If 20 years ago, the term tā moko would see most people reach for an anthropological dictionary, today most are aware that it is a popular Māori art form used in the marking of the face and other parts of the body.
This unusual and pioneering exhibition at the National Gallery of Australia, curated by Crispin Howarth, explores and documents the tā moko over the past 250 years. Much of the material is drawn from the National Library of Australia and the collection of New Zealand-born Rex Nan Kivell, which the library acquired through gift and donation in 1959.
Tā moko is a form of tattooing practised in the Western and Eastern Pacific, where instead of the use of a needle that leaves a smooth surface on the skin, an uhi (chisel) made from albatross bone and inserted into a handle is employed. This is struck with a small mallet, known as a tā, to pierce the skin. The uhi is dipped in the awheto (vegetable caterpillar fungus) for the body colour and ngarehu (charcoal mixed with oil) for the blacker colour. In contrast to the more usual tattoo, tā moko is a form of scarification with deep grooved furrows dyed with dark pigments.
In the relative isolation of Aotearoa New Zealand, the tā moko developed its unique pictorial language and paraphernalia such as the korere (feeding funnels) through which food could be administered to swollen lips of those receiving the tā moko and oko vessels in which the pigments were stored.
Moko in Māori society designated status, identity and ancestry. Some of the designs, such as the spiral elements on the nose, cheek and lower jaw, and the curvilinear rays on the forehead and radiating from the nose to the mouth are widespread and universal; others may be peculiar to the individual. There was a way of reading the Mataora – the living face – like a diary of identity.
Tā moko had legendary origins; a chief called Mataora had brought it from the underworld. The applying of the moko was a highly ritualised and sacred activity and was carried out by very skilled and valued experts. The moko itself was linked to a person’s status, prestige and authority. With European settlement and the activities of missionaries, the practice was discouraged until made illegal in 1907 and heads with the moko were sold as souvenirs and collectors’ items that ended up in overseas museums. Some Māori with moko were murdered and their heads sold as souvenirs. In more recent times there has been a process of repatriating these heads from museums back to their homeland.
Māori men generally ceased wearing the moko by the 1920s, but women continued to receive tā moko on their chin and lips as a sign of beauty into the mid 20th century. It was in the 1980s with the strong movement to revive the Māori identity that the tā moko was revived, originally employing the needle of the tattoo and more recently through the recovered ancient techniques. Now tā moko is accepted in mainstream New Zealand society and is increasingly explored for its cultural, historic and aesthetic purposes.
This exhibition is as much about Māori identity as it is about Māori body art. Captain James Cook in 1769 famously described the tā moko: “The marks in general are spirals drawn with great nicety and even elegance. One side corresponds with the other. The marks on the body resemble foliage in old chased ornaments, convolutions of filigree work, but in these they have such a luxury of forms that of a hundred which at first appeared exactly the same no two were formed alike on close examination”. Many of the exhibits are colonial drawn and painted specimens that record the exotic nature of these markings. Subsequently, many of these records are being freshly re-examined as sources employed in the contemporary revival of the tā moko.
The oil painting by Gottfried Lindauer, Tomika Te Mutu, chief of the Ngāi Te Rangi tribe, Bay of Plenty, 1880, from the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, is a superb demarcation of the tā moko. This Czech artist, who painted so many of the Māori chiefs, never went much beyond achieving a botanical accuracy in his physiognomic transcriptions, but he does illustrate the complexity and sophistication of the tā moko.
The watercolour drawing by Joseph Jenner Merrett, Māori girl in cloak, 1845, also from the Rex Nan Kivell Collection, likewise is a lovely ethnographic study with the tā moko beautifully displayed. The exhibition is rich in paintings, drawings, carvings, photographs and artefacts that in different forms convey these sacred designs.
One of the more memorable pieces is Serena Giovanna Stevenson’s digital photograph Turumakina Duley and niece Ashley Duley taken in 2004. Stevenson, an Auckland-based photographer, spent eight years travelling and recording the tā moko, not as curiosities or the signs of fierce warriors or insignia on members of gangs, but as marks of cultural identity. Unlike the colonial images, this is an intimate record of Turumakina Duley, the hand of his niece on his arm providing a humanising element to the composition. The tā moko is part of life, strong and affirming identity, and culture.
Māori Markings: Tā Moko is an important and quiet exhibition that in a scholarly manner explores an important aspect of the cultural heritage of our nearest neighbour.
Māori Markings: Tā Moko, National Gallery of Australia, Orde Poynton Gallery, level 2. Daily 10am-5pm, closes August 25.