The Maori are a group of people who inhabit New Zealand and have heritage in the Pacific and Polynesian regions. The culture was an extremely rich one which has survived appropriation and colonization from Great Britain and other cultures. One of the ways that the Maori people were able to sustain its ancient culture was through the creation of works of arts. Of particular importance to the continuation of the culture was the unbelievable ability of the Maori culture to create artistic carvings. So important was the ability to carve in the culture that generations would literally carry the artistic talent with them on their faces, carving images and icons into their skin as representations of their heritage.
There are two concepts which were important topics to the Maori people. These are called the tapu and the noa. Tapu was a religious idea which encompassed everything that would be considered holy to the Maori people. In Maori culture, anything that is tapu is held to a standard beyond (Maori). This also related to the class system of the Maori. Items which belonged to a high class of the society would not be touched by members of the lower class and vice versa. Anything or anyone who would breach the laws of tapu would be facing the wrath of the Gods. Noa is the direct opposite of tapu. These are laws which related to the common man and common place things. Art was strictly under the parameters of the tapu laws.
It is said that the original carvings of the Maori were sacred. Being a skilled carver was akin to a religious position for the trees and plant-life was sacred as well. If a person was an adept carver, then it was supposed that the gods themselves gave them the ability to transform the sacred material into something equally holy (Gathercole 171). The gods were supposed to be communicating through the artistry of the carvers. Because the wood and the skill were of such importance, women and other more lowly members of the community were banned from touching the shavings left over from the carvings. Historians have noted that many different types of images were carved by Maori sculptors. Among one of the favorite topics for Maori artisans was the human figure. Remarkably it was found that sculptors made it clear which gender was depicted in the carving but would limit the size of the female’s upper anatomy so that the only way of determining male from female was the lower genitalia of the figure (Hamilton 7).
The other common natural figures which appear frequently in Maori art are depictions of reptiles such as lizards or birds (Archey 171). These types of animals are common in New Zealand and also would have had some symbolism in the culture of that population. Fish and whales also are depicted in Maori artworks. All of these animals fulfilled some sort of need to the Maori culture, either in the form of food, clothing materials or in some form of religious symbolism.
The Maori, besides carvers of wood, were also carvers of their own flesh. Author Peter Gathercole quoted James Cowan by stating that the Maori were “pre-eminently the face-carver of mankind” (171). Unlike many cultures which employed tattoo as part of their heritage or as a marking of progression, the Maori would and carve imagery and icons into the skin of the people. This made the markings all the more permanent but it also made them religious markings, on par with the holiness applied to the carving of wood.
Mako, the name for the carvings of the human skin performed by the Maori, have many potential meanings. Some historians have argued that each carving has a unique meaning, but there is yet to be published any definitive evidence of what each type of individual carving may or may not have meant to the Maori culture. As such, there has not been any way to yet find what a large set of carvings may mean. One particularly interesting argument suggests that the Mako was a way of separating the Maori men and women from the realm of life and death. As it had a holy significance, the carvings could have been either a source of protection from death or a means of being unified with the dead (Gathercole 177). Since each of the various Maori tribes had a different set of symbols, it would be quite difficult to translate since a similar icon could mean a very many different things depending upon who it was that was asked of from what tribe that person belonged.
As the art world has expanded, museums and art collectors have become interested in amassing collections of art which include historic artifacts. There are examples of Maori carvings in locations where the original creators of the pieces could never have envisioned. Rather than religiously import artifacts, sculptures of the Maori culture are placed upon shelves and pedestals, given the same importance as a painting from the Renaissance or an installment from the modern art movement, but they are given no more. The religious and cultural import of the piece has been completely erased and instead it is only appreciated in terms of the aesthetic.
In the article “The Maori Carver” by R.W. Firth, he describes the way that the artifacts from the Maori culture are looked upon as pieces of art rather than as artifacts of an ancient culture. This, the author argues, is completely inappropriate because this removes the Maori items from their historical context and thus deprives them of meaning besides the aesthetic. Firth writes:
In order to appreciate the full value of the art it is necessary to study it not only in , where it is as a thing dead and set apart, but also as far as possible in its original and natural setting in the villages and homes of the people, where it is full of life and character (1).
This is an important perspective because it highlights the difficulty between appreciating an artifact for its beauty and understanding a work in light of its cultural, historical, and sociological context.
The Maori culture is exemplified by the art that was created, just as art of any culture fulfills the role as historian and works as testimony to their culture. For the Maori, the process called Mako which is the carving of the skin of people of the Maori culture, was a symbol of their culture and served as a representation of what was important to them. That ancient culture could never have guessed that modern peoples would take items that were of sacred and holy importance to them and to display them for the entire world to see. Based upon the way they treated even the scraps from their wood carvings, it is highly unlikely that they would have appreciated their icons being treated as art installations.
Archey, Gilbert. “Evolution of Certain Maori Carving Patterns.” The Journal of the Polynesian
Society. 42:3(167). Print.
Firth, R.W. “The Maori Carver.” The Journal of the Polynesian Society. 34:4. 136. 1925. Print.
Gathercole, Peter. “Context of Maroi Moko.” 171-177. Print.
Hamilton, Augustus. The Art Workmanship of the Maori Race in New Zealand: a Series of Illustrations from , with Descriptive Notes and Essays on the Canoes, Habitations, Weapons, Ornaments, and Dress of the Maoris, Together with Lists of Words in the Maori Language Used in Relation to the Subjects. –. Dunedin, N.Z.: Printed and Published for the Board of Governors [of the New Zealand Institute] by Fergusson & Mitchell, 1896. Print.
“Maori Culture.” 2001. Web. Dec. 2011. http://www.uniquelynz.com/maori_culture.htm