp said it was great to have their support.

“It was a fantastic opportunity to have them both on board the waka and listening to their feedback it was really positive and they enjoyed themselves.

“I am really humbled by how my dreams have been realised, but you can’t do these things alone, you always need like-minded people to share the vision if it is to be truly for the community.”

'I just want to keep working here'

For now, Nepia-Clamp is settled.

“I’ve sailed all over the Pacific and lived in Tahiti and the Cook Islands as an artist and sailor, while gaining valuable knowledge of canoe construction, sailing and qualifying as a sea captain. At times I have been tempted to stay in the Islands, but always knowing in my wairua, that I would always return to Gisborne and bring that valuable knowledge home.

“I think now it is fair to say that I love Gisborne, being in Turanganui a Kiwa and it is time for me to spend a lot more of my time here. But I would love others to experience the pacific like I have.

“I just want to keep working here and spend my time improving the community life in anyway I can.”

An internationally-recognised artist, carver, voyager, sailor and pioneer — Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp has spent much of his life at sea. Leighton Heikell talks to him about his experiences and his 27-year-long dream.

Turanagawaewae translated means a place to stand.

It is, in essence, where we feel most empowered and connected, it is our place in the world, our foundation, our home.

But for much of Te Aturangi Nepia-Clamp’s life, his place to stand has not been on solid ground, rather sailing in the realm of Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea.

Nepia-Clamp, an internationally-recognised artist, carver, voyager, sailor and pioneer, has spent much of his life travelling the Pacific Ocean on traditional Polynesian waka.

But his most recent voyage is on land, educating generations about the stories and experiences of his voyaging ancestors and offering an educational hands-on experience onboard a waka hourua, floating classroom.

Twenty-seven-year-old dream realised

The waka hourua is named ‘Tairawhiti’. It is his 27-year-old dream realised and it sits majestically in Gisborne’s Marina.

It was a wet day when I met with Nepia-Clamp so I went to his home in Gisborne, guarded by an unmissable 14-foot tall artwork depicting Tangaroa.

It just so happened he was five minutes late, he apologised and said he was finishing off a discussion with a community youth group about waka hourua.

Nepia-Clamp was raised in Bulls where his family had established their home, but never forgot his roots back to Te Tairawhiti. He is of Rongowhakaata, Ngati Porou and Kahungunu decent.

As Bulls is not a coastal community, his passion for the ocean didn’t flourish until he left the town in his late teenage years.

However, the idea to teach people of the great Polynesian voyagers stems back to childhood memories in Bulls.

“Back in 1969 there was an event for the bicentennial of Cook and at school we were taught that Cook was the greatest navigator the world had ever seen and Polynesians and Maori were nothing but accidental drifters.

“It lodged in my mind at a young age and I would go home and tell Mum what I learned at school and she would tell me, ‘No son, you come from a proud line of Polynesian and Maori voyagers’ and she drilled that into me almost every night.”

Waka building

In his early 20s Nepia-Clamp became involved in waka building.

“I wanted to do something in my life that made a difference with how our history was taught. I started by assisting waka building projects and later focused on project managing the build of waka hourua.

“It has been something in my mind and in my heart to speak of what our ancestors did since I was a kid.

“Thinking about how intelligent our Polynesian/Pacific/Maori ancestors were in a scientific sense to be able to construct these vessels to be watertight and able to explore the world’s largest ocean, the Pacific, thousands of years ago, strikes me with awe.

“I wanted to acknowledge the mana of my ancestors and not let generations following me forget that and teach them the true history of our people.”

Crew member on 'Te Aurere'

In 1992 Nepia-Clamp was a crew member on “Te Aurere” the first traditional voyaging canoe in approximately 700 years to make the return voyage to Rarotonga, the point of departure for what is known as the great migration.

He spent more than 10 years sailing around the pacific, living in different countries and working on different projects.

In 1995 Nepia-Clamp represented New Zealand protesting against the nuclear testing at Moruroa on the Cook Islands Voyaging canoe “Te Au O Tonga” alongside the Rainbow Warrior.

His said sailing is one of his loves.

“My longest voyage has been 24 days but once you are in the 24-hour sailing routine, you can stay out there for an unlimited time provided you have sufficient water and food.

“I’ve never been sick of a voyage, I have always just loved every bit of it.

“I love being on the water and the feeling at one with Tangaroa and my voyaging ancestors — it is such a peaceful feeling.

“But it has not always been smooth sailing.

