Robley: Te Ropere, 1840—1930
3. Moko; or Maori Tattooing*
3. Moko; or Maori Tattooing*
“Perhaps even [the] Maoris themselves will remember I tried to perpetuate their ancestral art.”
Moko is an extraordinarily potent art; potent because it is so inextricably associated with, and transcendent of, human life. Although its present out-of-practice state denies it of life in the most literal and profound sense, moko is a living art still.
Members of present — and recent — generations cannot fully comprehend moko, simply because it is not possible to see it as it was meant to be seen. Unlike most forms of tattooing, in which pigment is applied to human skin punctured by a tapping process, the lines described by the Maori tohunga ta moko were carved into the face. Deep grooves were left as an indelibly pigmented impression after the swelling and scars affected by the operation of tattooing had healed. Moko was thus contained within the face of the person; it modified, and became, the image of their likeness. That image — which had as an essential element the pain involved in its making — projected a human presence charged with an implicit sense of awe. In confronting the person, the observer apprehended not moko, but the person tattooed.
It is the image of moko which continues to powerfully invigorate the contemporary cultural imagination. While the image is — depending on the point-of-view of the observer — implicitly page 66 emanative of life, it is not the same life which once made the designs of moko physically quiver, breathe and give rise to changing expression. Among the Maori Robley encountered in the 1860's, moko was in an advanced state of decline. Although men and women of the older generations were often fully tattooed, the younger people generally bore only partial, unfinished designs or were papatea (untattooed). To the missionaries — and to the Pakeha in general — moko was regarded as if it were the ‘devil's thumbprint’; it was seen as imprisoning the Maori within their Past. The Christians' influence further diminished an already threatened practice; one for which the cultural, social and ritual support had been undermined by the imposition of European methods of warfare and cultural values. Apart from a brief revival during the 1860's wars — which Robley noticed in the full tattooing of younger warriors such as Te Kani (see page 290) — the practice of male moko became increasingly scarce. Female moko, on the contrary, emerged from the period somewhat strenthened, and continued to be practised well into the present century. [Simmons: 1980 p.94] Robley was well aware of the imminent decadence of male moko, a fate which he had no reason to imaging female moko might avoid. As much as his portraits of tattooed Maori may be seen as the result of an artistic fascination, there is in their remarkable number and range the sense of a desire to scientifically document the art.
It is evident that the encounter with, and portrayal of, Maori people bearing moko, was influential on Robley's work well beyond the fact of that meeting and those portraits. His later collection of Mokamokai may be seen, in part, as an attempt to renegotiate the object image of that encounter. He was, certainly, convinced that no representational image of moko could so correctly convey the exact nature and presence of the art to subsequent generations. Because of the circumstances already discussed, his Collection of Mokamokai has never been returned to this country. We are, instead, left with the extensive graphic representations he made of the Heads and their moko. Significantly, these images — more than any comparative works — describe moko from the point-of-view of someone who had known the art in life. In their gradual development, therefore, they define an image of moko which is relative to that experience.page 67
Because the practice of moko was impossible to Robley — and is removed from present observers — it was in his graphic investigation of its designs that he developed a ‘practical’ knowledge of the art. It is precisely because of that evolution that his work is of singular value in informing the present image of moko.
In his foreword to “The White Men” [Blackman: 1979] — a book examining “the first response of aboriginal peples to the White Man” — Dr Edmund Carpenter seizes upon moko to discuss the different conceptual powers of European and “aboriginal” artists.
“Most tribal people lack the king of conceptual tools for experiencing the unknown. In contrast to them Western man (sic.) … had money and numbers which helped immeasurably in trade and translation, and they had three-dimensional perspective in Art by which even the strangest bird or flower could be optically rendered.
Tribal artists had no such means. Compare these two portraits of a Maori Chief, [Te Pehi Kupe] 2: the first … by an Englishman, the second … by himself. Each employs a learned art form, but the Maori's drawing is more symbol than likeness, whereas the Englishman's drawing matches nature: the viewer see what the (sic.) would have seen had he (sic.) been there, and thus, the not-knower becomes the knower.” (my emphasis)
The point Carpenter is making is perhaps relevant in other situations, with other examples of ‘tribal’ art. In choosing moko, however, he effectively invalidates his own argument.
