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Change is the Key to Survival

One of the leading creatives of his generation, Sir Derek Lardelli has some powerful advice for the next generation to keep Māori art thriving.


His name is synonymous with toi Māori. A reputation carved - just like his expert whakairo - with precision and toil over half a century of indigenous creativity.  

It’s an imposing, multi-disciplinary body of work that can be found on walls and on maunga, in marae and in museums and performed from school halls through to the international stage with the All Blacks ‘Kapa o Pango’ haka.

But for all his accolades, Sir Derek Lardelli hasn’t forgotten where he comes from. His success is connected to his whānau, hapū and iwi - his community.

“You have a legacy and a whakapapa, a bloodline that runs deep into your art. You can’t disassociate that and just be an artist. The art has to be a reflection of that - refuelling that bloodline is your obligation as an artist.” 

Which is why you’ll find Lardelli’s sleeves rolled up at Gisborne’s Toihoukura - as Ahorangi of the Māori visual arts school. But this passionate arts educator isn’t your typical professor. 

“My role here has matured into one where I've become a springboard for students and staff to flesh out ideas of creativity, to help them to look at something from a different angle. It’s like being another lens for them.”

Change is not to be feared

Toihukura student Taina Henderson. Photo: Supplied.

For anyone wanting to develop their Māori artistry - the chance to learn from Lardelli is the equivalent of a budding film director getting feedback from Sir Peter Jackson.

One of the first lessons - there are no barriers in Lardelli’s eyes. He points out while their culture may be steeped in heritage, Māori artists can - and must - embrace technology.

“I believe our tradition is to be creative. Whether it’s stone or steel or a computer, those are just tools. The thing that means more to me is the tangata, the person.

“If I was to put a post in the ground, for me the strongest post is the one that knows how to bend and carry. It’s not the one that’s rigid because that’s going to snap at the base. It’s the bending and flexing of our culture that allows us to survive. 

“Systems lock us up and say we’re embedded in this and deeply entrenched over here. 

“No, we’re not. We're fluid as - we’re like the water, that’s how we got here. The dawn of change is here; I’m not afraid of change, I love change. Tradition can be a word that locks you up, puts you in a place where you aren’t flexible enough. If your tradition can’t change, then you're not going to survive. 

“Change is the key to survival. You’ve got to break a tikanga so that you can get that tikanga to live tomorrow. During lockdown, how many tikanga were broken so we could survive?”

Home for kindred spirits

Sir Derek Lardelli (right) with former Toihokura student, now tutor Erena Koopu. Photo: Supplied.

Lardelli is proud that Toihoukura is an arts school that doesn’t just live inside the community, it's part of its fabric.

“If you choose to exercise your indigenous pride by creating Māori art as your life’s journey,” Lardelli proclaims, “then you’re the most courageous person on earth. 

“We’d welcome you with open arms and we’ll test you every step of the road to make sure you deliver. That’s what we offer. Come into our world because all the people in this little place called Toihoukura, they’re like you. When you hit the hard roads and the deep pockets, they’ll be there for you because they know about it.”

 Toihoukura tutor Ngaire Tuhua performing tā moko on Te-Amorutu Broughton. Photo: Supplied.

Written in partnership with Toihoukura. To find out about the range of courses from certificates to degrees and postgraduate studies, click here.

Written by

The Big Idea Editor

30 Nov 2020

The Big Idea Editor

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