A few weeks ago, I was one of a group of ten or so Hawke’s Bay artists who gathered at CAN Creative Arts Napier to create an artwork or likeness of Mei Whaitiri, who at the age of 14 was chosen as the model for a sculpture that would celebrate the legend of Pania, the sea maiden of the reef of Ahuriri.
Justin Rae and the team at The Breeze presented this community art event to honour Mei, a much loved icon of our district and it was organised by her whanau in conjunction with Creative Arts Napier.
After Hurst Photography Studio took photographs of Mei they were sent to the Italian marble company of Carrara in Carrara, Italy. From them, a model in clay was made and from the clay form it was cast into bronze.
The statue of Pania, so familiar today shows her wearing a hei tiki, piupiu and a huia feather in her hair, seated on a rock near the foreshore at Napier, her iconic image representing the city to visitors from throughout Aotearoa and across the world.
We artists gathered at CAN at 2pm, some of us feeling slightly in awe of the task ahead of us and as we gazed at her with our observational ‘artist-eyes’, she may have felt a bit uncomfortable, but if so, she didn’t show it.
Nearly seventy years on, Mei at 84 is still beautiful and has lived a full and productive life, much of it at her marae at Kohupatiki in Clive surrounded by whanau of whom she is justly proud, as they so evidently are of her.
Mei grew up at Kohupatiki and at age 13 as a third former and boarder at Hukarere College, she says she was lucky to have been chosen. Her grandparents sent the precious piupiu and hei tiki to Italy and it took four years for the sculpture to be completed. She was still at school when it was completed and being a little older then, she saw it with different eyes.
The unveiling took place on June 10, 1954. “I had asked the school principal of Hukarere if I could bring my grandparents (who raised her) to the unveiling and this was refused as, I was told ‘this was unimportant’.” This caused Mei great hurt and disappointment, accentuated when the Prime Minister of New Zealand and the Mayoress of Napier were in attendance, but none of her whanau.
After her marriage to schoolteacher Willy Whaitiri she went to live in Manutuke in Gisborne for the next 40 years raising her family, returning home to Hawke’s Bay 1972. During those years in Gisborne her connection to Pania was never mentioned as no one there had known about it. She focused on her family and it was pushed to the back of her mind, she says.
“There was another formal unveiling of Pania in 2006, after the sculpture had been stolen and restored. This unveiling was presented with all the tikanga Māori in a way that felt fully appropriate, this time with all my family present,” she says. She describes feeling overwhelmed at the thought of all the photographs that have been taken of Pania over the years and when she sees people who have stopped to take photos she goes over to them and joins in the shot.
The exhibition of the artists’ interpretations of Mei Whaitiri will be shown from September 26-October 7 at CAN in Napier.
BayBuzz thanks The Breeze for the information about Mei Whaitiri.