It is an assumption commonly made that because non-European artists did not use a three dimensional perspective that they were incapable of so ‘advanced’ a method of representation. This leads to the conclusion that European Art, long conversant with this ‘naturalistic’ manner of making images was endowed with conceptual powers superior to those evident in Non-European Art. If it was the intention of the non-European artist to represent nature, this assumption would have some relevance.
If the two illustrations cited by Carpenter (here reproduced from “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” [Robley: 1896]) are carefully observed it will be seen that the moko of Te Pehi Kupe is differently detailed near the right and left ears. This asymmetricality is fundamental to moko: there is, in life, no viewpoint from which the patterns of facial tattooing can be perceived as one image.page 68
“No writer ever noticed my discovery … viz … variety in the designs tattooed near R & L ears. This can be seen in old signatures on land grants (of moko) — Te Pehi Kupe shows in portrait of his incisions he drew, Liverpool, 1826.” [Robley NK58/15 (verso) National Library of Australia]
Carpenter is wrong to suggest that the drawing of his own moko was, for Te Pehi Kupe, “a learned art form”: the ‘self-portrait’ was a response to the European desire for representational images. An utterly flat piece of paper, and the use of a pen, required an interpretation of the image of his likeness to be conceived and reconstituted in graphic terms.
Carpenter suggests that there is an absolute revelation implicit in the Briton's portrait, that it apprises the viewer of what they would have seen had they been there. In fact — and even this is, of course, debatable — it informs the European viewer of what they missed. It certainly does not show what there was to be seen. It is the ‘self-portrait’ by Te Pehi Kupe that would have made the Maori ‘not-knower’ the knower, which would have announced to that viewer who there was to be seen.
These two illustrations — and Carpenter's comparative analysis — are interesting in that they describe the full range of Robley's graphic investigation of moko. Sylvester's portrait is — especially in its notable fidelity to the lines of tattooing — similar in conception to the many sketches Robley made of the Maori he met in the 1860's.4 The ‘moko map’ drawn by Te Pehi Kupe — together with others like it — served as the model for a number of Robley's late studies of the tattooing of Mokamokai (see page 170). It is in his development from one (graphic) point-of-view to the other that the true nature of Robley's investigation of Maori tattooing is apparent. This development is that suggested, required by the specific properties of moko.
Although commentators of both Robley and moko have commonly referred to his extensive study of the artform, the full extent of that enquiry has seldom been addressed. The general perception that his 1896 publication, “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” describes his mature understanding of the subject is far from the truth. It is more correct to regard the book as marking the beginning of his determined attempts to penetrate the image and sense of moko.
With his characteristic enthusiasm and thoroughness Robley undertook an extensive study tour of Britain and Europe, observing and drawing the many records of moko contained within Public and private Museums. While this research focussed around the tattooing designs of carved figures and Mokamokai, published and manuscript documents relating to early European experience of the Maori were also studied. Wherever possible Robley purchased artefacts, his activity as an author being promoted by, and inseparable from, his determination to compile a comprehensive collection of Maori items. His Collection — especially of Mokamokai — expanded very quickly between 1894 and 1896, when “Moko; or Maori Tattooing” was published by Chapman & Hall Ltd.
Robley's book has remained the standard text on moko until the present time. Apart from its somewhat sensational account of the preservation of, and trade in, Mokamokai, “Moko” provides the student with a rare insight into the working of a now abeyant art. During the course of his research Robley had become familiar with Mokamokai and had compiled a large collection of drawings detailing their engraved designs of moko. Although the object nature of the Heads had allowed him to observe the work of the tohunga ta moko in greater detail than had been possible in his face-to-face contract with Maori people, his artistic approach to their study remained essentially based in the tradition of portraiture. Retaining a single point-of-view Robley developed a greater appreciation of, and ability to represent, the schematic nature of moko patterns. Although a number of drawings of Mokamokai which he included in “Moko” concentrated on a description of these patterns — as opposed to a description of the object form of the Head — the fundamentally ‘naturalistic’ manner of their observation precluded a full description of their tattooing. Obviously aware of the remarkable range of patterns between different examples of moko, Robley included a large number of illustrations of small sections of the designs — the patterns on the chin, the nose etc — to highlight this expansive quality. In removing these patterns from the overall page 71 context of an entire, individual Moko design, however, Robley failed to comprehend the essential structural relationship within moko. “Moko” thus identifies the fact that the tohunga ta moko produced designs of endless variety and boundless beauty. It does not, however, discover the means, nor the exact nature, of that infinitely changing replication. Robley's ensuant study of the art was focussed around attempts towards this latter revelation.
