Tā Moko: powerful Māori cultural expression

In an Australian first, Crispin Howarth, Curator of Pacific Arts at the National Gallery of Australia, opens ‘Māori Markings: Tā Moko’, and explores the practice of tā moko— an admired and powerful form of Māori cultural expression.

When I began working on Māori Markings: Tā Moko, it was initially intended to be a much larger survey exhibition of Māori arts from the eighteenth century to today. That scope proved far too large, and so I looked at one aspect of Māori art, which is perhaps less accessible and less understood by gallery audiences. The name of the exhibition, Tā Moko, is the process of applying moko — the skin marked art.

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Serena Stevenson ‘Naboua Nuku, Hori (George) Tamihana Nuku and Haki Williams’ (detail) 2002

It is tempting to associate moko with tattoo, but there is a gulf of difference between the two, especially in terms of spiritual and cultural associations. The responsibilities of wearing moko are very different to someone wearing a tattoo. Unlike tattoo, where anyone can walk into a tattoo parlour and ask for an image of a dolphin, tiger, emoji, or a portrait of Ed Sheeran to express their individuality, moko operates on a framework of principles called Kaupapa. An individual cannot receive moko without the correct understanding of their responsibility, as a Māori, to ‘walk with integrity’. Anyone considering wearing moko must consult their family, who need to agree the person is ready to receive moko. Discussions are held with the tā moko artist, who learns the recipient’s life story and their whakapapa — their genealogical foundation. From this, the artist can then develop the appropriate moko patterns and their placement on the individual. Moko should, then, be set apart from how we view tattoo. Indeed, in contemporary Australian society, tattoo is very common — the tattooing trade being worth in excess of $90million a year. That’s a lot of inked people.

Traditionally men received moko to their faces over several stages until their entire face was covered — Moko Kanohi (literally ‘marked face’). For women it was generally restricted to the chin and called Moko Kauae. The earliest records of moko designs are found in Māori sculpture from the eighteenth century, but the practice is believed to have existed for centuries.

Prior to the introduction of needles and ink, the practice of tā moko involved small blades of bone, hafted like tiny chisels, which were tapped into the skin to create cuts that healed as channels. This process was exceptionally painful, with a high risk of infection. Specially carved feeding funnels called korere were used by high ranking people whose lips and mouths had swollen after being marked. The exhibition holds one of the earliest known examples of these funnels, with a history dating back to 1793. The cosmological origin of moko comes from the legend of Niwareka and Mataora. In this mythical saga, Mataora journeys into the underworld in search of his wife Niwareka and receives facial markings and then returns to the natural world bringing the art of moko with him, for all Māori to wear.

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Kōrere, 18th century, Muriwhenua region, North Cape, Aotearoa, South Australian Museum

Over the centuries, there have been different approaches and styles of moko. A moko could communicate the wearer’s skill set as a teacher, warrior, sea farer or healer. It is almost impossible to break down moko patterns to concisely say ‘this design means X’, as one design can have multiple meanings — their placement upon the face and relation to other patterns creates different visual information.

Moko on the nose may tell of a chief’s level of authority, and if someone is an authority on a particular aspect of culture it might be noted on the nostril. On the face, just in front of the ear, is where a lot of codified knowledge about the person is held, and the lines from the nose onto the cheeks and the larger cheek spirals may contain hereditary information about lineage. The rayed sets of lines on the forehead above the eyes traditionally signalled a man’s fighting ability.

Most importantly, moko traditionally showed a person’s tribal connections — which iwi (tribe) and which hapu (extended family, or clan) they come from. The designs upon the face are intimately connected to a person’s whakapapa, and today — just as in nineteenth century Māori society — this level of understanding of personal identity is highly integral to wearing moko.

The wearing of moko began to wane around the 1840s. More interaction with colonists led to an expanding world view, Māori embraced many new technologies and ways of doing things, which in turn affected and changed parts of their own culture. There was less need for facial moko, and to better integrate with colonial society and Christianity some men grew beards and moustaches to cover their markings. However, in the 1860s the Second Māori King Tawhiao worked to unify the Māori tribes and gain greater recognition of Māori land ownership and sovereignty of the country in the face of growing colonial governance. This led to a series of wars, and at the time King Tawhiao encouraged his warriors to once again take up Moko Kanohi. After the 1860s, the wearing of moko dissipated for men, but women continued the practice. In the early twentieth century it became an illegal practice, and was only seen on a few older women after the Second World War.

A revival of tā moko occurred in the 1980s, when a handful of Māori artists reached back into history to relearn the art and bring it into the present with an aim to make the wearing of moko a normal part of Māori society once again.

From here, subsequent talented generations have sprung up and we are now at a point where the art of tā moko is a very living and connected part of Māori culture, and will continue to be into the future.

Māori Markings: Tā Moko is open at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra until 25 August 2019.

National Gallery of Australia

Home to Australia's national collection of visual arts.

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