Remembering Piri John Ngarangikaunuhia Sciascia ONNZ (1946–2020)

Remembering Piri John Ngarangikaunuhia Sciascia ONNZ (1946–2020)

He toi whakairo kua hinga, he mana tangata ka takoto ki Pōrangahau ki reira tangihia rā e te mano, e te tini. Moe mai rā e te rangatira. Okioki pai ki roto i ngā ringaringa o te Kaihanga. Hoki atu ki te taha o ōu mātua tūpuna e tatari ana mōu. E moe, e moe, takoto mai rā.

Today many people in Wellington are gathering for a public memorial service for Piri Sciascia, who passed away 18 Jan 2020. In this blog, we commemorate Piri and his enduring support for Te Papa, Māori art, and taonga.

We send our aroha to all Piri’s whānau and friends at this very sad time.

Piri speaking to an audience
Piri speaking at the 30 years celebration of the Te Maori exhibition, 2014. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa (31402)

About Piri

– Hayley Hakaraia, Acting Head of Iwi Relationships

Born in 1946, Piri (who was of Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāi Tahu and Italian descent) grew up in Pōrangahau in southern Hawke’s Bay. He grew up to be an artist, composer and performer, founded Tamatea Arikinui, Ngāti Kahungunu’s oldest kapa haka group, in the late 1970s.

He was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his service to Māori arts in 2013, and received a Ngā Tohu ā Tā Kingi Ihaka life-time contribution recognition in the 2016 Te Waka Toi awards.

Piri joined Victoria University of Wellington in 2000 and held a series of senior roles there, as Assistant Vice-Chancellor Māori, Pro Vice-Chancellor Māori, and lastly Deputy Vice-Chancellor Māori.

Te Papa was fortunate in having such a leader and knowledge-holder close at hand in these roles. Since leaving the university in 2016 Piri had been the kaumātua and advisor to the Governor-General, advising on tikanga and hosting visiting dignitaries.

Piri was a driving force behind the Te Māori exhibition that travelled to New York in 1984 and heralded a new relationship between Māori and museums, and continued to serve as chair of the Te Māori Manaaki Taonga Trust.

Piri stands with a woman wearing a feathered cloak, and two other men
From left to right: Piri Sciascia, former chair of Toi Māori Waana Davis, Dr Arapata Hakiwai, and Garry Nicholas, CEO of Toi Māori, 2014. Photo by Jean-Claude Stahl. Te Papa

An authority of whakapapa and tikanga Māori

Piri is regarded by his whānau and hapū as an authority of whakapapa and tikanga Māori. Piri was also instrumental in making a significant connection between the Sciascia family in New Zealand and the Sciascia family in Italy.

Within Te Papa, Piri contributed his immense wisdom, guidance, leadership, and support for a number of significant projects and taonga in Te Papa’s history.

These kaupapa include being a member of the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Advisory Panel, and a member of the steering group for the Qui Tutto Bene: The Italians in New Zealand exhibition.

Piri was the iwi spokesperson and provided guidance, knowledge, and support for the inclusion of the female sperm whale Hinewainui in the Whales | Tohorā exhibition and tour, with Piri naming this taonga.

He was also the iwi spokesperson and decision maker for the inclusion of the Kahu kiwi Pīata (which he also named) in the Kahu Ora exhibition and Whatu Kākahu publication.

When Ngāi Tahu was in residence at Te Papa, Piri was deputy chair of the Iwi Steering Group formed to oversee the development of their exhibition, Ngāi Tahu: Mō Tātou (2006–2009).

After its time at Te Papa, the exhibition toured Te Waipounamu (the South Island) as Mō Tātou: Te Hokinga Mai. The exhibition was hosted by Canterbury Museum, Southland Museum and Otago Museum, and Piri later commented that like Te Māori, Mō Tātou “changed the place of local Māori and museums in Invercargill, Dunedin and Christchurch by just being there”.

Piri provided thoughtful guidance and knowledge with regard to tikanga at Te Papa.

He provided leadership of the:

  • opening and closing ceremonies for the Mō Tātou exhibition
  • the opening, closing and poroporoaki for the Kura Pounamu exhibition at Te Papa
  • the opening of Kura Pounamu in China
  • the closing and poroporoaki of the E Tū Ake exhibition
  • and the opening karakia and ceremony for A Day in Pompeii.

Most recently Piri provided an insightful kōrero to mark the launch of Senior Curator Mātauranga Māori Dougal Austin’s new book Te Hei Tiki.

He congratulated the years of hard work, scholarship, and care that the publication represents, acknowledged the deep ties between Ngāi Tahu and Te Papa, and humorously urged us to always be aiming to be better.

With all of the kaupapa mentioned above and on many other instances when Piri engaged with kōrero, taonga, exhibitions, and kaimahi at Te Papa, he did so generously and in a considered, thoughtful, innovative, insightful and passionate way that was inspiring to those of the Te Papa whānau lucky enough to learn from him.

Piri addresses an audience, he wears a cloak
Piri at the Mō Tātou: The Ngāi Tahu Whānui exhibition opening, 2006. Photo by Te Papa (70270)

Dougal’s tribute

– Acting Kaihāpai Mātauranga Māori | Head of Mātauranga Māori

Piri played a pivotal role on behalf of Ngāi Tahu iwi as an advisor helping to guide and shape the development of the Kura Pounamu exhibition in the lead up to its 2009 opening at Te Papa.

As the lead curator on the project, I acknowledge his significant contribution and the mana his involvement bought to the kaupapa.

Subsequently, Kura Pounamu has toured both internationally and domestically touching the hearts and minds of countless people.

By all measures Piri had a strong affinity for pounamu and he kindly loaned Te Papa three of his personal mere and a touchstone for the exhibition.

All are contemporary examples of the continuing use of this exalted cultural material and of the enduring potency and mana of customary forms such as the mere pounamu.

In this short Tales from Te Papa film Piri talks with passion and enthusiasm about his mere, explaining in the process his whakapapa connections to Murihiku, the far south, and touching also on the cultural uses to which they are put.

Arapata’s tribute

– Kaihautū | Co-Leader of Te Papa

E Piri. E kore e taea te kōrero mohau. Kei te ngau tonu te mamae me te aue kai roto.

Piri the words you created for that great Te Māori exhibition ‘He Toi Whakairo, He Mana Tangata’ were echoed and recalled amidst the maunga and valleys at your Rongomaraeroa marae in Porangahau.

Thank you Piri for your deep love and passion for Te Ao Māori. You supported Te Papa for over 30 years bringing wisdom, mātauranga, and creativity to our place.

You helped return our tipuna from overseas museums, guided us in tikanga in events and exhibitions of our taonga like Kura Pounamu, Whales Tohorā, and Mō Tātou.

Taonga were always an important part of your life and our sacred and precious pounamu was always with you guiding and watching over you.

Words can’t express our pain and grief in your passing but we know that you are now with our tipuna and letting them know what’s happening in te ao hurihuri.

Moe mārire mai e te Papa o te tini me te mano.

Piri laughing
Piri at the Kahu Ora exhibition opening, 2012. Photo by Michael Hall. Te Papa (34724)

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