This interview appeared as a cover article in the VIBE section of The Bay of Plenty Times in February 2020.
Gallery Director Alice Hutchison interview with master carver Todd Couper, February 2020 before the opening of Tauranga Art Gallery’s current exhibition survey of whakairo from around Aotearoa Matatoki: Mata-ā-Waka:
With a large group of carvers throughout the country, when and how did you decide on a theme for the new Matatoki exhibition? How long has this new work been in gestation for you all, considering that you are all so busy with your individual practices? So many demands with commissions?
In 2017 I approached Karl Chitham about the possibility of a second Matatoki exhibition here in Tauranga as a follow on from the first Matatoki show in Rotorua 2013. As Karl curated the Rotorua exhibition alongside Eugene Kara who was a founding member of the Matatoki carvers group, he was excited at the idea of a follow on Matatoki show that would again elevate the profile of whakairo / contemporary Māori carving to the New Zealand public. A core group of us had some suggestions on a possible theme for the show and a common suggestion was ‘Waka.’ We wanted to keep the theme fairly broad and not stifle the boys’ creativity with limiting boundaries and therefore would encourage a good variety of works in size and form but still having the common thread of Waka. Waka being a very universal form and one that we are all linked to as Māori. We all whakapapa to different waka, which as a metaphor, describes us as a collective coming from all parts of the country.
Many of the Matatoki carvers have exhibited with Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver, Canada providing an audience for your work in North America. Please share some of the highlights of this important relationship and support for your work and its visibility outside of Aotearoa
The Spirit Wrestler Gallery in Vancouver has been representing Māori Art for 20 years which several of our Matatoki group have been a part of. It was Roi Toia and June Grant who made first contact with Nigel Reading from the Spirit Wrestler back in 1999. Since that day Nigel has worked tirelessly in establishing a strong market for Māori Art in North America. The two major cross cultural exhibitions held in Vancouver were ‘Kiwa’ pacific connections in 2003 and then ‘Manawa’ pacific heartbeat in 2006. Nigel and his team at the Spirit Wrestler successfully organised and hosted these ground-breaking exhibitions. Since then they have held numerous solo and group exhibitions which have solidified a market for many Māori artists both emerging and established in Canada and beyond. It has also created some amazing cultural connections between Māori and First Nations artists and led to many exchanges over the years. Consequently this relationship with the Spirit Wrestler Gallery has put Māori art in the spotlight, with the Gallery having the biggest representation of leading Māori artists in North America. Sadly, as they say all good things must come to an end and the Spirit Wrestler Gallery closed its doors for the last time in October 2019 but leaving a huge legacy in their commitment to representing Māori art at the highest level and with the utmost respect and integrity towards the culture as possible. Needless to say, those connections made through the Gallery will continue and especially with Nigel Reading who has become a close personal friend to many of us.
Wakahuia is the title of your new work, conceived specifically for this new exhibition. It is a play on words literally melding waka and huia - a very beautiful idea, and the traditional form of the wakahuia, a treasure box or receptacle for precious things. Please give our audiences a little reveal about what you have in mind or how you manifest your imagination into carving?
As an artist you are continuously thinking of ideas, concepts in order to create some artworks that are not purely visual but have a deeper meaning whether it be cultural, personal, or perhaps political etc. The challenge for me is to tell a story and capture the essence or crux of that narrative through three dimensional carving / sculpture using elements and principles of design but coming from a personal perspective. This is what determines your own distinct style. We all get influenced from different aspects and for me I guess I draw a lot of inspiration for my work from my culture and my upbringing, which I spent a lot of, in the outdoors. The natural process is to transform a concept into a sketch, then fine-tune to a more graphic drawing and then to visualise and calculate how the two-dimensional design will then become a three-dimensional sculpture. This to me is the hard part. This is where all elements must work aesthetically from every angle.
Do you have any dialogue on the innovations in Māori carving practices today, from the earlier traditional practices – and where you’d like to see it develop further? (There’s such a diversity here in media using wood, ceramic to 3D printing– the scope for new carving seems infinite)
It is quite astounding to see how far technology has come from when our ancestors arrived in Aotearoa. When I look at some of the old pieces in museums today I’m absolutely humbled at the level of skill of craftsmanship, design and innovation that is evident in such beautiful taonga. The artforms that were produced back then with stone, bone and pounamu tools was, I believe, at a level much ahead of that time. I always say, imagine if our ancestors had the technology that we do today, what they could have produced.
It is a natural progression of development of Māori art, with the tools, resources and technology available to us in this modern era. The thing to remember is that we are all still telling the old stories as well as the new and that is what keeps the art form true. The forms, materials, and composition may have evolved but the essence of where they come from is still the same.
I heard that one of the carvers spent months on a piece and then hit a rotten section of the wood. Please tell us more? Any other intriguing stories – while ‘in the making’?
With wood being a natural living material there is always the potential to come up against unforeseen issues that may appear in the wood as you work it, or it moves and cracks or even splits because of the moisture content in the wood becomes uneven as you take away the outer layers. The outer surface gets exposed to the atmosphere making it dry quicker than the inside of the wood which then causes stress and cracks will appear. There are many things to consider even before selecting your wood. The type of carving / sculpture: its size and dimensions, if it is a functional piece, its design and level of intricacy. This can determine what type of wood you will use whether it be a very hard wood, medium or soft. Then there is the grain to think about and which way the carving will transfer best onto the wood to be most effective in the actual carving stage. Then you have to closely monitor the wood as you’re working, keeping it out of sun and breeze as much as you can to lessen the likelihood of your wood cracking on you. Sometimes, depending on the wood, you just can’t avoid it and on a couple of occasions I had finished a piece and I thought was stable until I sent it overseas. I think the change in atmosphere made it crack severely, so you just never know. Maybe it wasn’t meant to go there? But as you know wood is not plastic so if it wants to crack it will do just that.
The boys of Matatoki are incredibly proud of our culture and our artforms, both traditional and contemporary. We do our best to uphold the mana of our ancestors and creators of the magnificent art of whakairo. The works in the Matatoki: Mata ā Waka exhibition speak from many angles, of artists from many parts of Aotearoa. We see it as a collaboration of perspectives, ideas and ideals, styles and forms that reflect us all as individuals and as Māori.