The story of a Michael Matchitt - Tohunga Whakairo

A legacy through generations

Pursuing a career as a master carver wasn’t something Michael Matchitt consciously pursued. At least, not in the beginning.

Rather, a series of chance events helped him to see that the creativity so prevalent in his tīpuna could be channelled into him becoming a master carver and a teacher.

Proudly part of a legacy of whakairo (carving), Michael descends from iwi recognised for their contributions to whakairo, teaching and the arts. Shining examples include two of Michael’s uncles: internationally renowned artist and carver Para Matchitt, and Māori artist, heritage advocate, and teacher Cliff Whiting.

Michael grew up at Te Kaha, a small coastal New Zealand community in the Bay of Plenty. It was at the marae as a boy that he became immersed in the Māori language – hearing it being spoken and seeing it in its carved form as he gazed up at the elaborately carved wharenui.

He also watched his grandfather always giving of service – on the marae committee, the Returned Services Association, as the chairman of various land blocks. That dedication wasn’t lost on Michael.

Te Paea Marae

Kennedy's Bay
Lead Carver

Ngā Kete Wānanga

Manukau Institute of Technology
Carver (under Dr Pakaariki Harrison)

Horouta Marae

Carver (under Dr Pakaariki Harrison)

Learning from masters

At age 11 Michael picked up a chisel to help his grandfather’s youngest brother who was working on carvings for the school. It was with him that Michael learnt the basics of whakairo.

Teenage Michael went to boarding school where students were encouraged to carve items such as patu. At 15, living in Hamilton and surrounded by his uncle Para’s carvings, Michael started playing with traditional forms on a piece of tōtara he’d found.

When Michael moved back to Te Kaha his whakairo skills began to develop more fully. But he’d been doing correspondence school and hadn’t fared well. Considering his options, Michael applied to the exclusive Te Puia - the New Zealand Māori Arts and Crafts Institute and was accepted. So he left Te Kaha to train in the traditional methods of whakairo rākau (wood carving). He graduated with honours in 1988 and set about finding work.

Tahawai Marae

Carver (under Dr Pakaariki Harrison)

Manurewa Marae

Manurewa Auckland
Carver (under Dr Pakaariki Harrison)

Ngahutoitoi Marae

Lead Carver

Rakairoa Marae

Kennedy's Bay
Lead Carver

The influence and care of Dr Pakaariki Harrison

His former tutor Clive Fugill phoned Michael and told him to go to Kennedy Bay. There he was interviewed by Paki Harrison – a relative of Michael’s grandmother – who was the head carver at Kennedy Bay and a lecturer in the Māori Studies department at Auckland University. He gave 20-year-old Michael a job teaching people aged 17 to those in their 50s how to carve.

Later, Paki would assemble a team: Paki’s younger brother, two of his sons, Michael, and a couple of others. Together they spent eight years working on wharenui and various projects around the North Island.

I was 23 years old when Paki Harrison called me a Tohunga

Retaining, preserving, and sharing traditional knowledge

Eventually Michael returned to teaching. Dedicated to celebrating, promoting, and preserving the traditional practices, Michael has found teaching is the most rewarding way to do this.

He has taught primary school-aged children, teenagers, and adults at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa. It was at the Wānanga that he sought to find ways of nurturing a culture among the students that celebrated the pursuit of excellence in their craft.

“The idea was that as the ākonga (students) I started with moved forward, they would become the inspiration for the next lot to come through.”

His lifelong career has seen Michael shed blood, sweat, and tears alongside beloved communities. It’s also seen him toil over significant and impressive commissioned pieces.

And while every project is different, the work Michael did at Kennedy Bay holds a special place in his heart.

“Perhaps I see that through rose-tinted glasses because that work was about going home almost, because I was related to so many people there. That was a very formative time in my life.”

Leaving a legacy in the Waikato landscape

While not the only pou he’s produced for schools, perhaps his favourite are the three he was commissioned to carve for Rototuna High Schools in Hamilton, where Michael lives, and where his stepdaughters are studying.

He created the intricate pou painstakingly, each one taking 150 hours, and they now stand at the school’s entrance, welcoming eager young minds each day.

But where does Michael find the inspiration for the work that is so sought after? “It’s in the possibility,” he says, “of enhancing the natural beauty in both native and exotic timber.” So much so that he often searches out discarded or overlooked rākau (timber).

“I consider it a privilege to be able to contribute to its story and help others discover the beauty of each piece. I love to experiment and I’ve explored the qualities of these same pieces when developed into other media such as lead, crystal, ceramics and bronze too.”

The contribution of the carver to communities

Michael takes great pride in the association his work has with the ancient, complex Māori creation stories, and the depth of meaning they can portray.

But carvings have layers of meanings depending on the context and who is “reading” the piece. It’s difficult to view a piece and know with complete certainty who it represents and what story it tells. “Carvings are a visual summary, like waiata and whakatauki. The narratives told alongside the carving are just as vital in retaining our traditional knowledge and whakapapa.”

And so it’s the values, symbols, and history Michael preserves in his work that are his contribution to communities. Like his grandfather before him constantly serving, Michael sees his work as a continuation of the contributions made by generations of tohunga whakairo. “Meeting the needs of the community. Telling the stories. Preserving histories. Promoting traditional values. Reminding us of what’s important. Providing taonga to celebrate and memorialise – taonga that can be handed down through generations.”