A marae is more than the art that adorns it
Te Rau Karamu Marae on the Pukeahu campus of Massey University is a stunning combination of art, architecture and technology. Image Courtesy: Toi Rauwhārangi College of Creative Arts Massey University.
One of Wellington’s newest art spaces opened earlier this year on Hayward Tce, near Wallace Street in Mount Cook. It gives visitors a world-class art experience right here at home, but technically it’s not an art gallery. It’s more like the Sistine Chapel, adorned with amazing art from floor to ceiling. Te Rau Karamu Marae on Massey University’s Pukeahu Campus is truly a stunning combination of art, architecture and technology.
The Marae has been nominated for the Designers Institute of New Zealand Award 2021 for the best lighting design, with the dining room in particular being a feast for the eyes. Artist Israel Tangaroa Birch designed the front facade to resemble a giant glowing paua shell that illuminates the exterior of the dining room at night with a brilliant spectrum of blue, green, and purple light. Thanks to a lighting algorithm that shifts the color spectrum of the building in time with the tides in the harbor, Birch wants to transform the building into a lunar and tide calendar.
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“I wanted to create a house that breathed like the sea. It is not well known that the ocean produces 50-80 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. The work is the skin of Tangaroa, composed with unaunahi (fish scales), ”says Birch.
In this Whare Kai, Te Whaioranga or Te Taiao, Robert Jahnke’s neon sculptures, inspired by woven Tukutuku panels, create an optical illusion of endless reflective pātiki (flounder) fish patterns that stimulate the imagination, if not the appetite, of the visitors they are lucky enough to eat inside. Next to Birch and Jahnke, inside there is a huge Robyn Kahukiwa painting, preserved from the original Kuratini Marae roller that previously stood on this spot.
Working with architects from Athfield and Studio Pacific to make this vision a reality, artist Kura Puke was one of the driving forces behind the lighting design. LED lights are hidden and reflect light off surfaces to create a sense of energy emanating from the carved wakairo, painted kōwhaiwhai, and woven tukutuku of the whare. Puke, Associate Dean Māori at Massey’s College of Creative Arts, worked at the marae with colleagues Ngataiharuru Taepa, Saffronn Te Ratana, and Hemi Macgregor for nearly six years.
Taepa, Te Ratana and Macgregor have worked together on projects many times in the past, best known with ‘Ka Kata Te Pō’ in Te Manawa Palmerston North and the Auckland Art Gallery, an installation that reproduces the colors, movements and two-dimensional figurative images of the painted kōwhaiwhai as a three-dimensional sculpture into life. However, the artists are quick to remind me that it would be wrong to call this Whare a sculpture or an installation.
A marae is more than the work of art that adorns it. Te Rau Karamu Marae is an indigenous space for knowledge sharing that incorporates mātauranga Māori of te taiao, the natural environment, into the structure of the building. This environmental issue is reflected in the energy-saving lighting and heating technology in the Wharenui as well as in the works of art depicting the forest kingdom of Hinewaonui and the sacred trees of Tane Māhuta, which are so important to our existence.
The creative team called Te Kāhui Toi included Massey room designer Stuart Foster, Tikanga consultant Kurt Komene, ceramic artist Wi Taepa, and an extensive crew of cultural experts to create this masterpiece. Taepa’s ceramic discs on the front of the Wharenui show the different star constellations of the Maramataka, the 12 months of the Māori lunar calendar.
The collective brilliance of Te Rau Karamu Marae shows the mana and importance of this facility to Massey University and reminds us that creative genius also exists outside of the art gallery.
- Rueben Friend is an artist, curator and writer and Kaihautū / Director of Poriruas Pātaka Art + Museum.