Art

At the National Gallery of Australia, a new exhibition honours the power of tā moko, the Māori art of body-marking.

By Hamish McDonald.

Māori Markings: Tā Moko

An installation view from Māori Markings: Tā Moko at the National Gallery of Australia featuring a carved figure attributed to Raharuhi Rukupo.
Credit: NGA

Having signed an indemnity form, a young volunteer lies on a mobile bed under a spotlight, a set-up that resembles field surgery. Turumakina Duley sketches out a design in red marker on his subject’s muscular arm, and then goes to work with an electric tattoo gun. It’s a demonstration of tā moko, the art of Māori body-marking, of which Duley is a renowned tohunga or expert, both in his home town of Whakatane and on Australia’s Gold Coast.

While many art museums play host to live exhibitions of illustration, including painting on human skin, it feels as though there is still some taboo in seeing an artist impose permanent change to the body of their subject.

At the National Gallery of Australia, on the walls surrounding Duley and his subject, long-dead wearers of moko are depicted in paintings by 19th-century European artists as well as images by early photographers. Some are anonymous, but most are identifiable figures from the history of New Zealand, which was colonised by pakeha about six centuries after the first Māori arrived by canoe.

Elderly rangatira (tribal chiefs) are shown with their elaborately marked faces above bodies in Western suits, collars and ties. The Musket Wars, the last deadly flourish of intertribal fighting, would have been long over by the time these images were captured, with colonial troops quelling the uprisings over land grabs. Postcolonial legislation and attitudes meant tā moko became a fading cultural identifier, at least among men – among Māori women the practice of markings around the lips and chin remained common until the 1930s. By the late 1970s though, there were few Māori wearers of tā moko left, and those who continued the practice lived in remote areas.

The tā moko process was painful, and somewhat dangerous. Things were not as simple as walking into a parlour, picking a design from a book or a wall chart and having it inked into the skin by electric gun. Traditionally, the right to wear moko had to be earned through valorous deeds, or inherited. The moko artist would then cut the lines into the skin with a bone chisel, leaving incisions marked with black, dark blue or dark green dye made from the soot of special plants. The design was individual and distinct – when the 540 Māori chiefs came to sign the Treaty of Waitangi, many copied part of their facial moko as their signature.

Derek Lardelli, a leading tā moko artist, says the precision would be hard to match even with the modern tattoo gun, which injects only the surface layers of skin. Though contemporary tā moko artists use the electric needle and modern dyes, their aim is to revive Māori identity and maintain respect of this tradition – to seize back the culture from the bowdlerised forms used by criminal gangs and others. While it is acceptable for non-Māori to use some moko-like patterns, these markings are termed kirituhi – literally drawings on skin – because the recipient does not have Māori whakapapa, or genealogy.

Artists such as Duley draw with their eye, in close rapport with the subject, without a set pattern. The designs recall the sweep of waves, the curl of the fern frond, the lines of whales, the stories of generations. By the end of their lives, Lardelli says, the rangatira came to resemble the wood carvings. They were like great ancient trees.

Māori Markings: Tā Moko picks up on the revival of tā moko that began in the 1980s when Te Maori, an acclaimed exhibition of Māori art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1984, toured the United States and New Zealand. Te Maori awakened New Zealanders in general to this strand of their culture, and Māoris in particular to proclaim their identity. With this inspiration, Lardelli got his first marking while still at school. He went on to be a leader of the tā moko revival, and is now a professor at Toihoukura, a Māori visual arts academy in Gisborne.

Lardelli was brought over by the NGA for the opening, along with Turumakina Duley, Rangi Kipa and other notable moko artists. How the gallery keeps up this living dimension through to closure on August 25 is going to be a challenge. Without the current practitioners, the exhibition risks being just a collection of quaint colonial images, a visit to a house preserved from the Victorian era.

But what will save the exhibition from that fate are the powerful wood carvings of Māori heads and bodies, mostly made by Māori artists about the time European and American ships first arrived, before colonisation. They radiate mana, the spiritual authority acquired by rangatira. There is a poised, intense figure once part of a meeting-house structure, attributed to Raharuhi Rukupo (c. 1800-1873). Other carvings include a puppet from the 18th or early 19th century akin to the Indonesian wayang golek, a brooding torso of the chief Te Rauparaha, and a facsimile of the head of the chief Hongi Hika.

The backstories to these carvings are intriguing. The Te Rauparaha figure was mounted inside the prow of his war canoe, facing backwards to eye the warriors as they paddled to conquer the South Island’s valuable greenstone lodes. The Hongi Hika carving, meanwhile, was made from a hardwood fence post by the chief himself, during a visit to the Parramatta farm of the Reverend Samuel Marsden in 1814. Marsden had joked that he wanted to send Māori art to London, and either Hika’s head or a wooden representation should be part of it. In pre-colonial times, Māori communities had preserved the heads or toi moko of their rangatira to retain some of their power. During the Musket Wars, toi moko of lesser figures were traded with passing ships by the victors for guns and other Western commodities, and they became part of the souvenir trade. Māori tribes are now trying to repatriate the toi moko they find abroad.

As the Hongi Hika story shows, Māori were among the first visitors to Port Jackson (Poihākena), from 1793. They were avid for new things, from guns to Christianity, in return for their flax and other produce. The British launched their colonial efforts from Sydney and sent regiments from New South Wales and Victoria to the land wars between 1845 and 1864, including about 2000 local recruits.

Today, there are between 140,000 and 170,000 people of Māori ancestry living in Australia. Brent Kerehona is one of the Māori Australians at the exhibition’s opening. Born and raised in Sydney, he was a paratrooper and military policeman as a young adult before going on to university and gaining a master’s degree in education. Now 45, he teaches history, sport and Pasifika programs at Cabramatta High School in Western Sydney.

As Kerehona matured, he thought about his heritage and making connection with Māoritanga, Māori culture. Tā moko intrigued him, but he held back. “It didn’t feel right at the time, I didn’t have a comprehensive understanding of Māoritanga,” he says. But after leaving the army, travelling and studying, he felt ready. He started with a pattern around his mouth and chin, followed by spirals on the bridge and nostrils of his nose, then added sweeping arcs across his forehead.

Today, Rangi Kipa adds double spirals and other intricate designs to Kerehona’s cheeks and temples – designs that represent his whakapapa, as well as his social standing within the community. More moko may come in future. “There is no reason why Māori can’t live in the modern world without continuing some of their significant cultural practices,” Kerehona says.

He adds that his facial moko have been better received in Australia than in New Zealand. “There it’s been seen as a challenge, as a rebellious act,” Kerehona says. “But that’s starting to change. It’s become more positive.”

Arts Diary

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FESTIVAL Art+Climate=Change

Locations throughout Melbourne, April 23-May 19

CULTURE Salt Festival

Venues throughout the Southern Eyre Peninsula, South Australia, until April 28

COMEDY Sydney Comedy Festival

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MUSICAL Barbara & the Camp Dogs

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THEATRE Cinderella

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FASHION The Dressmaker Costume Exhibition

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Last chance

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 20, 2019 as "Leaving their mark". Subscribe here.

Hamish McDonald
is a Walkley Award-winning foreign correspondent.