Tā Moko is the traditional Māori art of marking the skin. It is very different from a tattoo and is considered a great cultural privilege.
The National Gallery's Curator, Pacific Arts, Crispin Howarth, says, "A tattoo in our culture is something you go to a shop for and acquire with money.
"Moko is something you receive when your family, community, everyone think that you're ready to receive."
Howarth curated Māori Markings: Tā Moko. The exhibition, which opened at the gallery on Saturday, features paintings, drawings, prints, photographs, sculptures and other works depicting moko from the 18th century until modern times.
Tā moko was outlawed in 1907 by the New Zealand government’s Tohunga Suppression Act that repressed the spiritual and educational role of Māori experts (tohunga) and Māori cultural practices.
But, Howarth said, the law faded into disuse and the 1990s saw a resurgence in Tā moko.
On Friday, the exhibition's launch was marked with a series of cross-cultural ceremonies. An Indigenous smoking ceremony and welcome to country was followed by Māori incantations and song.
The New Zealand High Commissioner to Australia, Dame Annette King called for a minute's silence in memory of the victims of the Christchurch silence and the Christchurch Response, a declaration of compassion, kindness and inclusion, was read aloud by all.
Derek Lardelli, one of the New Zealand delegation, has been one of many Tā Moko artists for more than 50 years. He began when he was 14 and is still working.
"I do more than 100 each year," he said.
Traditionally made with a sharp chisel known as uhi - though now often done with tattoo equipment - tā moko marks a person with unique patterns on any part of the body. It's a combination of traditional designs and artistic expression.
Lardelli said he would talk to a recipient about such matters as their geneology, occupation and family before setting to work on a design that reflected the person's background and wishes.
"You want to know the thing they really want to respect."
Lardelli said after delivering an incantation to put them both at ease, he began marking the body.
Once people are chosen for tā moko they can get as many designs as they want, sometimes covering most of their bodies over time.
But while facial moko are probably the most familiar kind, Lardelli said these were restricted: only certain highly respected people were entitled to these.
Lardelli received a moko when he was 15 - a year after he began the art. He wanted to honour his family with it.
Where is Lardelli's moko?
Māori Markings: Tā Moko is on at the National Gallery of Australia from March 23 to August 25. Admission is free. nga.gov.au.
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