Jim Elmslie interviews Crispin Howarth, Curator of Pacific Arts at the National Gallery of Australia on the stunning new exhibition of Maori facial markings that will open in Canberra on March 23
JE Crispin, you have been working on the forthcoming exhibition on Māori tattooing (I don’t think you use this term) for the National Gallery of Australia since last year, can you explain how this show came about?
CH The exhibition Māori Markings: Tā Mokohas its origins about November 2017 and was intended to be a much larger survey exhibition of Māori arts from the 18th century to today. That massive scope was 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 is Tā Moko– being the process of applying Moko– the skin marked art. It is very tempting to associate Mokowith tattoo but there is a gulf of difference between the two, especially in terms of spiritual and cultural contexts. The responsibilities of wearing Mokois very different to someone wearing a tattoo. Unlike a tattoo in Australian society where anyone can walk into a tattooist’s and ask for an image of a dolphin, tiger, emoji, a portrait of Ed Sheeran…or whatever takes their fancy as their expression of individuality. Mokooperates on a framework of principles called Kaupapa, an individual cannot receive Mokowithout the correct understanding of their responsibility, as a Māori, to ‘walk with integrity’. Anyone thinking of wearing Mokomust consult their family who need to agree the person is ready to receive Moko. Discussions are then held with the Tā Mokoartist who learns their life-story and their Whakapapa, their genealogical foundation. From this, the artist can then develop the appropriateMokopatterns and their placement upon the individual. Wearing Mokois a privilege whereas to get a tattoo only requires money. This is the briefest description, but I hope it explains how Mokoshould be set apart from how we view the common tattoo. Indeed, in average Australian society, tattoo is very very common – the tattooing trade being worth in excess of $90 million a year, that is a lot of inked people.
JE What was/is the significance to the Māori people of facial tattooing? This form of body decoration seems particularly widespread in NZ, how and when did it originate?
CH Traditionally men would receive moko to their faces over several stages until their entire face was covered, Moko Kanohi(literally ‘marked face’) and a particularly fine Mokowas called Moko Paruhi(a ‘perfect face’). For women it was generally restricted to the chin and called Moko Kauae. The earliest records of Mokodesigns are found in Māori sculpture from the 18th century but the practice is believed to have existed for centuries. Prior to the introduction of needles and ink the practice of Tā Mokoinvolved small hafted blades, like tiny chisels, of bone which were tapped into the skin to create cuts that healed as channels. This process was exceptionally painful and at risk of infection; specially carved feeding funnels, Korere, were used by high ranking people whose lips and mouths had swollen after being marked. The exhibition holds one of earliest of these funnels known, with a history to 1793. The cosmological origin of Mokocomes 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 Mokofor all Māori to wear.
JE Did the practice of facial tattooing vary much throughout NZ or was there a consistency throughout the country? Could people interpret the facial tattoos of people from geographically remote areas?
CH No doubt over the centuries there were different approaches and styles of Moko. For the Mokoof the early 19th century, it was less a marker of place and more a mark of identity. A Mokocould communicate the wearer’s skill set as a teacher, as a warrior, as a sea farer, as a healer and so on. I have found it almost impossible to break down Mokopatterns to concisely say ‘this design means X’ as one design can have multiple meanings; their placement upon the face and relation to other pattern elements creates different visual information. Upon the nose information of a chief’s level of authority could be found, also whether someone is an authority of a particular aspect of culture might be noted on the nostril. The side section of 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 cheeks spirals can contain hereditary information about a person’s lineage. The rayed sets of lines above the eyes on the forehead traditionally signalled a man’s fighting ability. Most importantly Mokoshowed 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 Whakapapaand today just the same as in the 19th century Māori society – this level of understanding of personal identity is highly integral to the wearing of Moko.
JE The practice of facial tattooing seemed to wane in the nineteenth and twentieth century but now seems to be making a comeback. What forces are driving this revival of custom?
CH You are right, the wearing of Mokobegan to wane around the 1840s. More interaction with the colonist society led to an expanding world view for Māori who 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, 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, Tāwhiao, worked to unify the Māori tribes and gain greater recognition of Māori ownership, sovereignty, of the country in the face of growing colonial governance. This led to a series of wars and at this time King Tāwhiao encouraged his warriors to once again take up Moko Kanohi. After the 1860s, for men, the wearing of Mokodissipated but women continued the practice, although in the early 20th century it became an illegal practice and only seen on few old women after the Second World War.
The revival, or better put, resurgence comes from the mid to late 1980s when a handful of Māori artists reached back into history to relearn the art of Tā Moko and bring it into the present with an aim to make the wearing of Mokoa normal part of Māori society once again. From the work of this first generation of Tā Mokoartists, subsequent talented generations have sprung up and we are now at a point where the art of Tā Mokois a very living and connected part of Māori culture and will continue to be into the future.
Māori Marking: Tā Moko
March 23 to August 25, 2019 | National Gallery of Australia