Friday for work I went to Tapu Te Ranga Marae, which is just down the street from my house but to which I’ve never been. It was my first time visiting one and I wasn’t really sure what to expect; people kept telling me that it’s very different to most marae so I was even more confused.
A marae is a Maori meeting house and it has a lot of different functions, as far as I understand: people have meetings there, of course, and a lot of my friends go to, like, their uncle’s sixtieth birthday at their marae. You can be married at a marae and be laid out there when you die. Some marae have kohanga reo, which are Maori-language schools, on site, and they always have beautiful carvings. There is a lot of ceremony involved, in terms of who invites whom and who can speak and when and so on and so forth; marae are a real focus of the Maori communities and they are usually iwi (tribe) specific, although outsiders can be invited as well.
One of many ways in which Tapu Te Ranga is different to most marae is that it’s open to everyone, regardless of iwi or background. All sorts of people from all over New Zealand (and the world) have come to live and work there in the past thirty years; when we got there yesterday, sun shining, wind blowing, we all commented on the immediate calming sense of the place, which I secretly think is the result of all the contributions of all the people who have been there over the years. They’ve left a glamour, a palpable mist, that hangs over the place, and you don’t even need to know much of the story to feel it.
The guy who started it had spent some time in jail and started working with street kids when he got out, and he eventually bought land in Island Bay and started building (without knowing anything about architecture), with the idea of starting a community there. This was already pretty interesting to me as I have a lot of friends who live communally and I’ve always secretly wanted to do it too. When I got inside and saw how gorgeously everything was set up I liked it even more; the meeting house where we had the speeches and songs was covered in all sorts of art; I saw some Australian dot art and some Native American stuff too, along with lots of Pacific Island stuff (including a beautiful tapa cloth). There were bits of driftwood and dried seaweed and old photos and bits of metal from cars and kids’ drawings and murals and ceramics and native plants and everything else. I kept thinking about the art and even the layout of the buildings and the materials used in construction as the physical manifestation of the values that have gone into the building of this marae.
All the art in this room was done by one of the family’s sons; the walls are potato sacks stretched between frames. All the construction is with recycled and repurposed materials; Bruce said that when they started building he and his friends would go to demolition sites in the middle of the night and take everything they could carry away, including the nails, which they straightened to use again. This was one of the many things about this place that blew my mind.
The buildings turn and twist and curve on each other and there are all sorts of little surprises everywhere. This is the whenua garden; “whenua” means both “land” and “placenta” and in fact there are several of the family’s childrens’ placentae buried here, under the trees. The girl who showed us around said that random people have shown up on their doorstep asking to have their childrens’ placentae buried there too.
One of my favorite rooms in the whole place was the Whare Wahine, women’s house, with this awesome painting by Robyn Kahukiwa.
I especially loved these little carvings that were on the wall pillars.
This hine is pointing to her head to represent knowledge.
This one is holding pounamu or jade.
I think she’s doing kapa haka.
There was a whole story about this painting, about a pregnant woman who had to climb over mountains to get to a river where she could give birth.
Some more art (on the ceiling of one of the rooms) and a painted explanation of Bruce’s explanation of what it means to him.
My other favorite whare was the Tane Whaiora, which was the first building to built at Tapu Te Ranga, if I understand correctly, and is where dead people are sometimes waked (there is a pile of mattresses in the corner so all the family and friends can be together). The art is in the style of ancient cave paintings, done by
We walked around the rooms and gardens and laughed and talked and had lunch and listened to one of Bruce’s daughters tell stories about this place, and reluctantly went back to work after a couple of hours. Bruce kept saying, “You build the whare and the whare builds you,” and I just kept thinking about that, the whole time I was there, going from house to house, into the dark and into the light; about how to build a house, how to build a life, and how your life builds you in return.