An Architecture of Deception, Trickery and Subterfuge

The development of the modern Maori meeting house owes a lot to Te Kooti.  He took traditional Maori building forms and uses and applied them to his spiritual and political purposes.  Scale increased to allow large gatherings and discussions to take place, whether these were Ringatu services or rousing calls to resist land acquisition by the Government.  Te Kooti was trained in whakairo rakau and contined its uses in Maori building, but also innovated in two key ways – carvings would be decorated with paint colours introduced by settlers, and figurative painting appeared on panels as a speedy solution to completing meeting houses.

Such developments have been well explored and documented by authors such as Mike Linzey, Deidre Brown, Judith Binney and Roger Neich.  Less well explored is how Te Kooti expressed tactics of deception, trickery and cunning through architecture.  Such tactics were a strong theme throughout his lifetime.  A narrative of escape and evasion served to reinforce Te Kooti’s charismatic spiritual leadership, beginning with his escape from wrongful imprisonment at Wharekauri.  His ability to avoid capture during later battles, disappearing miraculously despite his pursuers’ every effort, was highlighted by historians at the time.  The narrative became so strong that even ‘the smallest event of war had the potential to become a part of the expanding legends of miraculous escapes.’  [Binney, Redemption Songs]  But the tactics went beyond battle – Te Kooti’s use of parables and appropriated, reinterpreted, religious symbols allowed him to conceal important messages from outsiders whilst still enabling effective communication to his followers.

These tactics found architectural expression at Tokanganui-a-noho – not through the symbols and images painted throughout the house, but through performance.  In a lengthy note below a photo of the interior of Tokanganui-a-noho, Judith Binney notes how Te Kooti had constructed the house with a secret door in the rear wall.  Te Kooti would leave the house via the front porch watched by a crowd inside, and would then miraculously reappear “in the smoky atmosphere from nowhere, at the rear of the house, with a prayer-book in his hands.” [Binney, Redemption Songs]

Deception here goes beyond the immediate act.  The established understanding of a meeting house or similar Maori building at the time was a single entry and exit at the front of the building.  Inserting a door at the rear of the building therefore played with preconceptions of what a Maori building should be and how it should perform.  Such preconceptions are difficult to shift, especially when those witnessing the performance were so heavily imbued in the narratives of escape, evasion and concealment that cloaked Te Kooti.  The real trickery and cunning was understanding that his audience was captured by this thinking, and then using architecture in a way that reinforced such narratives to the point where they became the ‘obvious’ answer to what was happening in front of their eyes.  Built form facilitated an architecture of deception, trickery and subterfuge.

[Binney, Redemption Songs]

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