Folk Traditions in Maori Art


By the close of the nineteenth century, the Maori was culturally and socially disorientated - recovering from a period of decline arising out of the poverty, sickness and land alienation that followed the wars of the 1860s. So far as Maori art is concerned, these violent and traumatic decades were marked by two important trends: the destruction of much of traditional Maori culture - and the spread of folk art.

The folk art of the Maori has a close resemblance to European folk art. There is usually a distinctive simplicity of line, bright colour, an intuitive sense of balance without too much detail. Much of the work is influenced by early photography. In many assembly houses the portraits of ancestors and tribal chiefs, for example, were painted in a form almost identical with camera studies. The portraits used in the decoration of door panels were normally in black and white.

This horse shown losing a race in this Rongopai rafter painting is referred to on the flag: Hape

Hunter climbing a tree: rafter design in Te Whaia-o-te Motu

Frequently a reflective art, in which red, blue and white were the most common colours, Maori folk art recorded the past: but with a difference. Tribal ancestors painted on wall panels were generally set in contemporary (late nineteenth century) surroundings and dressed in Victorian clothing. The reason for this updating and 'humanising' of ancestral appearances may have been a desire among the Maori to bring the more secure and traditional past closer to the lives of a demoralised generation.

The first runanga or meeting-house to be extensively decorated with painted wall panels was probably Rongopai. Rongopai was built at Gisborne in 1888 by followers of Te Kooti Rikirangi, the messianic leader of the visionary Ringatu faith. In this highly tapu runanga, wall panels are painted with flowering trees and shrubs, ancestors in European dress, hunting-scenes, religious symbols concealed in stylised foliage, marakihau and other marine monsters created from the classical curvilinear designs, and exotic birds and flowers.

The total effect of the interior of Rongopai is that of a lost Maori Eden: a strange silent world created by unknown artists inspired by the teachings of a mysterious cult.

During the classical period of Maori art (from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century) there was little deviation in the carrying out of designs in tribal carving, tukutuku and taaniko work. It was unusual, too, for taaniko designs to be used in painting, or spirals in taaniko 'weaving'. But with the increasing freedom of folk artists to experiment, this" tradition, with its religious overtones, was almost completely set aside - particularly in painting.

These lizards, painted on the rafter base of a Whakatane meeting-house of the 1920's, represent protective spirit guardians

In many assembly houses (among them Te-Poho-o-Taaterangi, East Coast, 1893) designs from all media were freely used by painters of rafter and wall panels as developed forms, individually or in combination. Some artists used curvilinear and rectilinear designs in association with naturalistic forms. An ancestral wall figure or a very imaginative sea monster or taniwha for example would have a semi-realistic, realistic, or traditionally-stylised head and a writhing body formed out of a complex rafter pattern in red, blue, green and white.

With the rise in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries of such cults as Ringatu, symbols ranging from' stars and crescent moons to playing-card figures were used in the decoration of meeting-houses by folk artists - the symbols usually being half-hidden in the leaves of trees, grape-vines or among colourful flowering shrubs.

Late nineteenth century painting of the extinct huia decorating a wall panel in Uawhaki, a meeting-house near Levin. The distinctive black and white tail feathers of the hui were normally worn by priests and chiefs: they were preserved in elaborately-carved containers called waka

Painted wall panel from Rongopai. There are over fifty of them in this meeting-house, decorated with trees, flowers, birds and shrubs. Flanking this panel can be seen the badly deteriorated reed panels

From the close of the nineteenth century the traditional art of Rauru, the wood carver, was increasingly neglected in many tribal areas. Where it did flourish, it was mainly in the hands of folk carvers who, no less than the painters, were dedicated in their work to a determined realism. Unlike the painters, folk carvers were inclined almost exclusively toward] recording historical events: the epic fleet voyages; the legendary exploits of Tama-te-kapua. Failing these themes, mythological subjects were recorded: the transformation of ancestors into taniwha and marakihau; the adventures of Tinirau and his pet whale Tutunui; or the hauling of the North Island from the depths of the sea by Maui.

If carvers recorded the present, they confined themselves to figure-work or portraiture. They would occasionally carve the likenesses of Europeans. One such carving is the portrait of Agnew Brown, who, in the late 1880s, provided the timber for Te-Mana-o-Turangi, a Gisborne meeting-house decorated with possibly the country's finest folk-carving of the period. Agnew Brown's image is a compelling and naturalistic work of outstanding insight and craftsmanship. Typically, it was painted originally in red white and black. The face, as with ancestral carvings of the time, was realistically coloured.

Transformed from classic sea monster, or marikihau to nineteenth century mermaid, this figure represents a Victorian ancestress named Maria. It decorates the amo or bargeboard support of Kuramihirangi, a Whakatane meeting-house

Carved and painted sunflower decorating the amo of a Taihape meeting-house built in 1896. (See illustration of the complete building below.)

Reed wall panels (tukutuku) typically were decorated with a variety of beautiful rectilinear designs. During the earlier folk period these were often replaced by naturalistic subjects: mountain landscapes, portraits of ancestors, animals and birds, marine and land monsters, biblical scenes such as Noah's Ark with the Dove. The work is highly personal and is generally extremely colourful and imaginative.

The names of most of these Maori folk artists have unfortunately not been preserved: what has come down to us is their work. There are, however, several self-portraits, the most outstanding being preserved in Gisborne's Rongopai, depicting the artist with his palette and brushes. This Rongopai painter, who was, like several other Gisborne folk artists, a fine draughtsman, was responsible for much of the art in this building. In addition to painting most of the wall panels (poupou) and rafters (heke) he also supervised the work of other artists - all young members of Te Whanau-o-Kai, a sub-tribe of Rongowhakaata.

