There isn’t much that Gordon Toi can’t do, and excel at, in the Māori arts. At first, even before he was in his teens, it was carving. That was in his Ōtara days when he was on the verge of getting into serious trouble. But the carving took him down a rich, fulfilling and innovative arts path that, for more than 20 years, has had him specialising in tā moko — and not just in New Zealand. Here he is chatting with Dale Husband, who’s almost, kind of, tempted to invite Gordon to set to work on him.
Kia ora, Gordon. There’s no doubt when we look at you and your work that you’re Māori through and through. But, for a long time, many of us knew you as Gordon Hatfield, which is no more Māori-sounding than Dale Husband. What’s the score there?
Well, my biological mother, Kathleen Toi, was originally from the Hokianga, up in the Far North. Her hapū was Kokohuia. From Hokianga. Waimamauku. Whirinaki. Pakanae. That area. And, when I was born, she was only 18. She’d just joined the Air Force and was stationed west of Auckland, at Hobsonville.
She was just starting her career, and a baby probably wouldn’t have been the most helpful addition at that stage of the game. So she gave me to an aunty, Wairingiringi. Her father was Haare Matenga, part of the Marsden whānau, which is a prominent name in the north.
So that’s my Māori side. Wairingiringi brought me up and she eventually got married to a Pākehā gentleman by the name of Gordon Hatfield. That’s where I get my name — and that’s how it was for most of my adolescent life.
But my surname on my birth certificate was Toi, and I realised that it’d be a bit of a mission for my kids, when they came along, to figure out whether they were a Toi or a Hatfield. So I stuck with Toi, the name on my birth certificate, my biological name.
Our name is actually from the navigator, Toi. It’s funny how these things pan out. I became an artist and the name Toi indicates the type of mahi that we do. It’s just one of those nice coincidences that sometimes crop up in life.
So you knew your aunty as your mum. But you were able to stay connected with your birth mother as well?
Yeah, I did. I’ve always remained very connected to my Toi whānau. My grandparents, Piwai and Kare Toi, made sure that I wouldn’t be disconnected. So I’ve always known where my roots are. As a young fulla, I’d often think about my biological mother and have other regrets, too. But, these days, I look back and think: “Hey, everything has turned out for a reason.”
And I have no regrets now about how my life has gone. All in all, it’s turned out pretty bloody good.
I’m pleased for you. Were you always drawn to art? And have you been comfortable carrying the Gordon Hatfield name?
Yes, on both counts. When I became interested in Te Puia, the carving school, in Rotorua, back in the ‘80s, Gordon could see that I wanted to have a career where carving and Māoritanga were important. But it wasn’t easy to be selected because there were applicants from all over the country — and the year I was accepted, I was just one of four who made it from 36 applicants.
Dad was concerned that I might miss out, and suggested that I’d have a better chance if I took back my biological name and became Gordon Toi. I thought that was quite a courageous offer from him.
But, at that stage, I kept the name of Hatfield. I remember telling him that, if they didn’t accept me as a Hatfield, I wouldn’t care about missing out. So I entered into the carving school under the name of Gordon Hatfield and that’s the name most people knew me by.
But, in the early ‘90s, there was a resurgence of tā moko and, about that time, I started having my children, so that’s when I reinstated Toi as my surname, and it’s been that ever since. I’ve kept the first name of my father, though, to acknowledge his mana.
We’ve both got Pākehā dads — but we’re also proud Māori men, which is something that our dads have encouraged.
My dad was an interesting character. He was a proud man, but very giving and loving. But, back in the ‘70s, and in Ōtara, there was a lot of drinking and other stuff. And my dad was pretty old school. He called a spade a spade. Didn’t mince his words.
And I guess I’ve inherited that. I’ll call it as I see it. Whether you like it or not, well, that’s entirely up to you. But what you see is what you get. I’ve adopted that style, even though, I guess it hasn’t always been appropriate. Over time, the older I get, the more I feel as though I’m heading towards that same sort of whakaaro as my father’s, and I don’t make much effort to be polite.
With Dad, people had to prove themselves in order to win his respect. He grew up with the Bells, a big family, in Onehunga. They and the Hatfields sort of ruled their area at the time. Then my dad joined the army and fought in Korea.
As a soldier, on the battlefield, he would’ve seen a lot of things that young men shouldn’t see — and that affected him in many ways, especially with the drinking. Like so many others who’ve been through wars, he was probably trying to drown out many of the memories and sights. But he was a great dad. I wouldn’t have swapped him for anyone else.
My mother provided a softer side of the relationship. An amazing woman. Always welcoming and full of manaakitanga. Could make a meal out of rocks, a three-course meal out of nothing. And it’s through her that I developed my way of relating to others. She was a very powerful woman. Not in the sense of standing up on the marae, but just through the heart she had for people.
