What images come to mind when you hear New Zealand? For many, Aotearoa, the Maori name for the South Pacific Land of the Long White Cloud, is a country of pristine natural beauty, an adrenaline junky’s paradise, a lamb lover’s heaven and thanks to the All Blacks, a rugby fan’s source of pride. While these are indeed the images that are exported, there is another side to the two-island nation. The Māori, or indigenous people of New Zealand, have achieved international recognition with the haka. Māori & Pākehā (white New Zealanders) alike can be seen performing the haka on rugby fields, at airports and even at weddings. However, there are more traditional art forms that remain distinctively a Māori tradition. One of those is the tā moko (permanent body & face markings). While tribal tattoo designs have increasingly gained popularity, the tā moko is much more than a cool way to get some ink on your body.
In fact, the term kirituhi (drawn skin) was created to refer to Māori designs used by non-Māori. Historically, the tā moko was a sign of someone’s social status, thus not having one would signify a lower social status. The placement of the moko was also significant. Māori culture has traditionally been very gendered. Everyone had their role and followed suit accordingly. Thus, the men have moko on their mata (face), raperape (buttocks) & pūhoro (thighs). Women’s moko is typically on their kauae (lips and chin). Moko can also be found on other parts of the body, depending on their rationale, such as making oneself appear more attractive to the opposite sex.
Modern day tā moko has gone through different stages. In the 1970s and 80s it was associated with Māori gangs and seen very negatively. By the 1990s, just a few years after Te Reo Māori became Aotearoa’s second official language, tā moko once again became a sign of cultural pride. Tā moko artist Paitangi Ostick, shares what it means to carry on this tradition, “to wear moko kauae is not only an honor but very humbling. I wear the cultural identity of the Māori people so I have become an ambassador wherever I am in the world.” Tā moko are more than just designs. They, like hieroglyphics, tell a story. Similar to many indigenous communities around the world, Te Reo Māori,
THE INTERSECTION OF ART & CULTURE
By Cosmo Latina was an oral language until the 20th Century. The traditional arts of wood carving, basket weaving and knots were what helped the various iwi (tribe) understand each other. One’s moko, then, is also a way of communicating with others. It allows someone to know one’s place within one’s iwi. For someone like Chief Kingi Taurua, his moko demonstrates his role as an orator. For others like Academic Te Kahautu Maxwell, it is a symbol of his eternal tears for the loss of his daughter who passed away suddenly. There are many influences that go into a moko. It is not something to be undertaken lightly. There is a ritual of consent, whakapapa (genealogy) and history.
The whakapapa is an important component of Maori culture. It allows individuals to know and present themselves. A people connected to nature, Maori have a wider concept of belonging. Thus, there are layers to where one is from. In reciting one’s pepeha (introduction), it is imperative that one know in the following order one’s maunga (mountain), awa (river), waka (canoe)*, toku tipuna (founding ancestor) *, iwi, hapu (sub-tribe), marae (meeting grounds)*, where one is from, one’s parents and one’s own name. Rotorua native, Rawiri Bhana explains how he had his moko “done on [his marae [with] permission granted by [his] kaumatua (elders) in two straight sessions.” They lasted 11 and six hours, respectively. His iwi, Te Arawa, takes their name from the mango pare (hammerhead shark), who followed and protected his tipuna’s waka when they made their initial voyagefrom Raaiatea to Aotearoa. Thus, Bha na’s moko is his iwi’s kaitiaki (guardian). They are a tribute to his eldest son Kelly, who passed away as a child and his youngest son, Amaru.
Bhana chose to have his moko on his calf, so that Kelly could be with him wherever he went and see all the things his father saw. When it came time to choose a place to honor Amaru, Bhana chose his pūhoro. Due to the renaissance of tā moko, it is imperative for artists to have the knowledge of the significance of their designs. Traditionally, tāne (men) were the sole artists. Wahine (women) slowly began breaking gender barriers, becoming tā moko artists. Talent alone, however, has not been enough for wahine artists to be embraced by the community at large. Ostick, who is based in Paihia, on the North Island, is one of few women in the entire country to excel in this art from. She has experienced first hand rejection based on her gender and her response to how she has dealt with the
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backlash from those who oppose her artistry is that “the challenges [she] has [met] along the way due to ignorance or jealousy only make [her] walk stronger.” So, tā moko is more than an artistic expression. It is the transference and retention of culture. It is a way to honor family. And finally, it is a symbol of cultural pride. *Optional components of a pepeha depending on one’s iwi(s) Due to the renaissance of tā moko, it is imperative for artists to have the knowledge of the significance of their designs. LA native, CosmoLatina, fell in love with Aotearoa 10yrs ago. She is a globetrotting polyglot with 8 languages, 38 states, 40 countries and 11yrs as an expat under her belt. Follow her on IG: cosmolatina & Twitter: Cosmo_Latina