Three hei tiki featured in Dougal Austin's book, Te Hei Tiki, published by Te Papa Press. The hei tiki in the centre is by Rangi Kipa. (From left; Te Papa OL000572, ME023267 and ME012495).

Takarangi: How an interest in pounamu spiralled into a book on hei tiki

Dougal Austin (Kāti Māmoe, Kāi Tahu, Waitaha) is senior curator Matauranga Māori at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa. Here he writes about his first book, Te Hei Tiki: an enduring treasure in a cultural continuum, which has just been published by Te Papa Press. 

I probably first encountered pounamu when crawling around on the floor as a mokopuna at my grandparents’ place, out at Kāwhakaputaputa, the next bay around from Ōraka in Southland where we grew up. 

Pounamu door stops are now rarely seen. But my Pōua (grandfather) and Tāua (grandmother) had one, and throughout my childhood and adolescence it kept the door from slamming shut in a strong wind – a very practical use for such a highly regarded cultural material.

But wouldn’t it have been great to have had a hei tiki? A human-figure neck pendant made from pounamu; a tangible, enduring whanau heirloom, worn smooth by many years of touching and rubbing; a hei tiki carrying with it an ancestral lineage and kōrero, together with accumulated mauri, tapu and mana from a succession of wearers? 

As far back as I can remember I’ve always known of hei tiki, or tiki as we called them. Like everyone else I’ve come across, I’ve always liked the form and held a strong appreciation for it as an expression of Māori artistry and culture. However, like many whānau throughout Aotearoa, my family were not fortunate in having an ancestral taonga passed down into our care. We never had a hei tiki.

My interest in hei tiki stems as much from an interest in cultural loss and what can be done to reclaim and reinvigorate Māori culture as it does from my good fortune, years later, to become closely acquainted with a great many hei tiki held in museum collections.

Te Hei Tiki is … the result of a process of researching, thinking and writing about hei tiki over the past decade.

About 15 years ago a friend and I naively decided we would each craft ourselves a hei tiki from pounamu and that we would work them into shape the old way, using stone tools. Pounamu was secured from a pounamu-working relative in Hokitika, and we also had him cut up an old farm grindstone to make a selection of tools with which to saw and file the pounamu into shape. I had previously – successfully – experimented with drilling holes through stone using tūwiri, the customary cord drill with a stone bit fastened on the lower end.

However, the transition to working pounamu in this way was like going from carving wood to stone in its difficulty. Pounamu is a much tougher and more demanding material than other stone types. Our work soon ground to a halt and it remains unfinished, even after cheating by using a tungsten blade fixed into a hacksaw for sawing, and a diamond-coated sander for abrading! I have since come to much better appreciate the complexity of the hei tiki form, the demanding nature of the material from which it is made, and how it’s best not even attempted before one masters a variety of simpler forms first. In hindsight this was a learning experience, one of several that helped prepare me to write this book.

About 11 years ago I was made lead curator to develop an exhibition at Te Papa about pounamu. When visiting pounamu/jade shops in Greymouth and Hokitika at the time, I was struck by the effect of a large number of greenstone pieces on display. This helped confirm the decision to make the exhibition a taonga-rich experience. As things transpired, about 100 beautiful hei tiki were selected for display, representing almost half the total number of taonga pounamu in the Kura Pounamu exhibition.

I devoted significant time and effort to researching hei tiki. I familiarised myself with the hei tiki literature, a great deal of which had been written and theorised about since the late 19th century. But as I was doing so I also developed a strong sense that much of it was dated and in need of revision, so I used it selectively. And I realised that much more research was required. Te Hei Tiki is my effort to address this – the result of a process of researching, thinking and writing about hei tiki over the past decade. And like the exhibition which preceded it, this book is also taonga-rich, generously illustrated with many colour photos of hei tiki.

Takarangi: the Hei Tiki display from the Kura Pounamu exhibition

A mass display of hei tiki arranged into a large double spiral form one of the highlights of the Kura Pounamu exhibition (which is still touring and currently showing at Nelson Provincial Museum). Piri Sciascia, a cultural authority with Te Māori exhibition pedigree, helped guide the development of the exhibition. He suggested that instead of arranging the hei tiki in the standard museum way of straight lines we try something different, something that more closely reflected Māori culture. 

But it took a few tries, a few failed attempts. Poutama ‘step pattern’ didn’t work, then niho taniwha ‘triangular tooth pattern’ was tried. Finally, I tried the takarangi spiral design, spiralling out from smaller hei tiki in the centre to increasingly large hei tiki further out. I arranged that at floor level upon a protective layer of Tyvek, then climbed up a ladder to get a better view and sense of perspective – and from there I was pleased to see that it worked. This display has been reproduced on the inside covers of the book. It evokes the ancient origins of hei tiki both spiritual and physical. It also references how through long association hei tiki have shaped us as much as we have shaped them. I guess that is part of what it means to attain the status of cultural icon.

After the Kura Pounamu exhibition was up and running, one of the tasks I set myself was to conduct hei tiki body-scans: to systematically record the features of each hei tiki in the Te Papa collection along their length in head-to-toe fashion. Doing this a couple of hundred times certainly helped me develop a better eye for their details. I then devoted myself to completing a Master’s thesis on hei tiki at Te Kawa a Māui – the School of Māori Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, and eventually, the book writing began.

An integral part of the writing was to trace the continuum of the art form from ancient origins through to work being done today. To do so I visited a number of contemporary practitioners and gained many insights. My conclusion is that the hei tiki art form is in good hands and in good shape, apparently progressing from strength to strength. 

Te Hei Tiki: an enduring treasure in a cultural continuum, by Dougal Austin (Te Papa Press, $65) is available at Unity Books. 

Dougal will also be talking about his new book and the Kura Pounamu Exhibition he curated at Nelson Provincial Museum at 5.30 pm on Tuesday 15 October. The exhibition runs until 24 November.

The Spinoff is made possible by the generous support of the following organisations.
Please help us by supporting them.