2. Paratene Matchitt: City to Sea Bridge sculpture

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para4a   6  para5

City to Sea Bridge 1993 Connecting Wellington Civic Square to the waterfront (with John Gray and Rewi Thompson, architects)

I came across this wooden sculpture on our class visit to Wellington earlier in the year, and was so taken by it I made a sketch. I did not at that point know that it was by Matchitt – nor was I aware of the structure of the wings on the other side of the sculpture, nor of the pou that accompany it, with their Ringatu symbols. Nor was I aware that the arch I had walked through in fact represents two whales, nor that the seats are actually fish forms. Clearly I shall have to visit it again and pay more attention. The watercolour Icons – City to Sea Bridge by Ted Sherwen shows many of the details, though not necessarily in perspective.

What I liked was the chunky, rough-hewn weathered nature of the bird forms (which look, appropriately, like seagulls), fitting in so well with the whole bridge – which in retrospect is not surprising since the bridge itself is the sculpture. The timber apparently was new when it was built but has weathered since then to a lovely greyish tone.


Through sketching it, I became aware of the layers of timber which make up the form – the eye/beak piece slots in between two outer layers of the head. The bolts become a feature – part of the “show how it’s made”, industrial characteristic – reinforced by the “feathered” edges of the lower part, which suggest cogs. The wings, much more evident from the other side, are diagonal planks which look as though they are folded back on themselves, as though flapping. With regard to the whales, only the back half is visible, as though they are diving beneath the sea, their tails characteristically at an angle. The whole bridge has obvious nautical references; it is designed to welcome people to the “city of the sea”, and literally links the city with the harbour. The design also refers to the story of Maui, fishing the North Island from the sea; according to Harper and Lister (2007, p.48), the city is the body of the fish, and the bridge the tail.

The pou could also be seen to be a reference to the navigational aids for the original discoverers of the island, although they are in fact taken from Te Kooti’s battle flag during the resistance of the 1860s. (It was originally made by Catholic nuns and seized by Te Kooti in 1868.) The symbols include a crescent moon, a six-pointed morning star, the triangle, a cross and a bleeding heart pierced by an arrow. Te Kooti encouraged his followers to embrace what the modern world of the colonisers had to offer.  “His innovation, adaptability and embrace of the modern have become a legacy continued by contemporary Māori artists such as Matchitt… The artist’s intention was that they [the pou] should represent all who have come to our shores – a bold and generous multicultural embrace.” (Harper and Lister p. 49)

Harper and Lister set the bridge very much within the context of an expression of the place of the tangata whenua of the area – along with other public sculptures such as the Kupe Group. “Beneath Wellington lie ngā tapuwae tūpuna (the imprints of the ancestors) and their ngā paki ngaro (unheard stories) which speak to the lives of people who have lived here before… In the past pou whenua (carved posts) were used by Māori to mark boundaries and to denote custody of the land. Public sculptures have become a new kind of marker on our landscape… These pou resonate with the past and the present of Wellington.” [p.43] They go to say: “Sculptures by Māori artists simultaneously inhabit, reshape and cause us to rethink the cityscape in which we live. Works by Māori artists in Wellington not only mark the presence of the tangata whenua throughout Wellington’s history, but also act as a vital part of its present. The sculptures; physical presence and the ideas they express create new visions of possibility for Wellington.” (p.49)

So… a visionary structure…

Priscilla Pitts discusses further Matchitt’s use of Te Kooti’s symbols (interpreted by him as part of the Ringatu faith which he founded), which have “become a crucial part of Matchitt’s formal and symbolic vocabulary” (p. 99). – although apparently not necessarily with the specific meaning attached to them by Te Kooti. Rather, he has adopted Te Kooti’s willingness to appropriate pakeha culture, in recognition of the situation they found themselves in; Matchitt’s influences are both Western and Māori, in terms of both tools and materials, and motifs and styles. He does not incorporate traditional Māori carving into his work, but is obviously informed by it, producing his own distinctive style.

There is a video of Matchitt discussing this on the Te Ara (Encyclopedia of New Zealand) website: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/interactive/45363/para-matchitt-2011 . The video coincided with a retrospective of his work at Te Papa in 2011.

An example of the mingling of Māori (including Ringtu) and European images (including through the use of recycled machine parts) can be found at the Aotea Centre in Auckland, opened in 1990 with a huge wood and metal relief sculpture on the outside wall by Matchitt, incorporating both Māori and European symbolism.

para9  Untitled 1990 (detail)

“A massive metal and wood sculpture, although untitled, could be summed up by the Maori word manaaki which means hospitality. Matchitt’s interpretation of the work is that the powerful pieces of timber at the bottom of the mural represent the people of today, while the stainless steel forms at the top are their ancestors, both Maori and Pakeha. The large central diamond shape symbolises hospitality. It links the past and present and contains the hearts, moons, stars and crosses which have become Matchitt’s signature. Paratene Matchitt: ‘The idea of hospitality came very early. The whole building needs to be hospitable to the people who are coming into it, and my mural supports that idea. It is also meant to scramble people’s minds about all that sort of thing.’ Matchitt also sees the sculpture as representing the development of Aotearoa. He has included historical references such as the early planting of kumara, as well as both individual and collective stories about particular ancestors.” [http://www.aucklandlive.co.nz/metalwood.aspx]

In 2008 the Aotea Centre was closed for refurbishment; when it re-opened in 2010, only the lower half of the sculpture remained, having been relocated inside to the foyer and cafe area.


Harper, J. and Lister, A. (2007). Wellington: A city for sculpture. Wellington, New Zealand: Victoria University Press.

Pitts, P. (1998) Contemporary New Zealand Sculpture: themes and issues. Auckland, NewZealand: David Batemena

Images retrieved from:

1  http://www.panoramio.com/user/521138/tags/The%20City%20to%20Sea%20Bridge%20%20Wellington

2  http://www.panoramio.com/photo/38307366

3  http://www.wilwatch.com/2014/09/city-to-sea-bridge.html

4  http://www.conventionsnz.co.nz/modules/documents/pages/docdescription.aspx?keyid1=144&nd=0

5  https://karenlethlean2014.wordpress.com/category/brdges/

6   http://www.newzealand.com/in/plan/business/flagstaff-gallery/

7 http://www.aucklandlive.co.nz/metalwood.aspx




One thought on “2. Paratene Matchitt: City to Sea Bridge sculpture

  1. Pingback: In the autumn sunshine | a twisted pair

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