So you grew up in Ōtara? You could’ve been a Stormtrooper.
Yeah. Could’ve been. In fact, I was heading in that direction. But I was picked up by Henare Mahanga, who turned up in the mid-‘70s in Ōtara. He was like Supa Māori Fulla. Bro, he was a breath of fresh air.
In the ‘70s, in Ōtara, there were Hone Harawira and Hilda Harawira, Dan Davis, Amber Hikatangata and whānau, and others who were part of this new wave trying to reclaim their identity as Māori. Not necessarily all Māori speakers, or coming from a rural background, either. But they were young, urban Māori thrust together in a community that was just starting out.
It was fantastic. I can remember there was a large section of our people who were all about assimilation. That’s the reason for so many of our generation getting all those Pākehā names. It was so we could assimilate, so we could blend into society.
Then, all of a sudden, this Henare Mahanga comes along and he’s an expert in whaikōrero, carving, te reo, mau taiaha — the dude could do anything. It was refreshing having someone who was so proud to be Māori. And that had a huge effect on our community, especially on our rangatahi.
I and a bunch of others were very fortunate to come under his wing when he arrived at Hillary College, and when the school was getting ready to get rid of me. He turned up and introduced me to carving. As for the Stormtroopers, I was already, at the age of 12, running little errands for my uncles and aunties.
When I turned 15, Henare suggested that I apply for a place at the Māori Arts and Crafts Institute at Rotorua. So I did. And, when I was accepted, the Stormtroopers actually gave some money to my mum, and they also told her to “get that little shit out of Ōtara”.
They weren’t the only ones wanting me to get out. There were others in our local community, like Aggie Theodore, Taru Rankin. And at Hillary, there was my art teacher, Miss Robinson. My cooking teacher, Miss Cameron — and Peter Brown, the deputy principal. Old Bulldog Brown.
I was a little Māori boy and they could see potential in me, I guess. I didn’t understand that because I was so young. But there was a real need to get me out of that environment — and I’ve got a lot of people to thank.
So you’ve gone down to Rotorua to learn whakairo. But I wonder what the biggest challenges were?
Well, the carving came easy, and I say that humbly because Henare Mahanga’s training had prepared me really well. But what I found challenging was being surrounded by, what I term, the Jedi guys who were young tohunga.
There’d be James Rickard, Eva Rickard’s son, adzing out a poupou in one day. Quite a few would be doing tokotoko with pākati and haehae just all over the bloody thing. Waka huia. Just doing these great carvings that I’d only ever seen in books and magazines, or maybe in the museums.
And to see these things being created literally from a log of wood, broken down in a matter of weeks, and then completed so quickly and efficiently was, at times, overwhelming for me as a student.
Another great thing about being at Te Puia in those days was that a lot of the graduates from earlier intakes had stayed on — and there was just this wealth of knowledge that you could download if you were that way inclined.
Some of them weren’t that easy to get on with, but, when it came to sharing knowledge, they’d impart that if they could see some sort of potential in you. There were Lionel Grant, Turama George, Albert Tupou, Clive Fugill, Jim Fergus, and James Rickard. And all these guys were my idols — and, still today, they’re my idols. It was a wonderful learning opportunity, even just observing them and soaking up all that stuff.
That led to you working on a number of taonga. And when you look back at your mahi whakairo, what ones are you most proud of to this day?
I don’t think I’ve got any favourites because I haven’t seen them simply as projects. For me, it’s been more like: “This is what we do. This is our lifestyle. We live it.” So I guess the highlights for me have been the opportunities for working on the different marae. And on waka taua. Being a part of the renaissance of whakairo. This whole lifestyle has been something that we, as Māori, revere.
And, because of that, we’ve been privy to some fantastic things — and privy to being around certain amazing people. For instance, after I left the institute, I worked with Pakariki Harrison on the house at Waipapa, the marae there at Auckland University. To be involved in the carving of that was in itself quite special. And the struggle to have the house erected added to that experience.
There were people struggling for over 10 years before there was approval for the house to be built and they’d had to fight tooth and nail. So to be part of great kaupapa like that has been my highlight.
Any time we step into Waipapa, we get this feeling of excellence. It’s a wonderful, wonderful reminder of the skills of many, yourself included, and a reminder of the struggles to get it built. Nowadays, it seems at the very centre of university life in Tāmaki. How do you feel when you visit the place now?
I feel elated that it’s being used so much. Again, it gets back to lifestyle. Sadly, a lot of our marae have lain dormant. Some are rarely used. Maybe for tangi and for a few other hui. But then there are others, like Ngā Whare Waatea in Māngere, for example, that are living, breathing entities.
