National | Memorial

Conch shell memorial to Pacific soldiers- 'finally we are acknowledged'

Credit / Stantiall Studio

A Pacific Island artist's conch shell sculpture that remembers the wartime contribution of Pacific nations has been unveiled in Wellington this weekend.

The four-metre high sculpture by artist Michel Tuffery, who has Samoan, Rarotongan and Ma'ohi Tahitian whakapapa, is to serve as a national memorial to Pacific nations.

The Wellington-based artist said the design of the sculpture which is cast in bronze was inspired by a conch shell which he heard stories about in the islands and went to search out in France.

"I went up to France to Arras Tunnels up there and actually went to look for this conch shell which we've heard about the story in the Cook Islands," Tuffery said in a video explaining the story behind the sculpture.

"One of the māmā said that this shell actually exits. And it was three soldiers from the Cook Islands who were serving along with the Māori Battalion, and also working along with the Waihi engineers. This is in the First World War."

He said finding the shell led to a flood of design ideas. "I went up there on Armistice Day and went down with the curators to look for this conch shell but also to look for their tags that they left, their numbers on the side of the caves.

"And once I found that shell, that actually set off a whole lot off different ideas and concepts."

The sculpture's name is Te Reo Hotunui o te Moana nui a Kiwa, "It's just like the sigh and it's basically just like a relief. It's almost actually, it's the way we were actually putting that conch in, it's like finally it's there, there's something there for our Pacific soldiers dedicated to them."

Tuffery said the name was gifted by Māori musician Ranea Aperahama.

"He had gifted us the name. It was really important that the tangata whenua gave it the name because we didn't want to have a particular island or the Cook Islands or Niue or Tonga name. We wanted to actually give the tangata whenua first rights because of out of respect they gave us the name.

"So I was actually quite overwhelmed when we were gifted that name."

Tuffery said Pacific soldiers were finally receiving the recognition they deserved, with the poppies on the outside of the sculpture representing all the Pacific nations.

"Finally, we get the chance to be acknowledged. Our contributions, not just in the first theatre or the First World War but all the different theatres in the Second World War and it's like finally especially for the a Kiwa. I mean especially for all the soldiers coming from different parts - from Melanesia, Micronesia and Polynesia."

The new memorial is in Wellington’s Pukeahu National War Memorial Park.