Riki Manuel is the master of turning stories into Māori art – Stuff.co.nz


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CHRIS SKELTON/STUFFRiki Manuel is a nationally renowned Māori carver and moko artist.Master carver and tohunga moko (Māori tattoo expert) Riki Manuel’s art can be seen on sports uniforms, buildings, people, in parks, and in the homes of dignitaries all over the world. But fears of being a boasting sweet kumara almost stop him talking about it. Tap, tap, flick. Tap, tap, tap, flick. Wood chips fly, and the earthy smell of tōtara wafts between shelves packed with carvings in Manuel’s Ōtautahi studio and workshop. His chisel becomes an extension of his one moko-covered arm, which sculpts wood, bone, pounamu, and tattoos human skin with a skill handed down from his tīpuna 17 generations back to Iwirākau. READ MORE: Putting culture in the political pipeline ‘It’s definitely appropriation’: Use of tā moko in Cyberpunk 2077 video game Photographer captures Tā Moko though different lenses The 60-year-old Ngāti Porou artist enjoys getting up in the morning and doing the craft that gave him a life and a way to feed his family. Next door to his rebuilt central suburban whānau home, his original earthquake-damaged kāenga (house) is storage for his materials. His whakairo (carving) workshop is 10 paces from his medically sterile moko studio.CHRIS SKELTON/StuffRiki Manuel is a renowned Maori carver and moko artist. Manuel has no need of modern distractions. He writes appointments by hand into a book, and is only contactable on a landline. Or people know where to find him. He gets spontaneous visits from friends with face moko calling him “Uncle”, or – pre-Covid-19 – celebrities wanting ink souvenirs from Aotearoa. It’s not about money for him. He once turned away a famous American band because he was already booked with a local client. He asks himself, ‘Do I only do [tattoos] for people who are rich, or for a cultural reason?’. “I’ve got to find the balance.” A well-known wahine once walked into his studio and he took one look at the tribal style of her moko and said “Oh, you’re from Rotorua?’ She said, “No, I’m Ngāpuhi”. “The pattern was wrong, so I changed it.”David Hallett/StuffManuel meets Dutch Prince Willem-Alexander of Orange and Princess Maxima, left, during a visit to Christchurch in 2006. He admits he gets to work with “cool people” like singer King Kapisi during a festival in Canada where he was helping first nations people revive their tattoo traditions. He knows where his work is – France, Belgium, America, Canada, Japan and England – and he sees the value of each piece rising. “[But] I’m just happy if they like it.” American politician Hillary Clinton owns one of his ink drawings, the late Nelson Mandela was given a carved walking stick as a symbol of rangatira, and the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos, was presented with a 2-metre-long model waka carving. He once carved a conductor’s staff that was given to Queen Elizabeth by the New Zealand Army Band.StuffManuel holds his framed photo of his carved conductor’s staff, which the NZ Army Band presented to Queen Elizabeth. Manuel was born in 1960 in Ōamaru and brought up in Rakaia, before moving to Cobden, on the West Coast, when he was 10. His East Coast-born father, Manakohia Manuel, moved from awa (river) to awa, and married Manuel’s Southland-born, Scandinavian-blooded mother Beverley. At 12, Manuel did his first moko on his own ankle. “Mum was always concerned, even my father was saying it was a symbol for bad people.” It was when his 400-chisel collection also began. “Kids were out buying toys, and I was buying tools.” He started “drawing people’s bloody horses and cars for a couple of dollars” as a teenager. His parents split when he was 13, and Manuel left school the next year to work canning apricots in a Roxburgh factory. At 15, his application for New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute in Rotorua was declined on account of his young age. But he was accepted in 1977 under the tutelage of renowned carver Hōne Taiapa, where he learned about the language that goes with patterns. Language is important to all things Māori, including the arts. He starts moko sessions with karakia to ease the client, and free them from any sort of tapu (restrictions). It helps settle them into what can be pūhoro (large moko) taking up to 50 hours. His father was fluent in te reo Māori, but came from a generation forbidden from speaking it at school. Manuel had to teach himself, then sent four of his children to kura kaupapa as soon as they were established. Art is a common thread among Manuel and his six siblings. But he was relieved when his parents finally recognised that doing tā moko could be a profession. He went on to moko both of his father’s arms in his 70s. He studied