And it’s the highest honour that kaimahi toi can have, to be able to contribute to whare hui, to whare tūpuna, to whare kai, and to all of that marae environment. To have some piece of it, even if it’s just a small piece, whatever it is, your small contribution brings life to that environment. You can’t put a price on that.
Let’s turn across to tā moko where you’re so highly regarded, internationally. You’re one of our absolute top guns. When you work on people, they ask a lot of you because you have to search for an idea of what they’re trying to portray. You have to reach back into their tribal styles to try to find an appropriate design. But I imagine that there’ve been changes in recent years.
The renaissance of moko, to me, is still in its infancy. It’s still less than 30 years young because it started back in the early ‘90s. But, in that time, it’s rapidly gained momentum. For example, in the beginning, when people came to see us about moko, we had to do everything — work out the design, work out the layouts, talk them through what needed to be represented and how that could be applied. Just everything.
But, nowadays, the difference, especially with our people, our whānau, is that they come ready to say where they want it on the body, why they want it there, and what’s to go into that particular piece. So that allows the artists to concentrate on what they do well, which is the aesthetics of the design.
The unfortunate thing about such a rapid growth in the revival of the art form, is that it’s kind of in a state of chaos because there are so many different perspectives of moko practitioners out there. People from artistic backgrounds, others from tattooing backgrounds, and other people from tradition backgrounds, and so on.
What I’d like to see — and it’s one reason why I’ve moved from Māngere to the South Island — is the development of tribal styles. Distinctive tribal styles. If you look at the reo, for example, te mita o te reo o Te Tai Tokerau is very distinctive. Same with Te Arawa, Taranaki, Ngāti Porou, Kahungunu, Ngāi Tahu. All distinctive, definite styles of dialect.
It wasn’t so in the ‘70s, I can tell you that. But now there are certain mita which have taken a long time to rediscover and implement. That’s just the way that it’s been going. And I’d like to see moko doing the same thing as the reo, where there is a specific dialect or style, that comes from each area.
And only the artists can achieve that. It can’t come from someone who perhaps is good at whakapapa. They can help the artist develop those designs or understand those designs a bit better. But, ultimately, it’s the responsibility of the artists to go back to their tribal areas to talk to those kaumātua and kuia and whoever knows about the whakapapa of that rohe.
Go back to the whare tūpuna, if you’re lucky enough to have a carved whare tūpuna, and talk to the weavers, talk to the carvers, talk to whoever you need to talk to. But there, you’ll find the true answers to these tiny symbols that create tribal styles. And, hopefully, within another 15 to 20 years, we’ll start seeing some clear, clean design that actually speaks to you.
At the moment, people are throwing in everything. There’s even influence from the Western style of tattooing with this stupid shading and colours and candyfloss things going on. I tell you it pisses me off. Whakahoki ā ki te tikanga o te āhuatanga o te taonga nei o to tātou tūpuna. It can stand on its own without all that other flash stuff.
Kia ora, e te tuakana. When you’re working on somebody, it can be a very sensitive and spiritual occasion for the recipient — and even for the whānau who gather there. And maybe even for yourself.
That happens naturally, because it’s somewhat of a transformation, and it leads to a rebirth of someone’s spirit, with the combination of having whānau in support and of that person going through that rite of passage. So it definitely lifts the game in terms of emotions. And it works for most.
But I prefer to work in solitude. This is just my personal thing, and maybe it’s coming from my carving background where most of the carving was done separate from everything, from the local people, from our wāhine, for example. It was a tapu mahi.
I find that I work a lot better when I can separate that person and I can get into their mind space and steer them through that rite of passage. I’m not so much talking about kauae and kanohi, because it takes only 20 minutes or half an hour max of tattooing time to do a kauae. And a kanohi male, facial tattoo, will take anything from two-and-a-half to three hours max.
But a puhoro, which is a three-quarter body suit, will take about five days. So I’m very interested in developing that process and the tikanga that goes with it. And, for that, I need them to be separated from everything that makes them comfortable, because I’m going to take them into a very uncomfortable space.
And, if I’m doing that, I need to be able to steer the waka, whichever way I feel it needs to go to get that person through that rite of passage. We’re covering so much skin within any given day that we haven’t got time for waiata. We haven’t got time for all the things that would naturally occur when we’re doing the smaller pieces.
It’s not to say that it can’t be done, but, for me personally, I choose to work in solitude with the crew that I’ve trained over the last 20 years. We have our process down pat.
I understand that you’ve passed your knowledge on to your own family. To your daughter, and your sons, as well — building up an almost unbroken connection.
Yeah. My family has always played an important part in what I do, and I’ve tried to include them ever since they were babies. One couldn’t ask for more than having my daughter pick up the challenge of tā moko. As a father and as a practitioner, I couldn’t ask for more. The fact that she’s excelling in it is an awesome thing to see.
