Indigenous | Investitures

Wi Te Tau Taepa adds a new medal to his 'chest full'

Wi Te Tau Pirika Taepa (Te Arawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Te Āti Awa) has been appointed an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to Māori art in ceramics.

Taepa sculpts by hand, creating textures drawing on Māori art such as kōwhaiwhai and tukutuku.

He has been at the forefront of promoting uku - the clay medium - within te ao Māori for over 35 years.

Initially he wasn’t sure how to feel about his honour, asking his partner what the letter meant.

She told him he was receiving something from the Governor-General and his reply was, “Who the bloody hell gave that?”

Taepa served in Vietnam in the early 1970s and laughs at the thought of his whānau saying to him, “You’ve got a chest full of medals already. Now you’ve got another one!”

Marae his inspiration

Taepa’s upbringing, travels and loved ones have influenced his work, he says. He is both “humbled and honoured” to receive this award.

“It’s not all about me. It’s all the things I remember and people I’ve met and the people that had influences on me. It’s quite an honour because it’s not for me, it’s for us, for our people, it’s for all of Māoridom.”

Shifting early on in his career from whakairo (carving) to uku, Taepa has worked to elevate uku art within creative spaces.

He is one of five founders of Ngā Kaihanga Uku National Collective of Māori Clay Workers in 1987.

He credits his works to his upbringing and says they capture the essence of Māori identity.

“It’s how people conduct themselves on the marae. That’s the source of my work - the sacred bridge between a person and the front door of the marae. We’re a long way from traditional thinking. We go back to our marae and that’s where we find the history of who we are.”

Indigenous connections

Art has also become a therapeutic medium for Taepa’s students. He was facilitating Māori art workshops at Wi Tako (Rimutaka) Prison in the 1970s. He also continued these workshops as a social worker at Kohitere Boys Training Institute in the 1980s.

Taepa’s pioneering approach, his teaching, and mentoring of contemporary Māori artists have earned him recognition in museums and galleries across Aotearoa.

His exhibitions have included Parautanga Plough (2005) and Wi Taepa (2012), as well as international exhibitions in California, Vancouver and Zimbabwe.

Taepa travelled internationally and brought back new connections with indigenous artists, techniques and research.

He went from being a teacher in Africa and the US, to learning customs in Samoa, Palau and Hawai'i, Taepa says, “all the travelling has helped me get to where I am.”

Having received this award, Taepa has been inspired to get to work on his next project.

He laughed and said, “I might make an exhibition of medals.”