Standing tall together in Britomart’s Sanctuary Garden, Chris Bailey’s group of magnificent carved pou resemble nothing more strongly than a family. The differing heights, the marked physical likeness, the individual characters that nevertheless differentiate them, all speak of whānau (family) and the ties that bind us.

The symbolism of the work, entitled ‘Pou Tū Te Rangi’, is rich and many-layered, but the deliberate whānau grouping references some of its strongest themes. Waiheke-based artistChris says the work explores concepts including te kotahitanga (being as one), te piritahi (coming together), and te mahi tahi (working as one).

“As a team, as a crew, as a family, we forget differences and look for common ties; there is strength in unity,” says Chris.

The work has a particular resonance for the Britomart community, often described by locals as being more like a family than a business precinct. The pou also represent family quite literally: the names carved at the base of each post reference the whānau of Peter Cooper, Chairman of Britomart developer Cooper and Company and commissioner of the work.

“The names were a personal tribute to Peter and his family,” says Chris. “I wanted to personalise it for Peter, to recognise him as a rangatira, a leader and the head of the Cooper and Company family.”

Guiding lights

‘Pou Tū Te Rangi’ translates as ‘the standing posts that reach for the heavens’. It is also the

Māori name for Altair, the zenith star that guided early Polynesian navigators across the Pacific to Aotearoa (New Zealand).

As beacons that guided people towards land, the stars symbolise coming to a point to offload,a destination, a meeting place and a way of locating oneself and one’s people. In this work,they reference Britomart itself as a place of converging cultures and ethnicities, and the locusof much significant early Māori, colonial and maritime history.

Britomart’s relationship to the early port also has personal significance for Chris, whose grandfather was employed as one of many Māori labourers unloading freight on the wharves.

“The sea and the ports are the highways of Aotearoa New Zealand,” says Chris. “The area here is still being used as a central point for Tāmaki-Makau-rau. All the different kingdoms of the Pacific meet here in Auckland.”

Ancestral journeys

The work is made up of two distinct style of pou. The taller, simpler traditional pou take theirinspiration from the palisade wall surrounding traditional Māori pā, recalling the fortified villag eon the headland that once stood adjacent to Britomart. These pouwear the korowai cloak of great mana and are bound with modern marine cordage, a further nod to the area’s maritime history.

The shorter, more detailed pou wheku (masked pou) tell of the journey of early Māori who navigated their way to Aotearoa. Side-on, their lips portray the god wit in flight, used by the Te Aupōuri people of the north as a symbol of strength in unity.

The pou wheku are lashed with more complex traditional bindings, used by Māori and influenced by their Pacific heritage. Other intricate carved motifs and notches represent family, flax weaving, the ancestral journeys and landings and the frangipani of Samoa and the Cook Islands.

Black for strength

The black staining of the timber posts is also a direct reference to the tradition of Te Aupōuri, the far-north iwi (tribe) to which both Chris Bailey and Peter Cooper trace ancestral ties.

“The tribe used a cloud of black smoke to mask its escape and to ensure its survival when itwas under attack,” says Chris. “Today black is New Zealand’s national colour and is seen as a symbol of New Zealand’s strength and uniqueness.”

The work was commissioned especially for the courtyard site, and deliberately echoes the lines of the two black Showcase structures that flank it.

“It relates well to the buildings because of its very linear form,” says Chris. “I made the whakairo, the carvings, as linear as possible because the buildings are so vertical. And the colour of the pou worked really well with the colour of the buildings – it’s awesome how that worked out.”

The work continues themes explored in an earlier group of three pou, which references the constellation Tautoru (‘Three Men’), or Orion’s Belt. Privately purchased by Peter Cooper in 2009, this group is now located close to Gore Street, adjacent to the Britomart Valet drop-off point.

New inner city culture

Alongside his Te Aupōuri ancestry, Chris is of Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Porou and Irish descent. He is known for his large stone and timber sculptural pieces, characterised by bold, simple forms and strong Māori influences with a contemporary feel.

Chris has been a practising artist for more than 25 years, with work appearing in numerous local exhibitions, including Sculpture on the Gulf. Overseas showings include exhibitions in San Francisco, Tokyo, Vancouver and Venice (53rd Biennale). His work carries the Toi Iho mark, which signifies excellence and authenticity in Māori art.

As a regular Waiheke ferry user, and with family in West Auckland whom he visits by train, Chris is a frequent visitor to the Britomart area. Along with the precinct’s food places, his favourite haunt is Brazilian jiu-jitsu club Tu Kaha at Brazilian Training Academy. A co-founder of the Tu Kaha dojo, Chris continues to train there competitively, in recent years winning gold and silver medals at the Pan-Pacific BJJ Championships.

Since immersing himself in the vision for Britomart, Chris has been inspired by the area’s journey of evolution.

“The ‘family’ down here is the businesses, turned in to each other and starting a new voyage, a new experience together,” says Chris. “It’s not just retail, it’s a new inner city culture.”