I’m teaching the family to be the very best that they can be as individuals, and as artists. And I hope that they’ll pick up from where I leave off and take it to wherever it needs to go.
There are those who don’t want us to share our taonga, especially tā moko, with non-Māori offshore. You’ve worked up in Berlin and Amsterdam, places where the skin-art culture has become more and more popular over the last few decades. Where do you stand with this issue of helping non-Māori carry Māori design?
I don’t have any problem with it. Like a butcher needs meat, a tattooist needs skin. I’ve always maintained this view. In order for us to become better at what we do, we must be free to develop these designs, because it’s not just about copying the same designs over and over again. It’s about developing how those designs fit in with the kōrero behind it.
So I take the opportunity to go overseas, not just for the income which, as artists, we need, but also in order to develop the process of moko. It’s almost like experimenting, on how I can improve the process of moko for our own people.
I’m not really worried about who else is carrying our moko. What I’m worried about is that our people need to see moko as more than something that’s aesthetic, that it’s actually a rongoā for our own people. Because we’re the only ones that really understand it.
For our non-Māori people, it’s an opportunity for them to experience a very small part of our culture. The thing about our people is that we’re so goddam passionate we get up in arms when we see Pākehā with moko on their chins and their bodies.
But, hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, the more you jump up and down about that, the more it encourages healthy debate. And I love that. Just love it. And I challenge anyone to give me a go, kanohi ki te kanohi.
So, when I go overseas, I’m a bit like a mad scientist or a little boy from Ōtara —who, I like to think, I still am — let loose in a candy store. I’m working on new designs. And I know the kaupapa for doing that — and the benefits.
We’ve touched on the tā moko as part of our renaissance, part of us rediscovering ourselves, taking pride in the ways of our tūpuna. But, when you reflect on tā moko, where do you feel it now sits in our society?
Well, I see moko as a reflection of our society. We’re now at a stage where we can celebrate who we are as Māori people. Right across the board, from education to politics, to business, to the arts and sport. Wherever. We’ve still got our own bloody dirty laundry — but who hasn’t? That’s just being human.
But it’s been a great achievement when you consider the amount of shit that Māori have had to endure since the first white fulla stepped on to this land. We’ve had to fight for everything we have. Pākehā might argue that we have the same opportunity as they do. But, anyone born Māori — or born indigenous anywhere in the world — can refute that immediately.
Māori have had to fight for everything. For their reo, land, education, kōhanga reo, kapa haka, their media, Te Matatini. All of that. We’ve had to fight for it. Including Waipapa up at Auckland University. Everything we’ve been able to achieve.
And moko is a celebration of all of that. It connects us, and it says to the rest of the world: “He Māori tātou.” I think that’s a powerful metaphor for the rest of the world. Not to blow our own trumpet. Not to big-note ourselves. But every now and then, the kumara has to talk about how sweet it is.
Ka pai, Gordon. I thank you for your kōrero, which has been wonderful. A couple of years ago, you had an accident on your beloved Harley motorbike. That prompted the move to the South Island, to Te Tau Ihu. I was a little surprised by it. You’re from Ōtara. And your House of Natives gallery is in Māngere Bridge. How’s that move been, and what have you learned from the experience?
The move, for me, has been about healing. It’s important that we maintain our energy, our force, and our focus as Māori. We need to stay on the waka is what I’m saying. But sometimes our people just go and go and go — and we burn out. I think that’s what happened with me in Auckland.
I just pretty much burned out. But I survived it and I’m still recovering. This place down here in Te Waipounamu has been a healing place for me. It’s allowed me to reconnect with whakairo and reconnect with some of the other art forms. But, more importantly, reconnect with my six-year-old Tumanako, my wife, Yvanca, and my older children — Te Rangihau, Teragi, Wairingiringi, and Maaka Te Po.
And coming down here has given me a chance to get back to basics and make sure that I’m taking care of the things that have been taking care of me all my life.
Would you like to make any final observations?
Well, in the last 30 years, Māori overall, have excelled in re-establishing our identity. But the danger is that we create a structure within Māoridom that’s similar to the structure we’ve been fighting all these years.
I would hope, once the land comes back and the claims are settled, that we initiate systems that are Māori-based and not Pākehā-based. If we look at our big Māori organisations, we see that they look like Pākehā organisations.
But let’s not forget who we are and where we’ve come from. We need to stay strong and stay true to our kaupapa. And, hopefully, in 100 years from now, our descendants will still respect the things we’ve laid for them. So, kia kaha koutou ma mo te iwi Māori.
Thank you, Gordon. I still remain tā moko-less, but if I’m ever to get one, I know who I’ll be heading to see.
I’ll be waiting, brother.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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