Bringing the faces of Māori ancestors to light at Te Papa

1 April 2015

Up close and personal encounters between Ngāti Toa and Europeans in the mid-1800s will come to light in Te Papa’s exhibition of historic tūpuna portraits, opening this Easter.

Featuring forty art works, some never before seen outside whānau collections,Ngāti Toa Rangatira: He iti whetū is part of Te Papa’s new season of art exhibition.

Te Papa curator Rebecca Rice says this is the first time Te Papa has collaborated with an iwi-in-residence to curate an exhibition for Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa, the museum’s art gallery.

Ngāti Toa is the seventh iwi-in-residence hosted by Te Papa.

“Ngāti Toa came to us with the idea of an art exhibition as part of their residency at Te Papa,” says Dr Rice.

“There’s a powerful connection between the portraits going on display and the iwi exhibition Whiti Te Rā! Ngāti Toa Rangatira. In that exhibition you meet these historic figures, told through their stories and tāonga, now you can see them face-to-face.”

Dr Rice says the portraits reflect an era of great change and conflict in New Zealand.

“These portraits have their origins in a period of immense social and cultural change. They were largely made by colonial surveyors and officials, seldom by professional artists. Consequently each portrait offers a view on various highly charged historical moments of encounter.”

One pair of portraits vividly captures the speed and nature of this transitional moment. Ngāti Toa’s famous chief, Te Rauparaha, is depicted wearing a customary cloak while in several portraits alongside, his only surviving son, Tamihana Te Rauparaha, is dressed in dapper English dress suits.

There are also striking images by Māori. In 1825, during a visit to England, tribal leader Te Pēhi Kupe (or Tupai) amazed his hosts by drawing his own moko kanohi (facial tattoo) from memory.

Te Pēhi Kupe reportedly said, ‘Europee man write with pen his name.’ And, pointing to his forehead, ‘Tupai’s name is here.’

Te Runanga o Toa Rangitira Chair Taku Parai says the art is an extension of the current Whiti Te Rā! exhibition on Ngāti Toa currently at Te Papa.

“We’re privileged to be able to bring this collection of fine works together in one place to be shared with our iwi but also visitors to the museum. What we see here is the extension of the story and history of Ngāti Toa. Our iwi members are a reflection of what is shown on these walls,” says Mr Parai.

The art works in Ngāti Toa Rangatira: He iti whetū exhibition are from the national art collection (held by Te Papa), loans from other galleries and museums, and loans from private individuals and families.

Ngāti Toa Rangatira: He iti whetū opens 2 April and runs until October 2015. Level 5. Free entry, free audio guide.

Note to editors

The official blessing for the new season of art, Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa, will be held in level 5 on 2 April, from 9am.

A tour of Ngāti Toa Rangatira: He iti whetū will be held by Ngāti Toa representatives talking about their tūpuna (ancestors) on Saturday 11 April, 1pm, as part of opening celebrations.

Media contact

Jenny Bridgen
022 0100 901 or 04 381 7752


The iwi-in-residence programme is an important expression of mana taonga – the role of communities in the understanding and care of collections. This concept underpins Te Papa’s guardianship of all tāonga.

Each of the country’s iwi takes part for about two-and-a-half years at a time, presenting their taonga (cultural treasures) and stories through different forums, including a feature exhibition of rare artefacts.

The iwi-in-residence programme has been running since Te Papa opened in 1998.