While visiting the garden at Hotwater Beach, Michael Shepherd discussed a common fascination with Māori anthropology with our client. Both share an interest in the subject of aberrant form within Māori visual culture. One notable example of such an unusual form is the set of 'god sticks' that are held within the collection of the Auckland War Memorial Museum. Michael adapted the form of the original specimens to create a group of larger units (mostly formed from Eucalyptus timber), which stand like sentinels before the view out to sea.
These units are inspired by the Museum specimens, but are not copies. The heads of our sculptures exhibit greater variation than the originals, which are simple, rounded and almost identical to each other.
The set of 6 staffs that the sculptures were based on are described as toko wānanga. This literally translates to 'learning staffs'; a reference to their functional role. They were placed into the ground outside whare wānanga (houses of learning), to indicate what was being taught at that time. Their shafts all bear subtle differences, which (according to the early NZ ethnographer, John White) represent differing characteristics of various deities. An example that White gave was the zig-zag form of one shaft, which represented the waves of Tangaroa, god of the sea.
It is important to point out that there are two main categories of artefact which have been categorised as 'god sticks'; toko wānanga and whakapakoko rākau. The former are the 'learning staffs' that constituted the inspiration for the sculptures that Michael Shepherd designed, and which were (according to White) "symbols of the presiding gods in the various schools of learning". The latter, whakapakoko rākau, performed a more tangible role within spiritual activities, acting as a 'conduit' or temporary shrine for the gods.