for three years, moved to Christchurch, “found my old girlfriend and married her”. Vivienne, the mother of his six children, manages their business.Stacy Squires/StuffManuel doing tā moko in 2008. Before being “shook out” by the 2011 earthquakes, Manuel had a studio in the Arts Centre Te Matatiki Toi Ora for 26 years. He still wonders why its former director, the late Chris Doig, took “the Māori kids” on in the central space. “We owe him a lot.” The business did so well they employed three carvers, and he mentored multiple moko artists to keep up with growing demand. He was one of only a dozen “guinea pig” moko artists in the country about 20 years ago. Manuel’s thigh moko is the first he knows of to make a comeback after he saw a carving of his tipuna Iwirākau at a museum in Dunedin, and was drawn to the thigh patterns. “I said, ‘I wonder what it would look like on real flesh’, and then it just grew. “I could only draw it on and get a tattooist to apply on the lines.” This method is why only his left arm is covered in moko.Annette Turnbull-Dew/StuffManuel, left, shows his thigh moko before a seminar in 2001. Pictured with Vic Tamati, right. It took a few “brave people to get big moko” in the south. He got sick of doing armbands in the 1990s, then, as people got braver, he did moko from necks to toes. Today “nothing is a surprise”, he does many kapa haka performers, and every major tattoo studio has a moko artist. Manuel still gets nervous doing moko kauae (female chin moko). “I think it’s a respect thing. “If things are not straight, that’s a reflection of the person wearing it.”CHRIS SKELTON/StuffHe has about 400 chisels, which he has been collecting since he was 12. People question who should have moko kauae – it is usually women with a womb and Māori whakapapa. Manuel once said no to a lady wanting a purple one, and he prefers doing them on Māori speakers. He did moko kauae on his daughter, and quickly noticed the attention she received. He has never wanted any form of moko on his own face. When they were uncommon, he dared his newly inked mate to “go to the mall and see what people do”. When he arrived in Ōtautahi, it was “very English” with few hints of anything Māori. He did identify some old patterns on buildings, but he could tell no-one else knew their significance. The proud koro (grandfather) of six has helped make Christchurch bicultural. He created the large yellow pou (post) now standing proud in Victoria Square. Ngāi Tahu originally commissioned him to carve a subtle, patterned rock by the river. But he felt it would be dwarfed. “I said, ‘Have a look at Captain Cook and Queen Victoria. Can’t we at least do something to match that?’.’’ What he created is not confrontational. Papatūānuku, at the bottom of the pou, is almost offering a mihi to Cook.Kirk Hargreaves/StuffTourists view Manuel’s pou in Victoria Square. He feels honoured to have been “adopted” to work with Ngāi Tahu despite it not being his iwi. Finding where he fits between his whānau and whenua up north, whakaaro (understanding) Māori, and the Canterbury he was raised sometimes gives him “jet lag”. Manuel is called upon by the government and organisations when they want to add a bicultural aspect and embrace Te Tiriti o Waitangi commitments. He often wants to start hui with a mihi (greeting speech) but often avoids it because he worries it is “difficult for some”. He can fail to understand Pākehā clients’ pronunciation of te reo Māori words, but tolerates it because “I see it as an accent”.CHRIS SKELTON/StuffHe spends time working with his clients to weave their stories into visual art. For moko and carving, his job as a Māori artist is to turn stories and genealogy into visual art. An organisation might give him books on its history, and he has to “try to Māori them somehow” into art. His frosting design on the windows of Burwood Hospital in Christchurch incorporates the native kawakawa merging with the Tree of Hippocrates – plane tree – under which legend has it the Greek physician taught medicine. He still grieves for his quake-broken city, but loves that his art adorns places like the external wall of the new Tūranga library. The carving he is most proud of is the main trophy for Te Matatini national Kapa Haka competitions. But as commissions keep rolling in, Manuel admits he is starting to agree with his wife that it might be time to slow down.CHRIS SKELTON/StuffHis lockdown walking stick is now a much-sought-after piece. The 2020 lockdown gave him time to carve something for him – a walking stick in his favourite theme of Tangaroa, god of the sea. The intricately carved tiny paua, flounder, and a handle carved from whalebone quickly caught the eye of high-profile bidders. But Mrs Manuel had the last say. This one will stay in the whānau.Stuff
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