Native Affairs Summer Series - Carver of Taupō rock art finally rewarded

By Iulia Leilua
  • Waikato/Bay of Plenty

For 30 years tourism companies have been taking paying visitors to Lake Taupō’s world famous Māori rock carvings, without the master carver who created the artwork receiving a dollar or any acknowledgement of his work. But that all changed recently.

The rock carvings which depict master carver Matahi Brightwell‘s ancestor Ngatoroirangi are found on the northern cliffs of Lake Taupō.  They were carved 40 years ago by Mr Brightwell and a small team of carvers, including the late Jono Randell and Te Miringa Hohaia.

“I look at my artwork and still feel intimidated, humble and grateful,” says Mr Brightwell.

For the past 30 years, tourism operators have cashed in on Mr Brightwell’s work, which attracts thousands of tourists each year.

“Although there are many parts of our district that are popular for tourism, that striking image of the rock carvings at Mine Bay is increasingly recognised all around the world by international audiences because it’s become a key feature of Tourism New Zealand’s promotion of New Zealand offshore,” says Destination Great Lakes Taupō Manager Damian Coutts.

While tourism companies profiting from his carvings was one thing, it was the lack of recognition of his artwork that most concerned Mr Brightwell.  

“It’s a hard one for me, I’m so tūturu Māori for Māori. That was one of the main things I couldn’t grasp, that they were making money from my art. I wasn’t getting any recognition or any royalties from that. If you know me and my history, money’s not my thing. It’s the mana and the mauri that belongs to my iwi that I wanted to uphold, that comes first.”

But at a special ceremony last year, at Taupō’s i-SITE Tourism Centre, where a model of his rock carvings was unveiled, the town’s Mayor offered Mr Brightwell an apology.

“It might be 40 year’s late Matahi, but on behalf of our community, it is an honour to acknowledge your work here today. I am so sorry that it has taken so long,” said Taupō District Council Mayor David Trewavas.

The tourist industry has also extended an olive branch to the master carver.

While he won’t receive any money directly, the tourist industry says his work is a big part of their business and they’ll encourage tourists to make donations that will go to the carving’s upkeep.

“Our plan is to put a series of koha boxes, both in eyesight and on the tourist boats, so that visitors are able to make a contribution to fund him and fellow carvers and their ability to come back early next year [in 2017] and commence restoration on the carvings,” says Mr Coutts.

It’s left Mr Brightwell feeling positive about his contribution.

“I feel the community that’s prospered around my rock carving, I feel really good about that. It’s helped this community and it’s put pride in my cousins’ hearts of Taupō,” he says.