Pou Tu Te Rangi

Artist: Chris Bailey
Location: Britomart Precinct, Auckland, New Zealand
Year of completion: 2011
Researcher: Kelly Carmichael

Pou Tu Te Rangi (2011) by New Zealand sculptor Chris Bailey rises in seven distinct carved forms known as “pou.” Pouwhenua are an art form within Māori culture, taking the form of carved wooden posts that mark territorial boundaries or places of significance. Often artistically and elaborately decorated, the whakairo (carvings) act as physical and symbolic markers of place, identity, and history. Pouwhenua are highly significant to Māori, acknowledging the association between the people and the land.

Pou Tu Te Rangi is situated on a site of rich history. Before the arrival of Europeans to New Zealand it is thought to have been the site of a Māori fortified village and the local tribe claims strong ancestral ties to this area. Positioned on the waterfront of a city dominated by its harbor, Britomart was a base for British colonial troops and then home to a thriving mix of businesses, railways, warehouses and a Chief Post Office at the dawn of the twentieth century. However, lack of investment and increasing decay saw the area decline and much of the buildings lay derelict and forgotten. Redeveloped for mixed-use in the mid-2000s, Britomart is a now a vibrant high-end shopping, entertainment and business precinct, and transport hub. Pou Tu Te Rangi was commissioned for an outdoor courtyard site within this redevelopment.

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Pou Tu Te Rangi functions for users of the space by referencing way-finding in multiple senses. As well as a meeting point for visitors to harbor-side Britomart, it evokes ancient Māori navigation. The work’s title translates as “standing posts that reach for the heavens.” It is also the Māori name for Altair, the star that guided early Polynesian navigators across the Pacific. Traditionally standing outside the village to guard those within and lofty enough that travelers were able to see them and navigate their way back home, Bailey intends Pou Tu Te Rangi to be a locating and guiding devise for travelers in and out of Britomart. Drawing on the role of pou as physical and symbolic markers of place, identity, and history, this work locates people and site within a larger social, historical and geographic context.

The whakairo of Pou Tu Te Rangi were created in a linear pattern to reference the vertical form of low and high-rise buildings nearby. The black staining of the timber is a direct reference to the tradition of the Te Aupōuri tribe to which the sculptor and commissioner trace ancestral ties. “The tribe used a cloud of black smoke to mask its escape and to ensure survival when under attack,” says Bailey. “Today black is New Zealand’s national color and is seen as a symbol of New Zealand’s strength and uniqueness.”

The sculpture references Britomart as a place of converging cultures and ethnicities, and its significant role in early indigenous, colonial, and maritime history. Britomart’s relationship to the port has personal significance, as the artist’s grandfather was one of many Māori laborers on the wharves. “The sea and the ports are the highways of Aotearoa New Zealand,” he says. “All the different kingdoms of the Pacific meet here.” The symbolism of Pou Tu Te Rangi is rich and many-layered, but the differing heights and the physical likeness allude to family as a strong visual concept. The pou also represent family quite literally: carved at the base of each post are the names of Peter Cooper, Chairman of the private Britomart development company and commissioner of the work, and his family. “The names were a personal tribute. I wanted to recognize him as a rangatira, a leader, and the head of the Cooper and Company family.”

All copyright belongs to Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts, Shanghai University.

Progress Agency