The Tradition of Tukutuku

Tukutuku panels are a traditional Māori art form. They are decorative wall panels that were once part of the traditional wall construction used inside meeting houses. Originally tukutuku were made by creating a latticework of vertically and horizontally placed dried stalks of kākaho, the creamy-gold flower stalks of toetoe grass, and kākaka, long straight fern stalks, or wooden laths of rimu or tōtara, called variously kaho tara, kaho tarai or arapaki.

These panels were lashed or stitched together. This was done by people working in pairs from either side, using the rich yellow strands of pīngao, white bleached or black-dyed kiekie, and sometimes harakeke, to create a range of intricate and artistic patterns. Stitches were combined to form a variety of patterns. Groups of single stitches created patterns such as tapuae kautuku, waewae pakura, whakarua kopito and papakirango. Some of the traditional cross stitched patterns are poutama, waharua, purapura whetu or mangaroa, kaokao, pātikitiki, roimata toroa and niho taniwha. In some situations, a central vertical stake, tumatahuki, was lashed to the panel to aid its strength and stability.

This method of construction created a warm, insulating type of decorative wallboard. Later, painted wooden slats or half-rounds were used for the horizontal element. Today, however, such dry flammable wallboards would fail to meet modern building regulations, and they are no longer used in construction. When used nowadays, tukutuku panels are created for their aesthetic appeal and attached to structurally approved building materials.

But like many Māori arts, the art of tukutuku came perilously close to being lost. In 1916, Apirana Ngata could find only one practicing carver left on the East Coast, Hone Ngatoto. As the result of Ngata’s concerns, the Māori Arts and Crafts Act was passed in 1926, and the Board of Māori Arts was established. This led to the founding of the Māori School of Art in Rotorua.

The School was based on a number of principles, which included the following:

  1. That the artistic genius of the Māori still survives.
  2. That its present expression must be in terms of its present environment.
  3. That new applications and materials will not lead to the production of un-Māori works of art, given the right method of instruction.

Ngata’s work led to a great revival of Māori building and carving, which led in turn to the revitalisation of tukutuku weaving. His specific interest in tukutuku was such that he designed panels himself.

Sir Apirana Ngata demanded the very highest standards for tukutuku work. Only the best materials and meticulously careful weaving were good enough. It was said that if his eagle eye picked out any mistakes, he would cut it [the weaving] with his pocket knife and the weavers would have to start over again (Arapera Whaanga of Wairoa, refer Ta Apirana: nga taonga tuku).

The art of tukutuku weaving is still at risk. It is a time-consuming craft that demands patience and persistence. The panels pictured here were produced for the new Māori Resource space at the Central Library in a community funded project facilitated by members of Ngā Puna Waihanga Waitaha Tai Poutini. They represent about 900 hours work undertaken by more than 180 volunteers during the year 2001. In all their tukutuku wānanga.


This page reproduces information from page 3, 4, and 5 of the booklet Pūawaitanga o te Ringa - Fruits of our busy hands

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