Piritahi Marae is getting ready for its “biggest day yet”, the opening of the wharenui adorned with carvings.
A pre-dawn ceremony will be held on 5 June celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the marae and the opening of the whare whakairo, the first carved meeting house to stand on the island for more than 100 years.
Marae treasurer and project manager for the dressing of the wharenui, Sally Smith, says the excitement on the marae is “palpable” as people work to complete almost 50 carvings and woven tukutuku panels.

“This is the culmination of many years of dreams and hard work by the people who originally established the marae, many of whom are no longer with us.
“Once dressed the wharenui will become a whare whakairo, acting as the embodiment of an ancestor and holding the representations of iwi from across New Zealand,” she says.

The largest carving is nearly seven metres long, with the average carving being two metres tall and all have been carved from totara or matai.

Carvers Chris Bailey (L) and Nico Otero
Carvers Chris Bailey (L) and Nico Otero

In 2000, two tutors from Te Wananga o Aotearoa began the design work for the carvings and tukutuku panels.
Tohunga whakairo Tomi Ropata oversaw the design for the carvings, while tohunga tukutuku Lorna Rikihana-Dixon supervised the completion of the tukutuku panels by local weavers.
After the tutors finished their courses, local carvers forged on, sometimes with funding from Creative New Zealand, Auckland Council Creative Communities, or the Waiheke Local Board, but often offering their time for free.
“It has been a real labour of love for those involved. In total there would have been about 20 different carvers involved over the years.”
The last carvings are currently being completed under the guidance of Waiheke sculptor Chris Bailey, who has worked full time on the project over the past year to ensure the deadline for opening will be met.
“It’s pretty amazing to see the last carving finally being completed,” says Ms Smith
Installation of the works will begin in April, with voluntary labour from local builder Kevin Glamuzina and discounted materials provided by Placemakers.
Carvings will be placed both on the inside and outside of the wharenui, which will have a completely decorated ceiling.
Marae committee member Huhana Davis is running an overnight stay once a month for marae whanau to learn different waiata to support the opening.
“We are wanting to tidy up the whole marae, so need help with re-painting existing buildings, lifting the kumara crop at Easter that will be used at the opening, tidying of gardens, setting up equipment, and building work,” says Ms Smith.
The island had no marae from the late 1800s until a group of local Maori gained a lease from Waiheke County Council on the land at Te Huruhi Reserve in 1976.
A wharekai was completed in 1982 and the wharenui opened in 1992.
The ceremony to open and dedicate the whare whakairo will be followed by speeches from dignitaries, a hangi feast, music, kapa haka and waiata performances.
People who want to help prepare for the opening of the whare whakairo can contact Ms Smith on 027 773 2975. • Rose Davis

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