Exterior detail of a well-preserved and distinctively-painted whare runanga in the Bay of Plenty, Matangarei. The tekoteko or roof-figure represents the tribal ancestor Matangarei in the peruperu or warrior's dance of defiance.

Modern painted wooden ancestor figure

The first decades of the twentieth century were characterised by a continued Maori isolation and resistance to involvement in European society. Although no longer regarded as 'a dying race', the Maori seemed apathetic about the future. Health and education, for example, appeared of little real importance to most pa or reserve Maori. Paradoxically, there is virtually no reflection of this social and psychological climate in the folk art of the period - a period remarkable for the large number of meeting-houses built, following the first World War.

Many assembly houses built at the turn of the century were decorated with imaginatively painted wall-panels featuring colourful warrior ancestors, historical scenes and works of a legendary nature. There is also a fine pictorial record of such subjects as motor-cars, trains, and s!1ips of the New Zealand Shipping Company (the Arawa and Matatua were popular vessels in areas where folk artists were connected with the tribal fleet canoes after which the ships had been named).

Taihape meeting-house with sunflower decoration, built in 1896. Naturalistic carvings decorating this house include a red-bearded Victorian ancestor at the apex of the roof

The folk-decorated grave of a child (1973). This is a common form of decorative art found among Maori. Shells, symbolic of the Great Ocean of Kiwa, crossed in legend by ancestors of the Maori, also decorated classic and nineteenth century carvings and some modern meeting-house walls and concrete paepae or threshold panels

Less dramatic, but no less skilfully and accurately observed, are the beautifully coloured flower studies and still-lifes (vases, chairs and teapots) which decorate wall panels in a large sleeping-house (whare puni) in Waioeka Pa, Opotiki. A fine example of the traditional whare puni, this house also has some well-balanced ancestral studies with neatly scripted appeals to the tribe in English. These appeals are wreathed in garlands of flowers and range In sentiment from Love Each Other to Remember Us in Love and Love Everyone.

In the more isolated Maori communities the source of reference for many folk panels of the first decades of the twentieth century were books, cigarette cards, magazines and photographs. These provided material for exotic birds and animals - as well as early aeroplanes, buses, and film stars such as 'America's Sweetheart' Mary Pickford, whose portrait appears in a Te Teko meeting-house.

Carved and painted dancing figures, dating from 1916, over the doorway of Pakiri, a Tutemohuta tribal meeting-house at Waitahanui, Taupo. The dance is the haka; the figures, spirits of ancestors

Originally folk-decorated with large colourfully painted crescent moons and stars, this small Ratana Church building, at Te Kume pa, Otorohanga, was used for prayer meetings. Built in the 1920s,it is now derelict, like so many Maori religious structures of the period

Folk art after 1900 reflects a growing interest in the Pakeha world among the younger Maori responsible for much of the decoration of meeting-houses. Those that were built during and after World War I were often decorated with wall panels and rafters featuring battleships, uniformed soldiers; and such patriotic vignettes as the crossed national flags of the Allies against Germany and Australia. The vignettes often have central portraits of George V, or military leaders such as lord Kitchener pointing menacingly... 'Your Country Needs YOU!'

After 1900, the landscape, mountains, rivers, forests, were also included by folk' artists. So too were black and white naturalistic studies of ancestors, living kaumatua or elders, birds and animals. When these post-Victorian artists recorded their immediate environment, their work was often outstanding for its detailed and accurate observation.

Except at Rongopai, with its Thurber-like drawings of hunters and their maddening tree-or-scrub-concealed dogs, humour is virtually absent from Maori folk art. So too is sex. Only in Rongopai is the subject dealt with (and anxiously erased by a later generation who objected to panels decorated with naked embracing couples).

Painting of a battleship from a Te Teko meeting-house. The subject is an American vessel that visited New Zealand at the turn of the century.  The painting may derive from a magazine, picture postcard or photograph

Model train with cabin brake, painted on a Whakatane meeting-house wall panel and dating from the 1920s.  The painting is taken either from the model itself or from a magazine

During the 1920s and the 1930s, virtually unaffected by a revival of Classical arts and crafts, folk carvers continued to produce remarkable work - principally ancestral figures which were often set up alongside carved wall panels decorated with such varied subjects as lizards, fish, aeroplanes; and, in one East Coast meeting-house, an extremely detailed British royal coat of arms.

Traditional geometric designs in tukutuku continued to be replaced or supplemented by folk work in reed panels. The most common subjects ranged from fish, native birds and exotic flowers to simple subjects taken from dreams. Among the most impressive subjects in tukutuku were ancestral figures worked in coloured reeds, with the tupuna's names decoratively woven into the panels. A peculiarity of the figures was their form. They were not naturalistic, but close copies of figures found only in classical wood carving.

Painting of a touring car of the 1920s, from a wall panel in a small Te Teko meeting-house built by a hapu or sub-tribe of Ngati Awa

From the 1930s to the present, folk art has continued to be regarded by the Maori as an important creative art that is no less meaningful or valid than classical art. Among the more recent meetinghouses decorated with folk art (and classical art) is Nga Wahine, built at Mangere near Auckland. In addition to some beautiful reed panel work, similar to that found at Rongopai, Nga Wahine has several outstanding naturalistic carvings. The most successful are a vigorously animated warrior and a tribal ancestor in the form of a sea monster. Unusual in that the figure is female, the taniwha is probably the finest naturalistic folk carving of recent times. It clearly reflects the capacity of folk art to develop rather than remain static - as did classical Maori art once its styles and iconography had been worked out by the end of the eighteenth century.