“I have been in 100-foot swells in the middle of a cyclone, I was never scared and I always had faith in our Atua and ancestors to see us through and faith in our waka too.

“I remember something Mau Piailug, who was the Micronesian navigator, said to me ‘the canoe is your mother, look after your mother and your mother will look after you’.

“While you are onboard you are all family and have to work as family, the waka becomes your island at sea, your whenua, your place to stand — so if you don’t look after it, it is not going to look after you.”

Each waka has a life of its own

Nepia-Clamp has project-managed eight waka hourua builds in his life time, each waka now has a life of its own.

“There is one in Tahiti, Fiji, the Cook Islands, Samoa, Auckland, Tauranga, Napier and now a waka hourua in Tairawhiti.

“When I visit the other waka, what makes me so proud is seeing the confident young people coming through and getting involved with each waka. The waka takes on a life of it’s own and everyone involved become a part of a potentially life changing experience.

Pioneer in the Maori art world

Nepia-Clamp has also been a pioneer in the Maori art world.

In 1984 he became the first New Zealand Maori to carve a bicultural totem pole with an American Indian/First Nation artist, in the United States of America.

He created the canoe prow at Heipipi Park in 1990 which was the first public Maori art in Gisborne.

The artwork acknowledges the amazing feats of his Polynesian/Pacific/Maori voyaging ancestors and just happens to be the largest canoe prow in the world and is currently a key component of the Tairawhiti Navigations Project.

“While managing a medical clinic, a Pakeha nurse told to me ‘I love the canoe prow and when I see it I know that I am home’.

“That really resonated with me. It was awesome to know that some Tairawhiti people feel a sense of connectivity to the piece.”

Tangaroa

The art in the front yard of his home, Tangaroa, was completed in 1999 with a plan to be sunk into the ocean as a diving feature for Turanganui a Kiwa.

This project still has the capacity to be realised but will only happen if local support is forthcoming.

Nepia-Clamp believes he is deeply connected with his ancestors and a lot of his work is influenced by them through his dreams.

“Many projects have been actual dreams such as the canoe prow and the waka hourua.”

Community support, like-minded people

However, he quickly acknowledges that one person’s dream is of no importance or use to anyone unless you have community support and like-minded people who also share that dream. This is where I have been very fortunate with the Tairawhiti Voyaging Trust (TVT), whose trustees share the vision of our waka hourua project.

Nepia-Clamp who holds a health degree, has worked in the health industry for a number of years and said it was something he carries through to his current practice.

“I believe I still work in health from another perspective, the healing that can happen through the waka hourua project. It has the capacity to help people know where they come from and identify with what their voyaging ancestors accomplished. And feeling a sense of pride within themselves is acknowledged as a form of healing.”

Nepia-Clamp ran for council and despite not being elected he said the experience was a great one.

He is also a trustee of Te Ha 1769 Sestercentennial trust. He is excited about the waka playing a pivotal role in the celebration of 1000 of Polynesian/Pacific/Maori voyaging and being used in the Te Ha commemorations next year.

The floating classroom will begin to work with the curriculum this year across schools in the district.

Nepia-Clamp said other ventures were also coming to fruition.

The TVT Education committee is working closely with school principals to develop the education programme.

“We are also working closely with Activate Tairawhiti, Air New Zealand, ECT and MBIE to progress our tourism venture which is becoming clearer, we even have our own dedicated caterers for tourism and corporate sails.

“We would be providing that hands on experience, you can’t beat it.”

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Minister Shane Jones spent time on board the waka last week and Nepia-Clamp said it was great to have their support.

“It was a fantastic opportunity to have them both on board the waka and listening to their feedback it was really positive and they enjoyed themselves.

“I am really humbled by how my dreams have been realised, but you can’t do these things alone, you always need like-minded people to share the vision if it is to be truly for the community.”

'I just want to keep working here'

For now, Nepia-Clamp is settled.

“I’ve sailed all over the Pacific and lived in Tahiti and the Cook Islands as an artist and sailor, while gaining valuable knowledge of canoe construction, sailing and qualifying as a sea captain. At times I have been tempted to stay in the Islands, but always knowing in my wairua, that I would always return to Gisborne and bring that valuable knowledge home.

“I think now it is fair to say that I love Gisborne, being in Turanganui a Kiwa and it is time for me to spend a lot more of my time here. But I would love others to experience the pacific like I have.

“I just want to keep working here and spend my time improving the community life in anyway I can.”

Your email address will not be published. Comments will display after being approved by a staff member. Comments may be edited for clarity.