Free from the scientific and historical researches which had gone into the writing of “Moko”, Robley turned his attentions to a more wholly artistic consideration of Maori tattooing. Continuing to acquire Mokamokai at every opportunity, his habit of carefully studying and drawing the engraved designs of moko became more intensive. He was always sketching, he noted later, “to get perfect”.6 By 1898, two years after the book's publication, Robley began to plan for a second, improved edition. He regarded “Moko” as being inadequate in describing the topic, and although he did not detail the reasons for his disillusionment, it is probable that they related to his growing understanding of the art of moko.
“… as regards tattooing … a portrait is towards front (where ear patterns not seen) or of side face — the other is not of course recorded — after all my portrait taking it was only when I got my 35 heads & saw 50 others in Museums that I saw [right & left] patterns near ears, always different.”
Robley continued to collect material for the projected second edition of “Moko”. His drawings of moko designs after 1900 typically included a small inset of the paepae design (near ear) not recorded in the main sketch. The discovery of the invariable asymmetricality of these designs came to dominate his further study of the design basis of moko, as it was within them that the most expansive range of patterns was evident. For the first time Robley began to concentrate on the relationship of single patterns to others in the same, rather than separate, moko. His interest in studying Mokamokai renewed, he returned to the Museums and private Collections he had included in his earlier study tour: in all cases he found the paepae designs — where tattooed — to differ between right and left sides.
The remarkable expansive nature — and invariable asymmtricality — of the right and left paepae designs (immediately before the ears) was the key to Robley's mature artistic understanding of moko. The twelve sets of paepae above indicate the apparently endless range of their motifs.
Auckland Institute and Museum PD48 (36 & 39)
Robley had, in the meantime, continued with his researches and drawings. His regular letters to New Zealanders — especially Best whom he referred to as “the Tohunga”9 — frequently requested information from Maori kaumatua and tohunga. In his attempts to extend his understanding of moko beyond a visual appreciation of the patterns, he sought the more elusive ‘sense’ of their design motifs. Well aware that moko designs had served to identify their bearer, Robley asked his correspondents if local elders could define the tribal and individual marks on given examples of moko.
“The  heads, when [received] in the Auckland [Museum] were recognised by Maoris and the fight they fell in, My five [Mokamokai, witheld from the American Museum of Natural History sale] are better than those ….”
“I wonder if any of the heads [about] 1831–5 could be recognised by old men. I well send you other portraits.”
“All [Moko] have some distinguishing crest — Dr Hocken & I came to the conclusion on this distinction mark [paepae] — I did not have it in 1st [edition of] “Moko”.”
The task of divining the symbol basis of moko was, however, beyond the estranged researcher. Certainly Elsdon Best — among the Tuhoe —, and Gilbert Mair — among Te Arawa — provided Robley with no significant information on the subject. Whether this was from their failure to approach tohunga on the matter, or from a general decline in the contemporary knowledge of the art of the tohunga ta moko, Robley was forced to concede that the identification of Mokamokai was beyond him.13
“… it remained for me to copy still life & measurements, and so learn.”
Robley's precisely rendered drawings give the impression that the designs of moko are clearly — and unmistakeably — defined on Mokamokai. This is not always the case. The processes of preservation (pakipaki) tightened the skin; the pigmented channels apparent during life became lines of subcutaneous dye within the skin's surface. The clarity with which these lines can be deciphered is greatly diminished by this transformation. Many of the Mokamokai studied by Robley, however, bore post-motem tattoo. The marks rendered by the tattooing of the skin after the drying process are reminiscent of lines carved in leather; they retain their depth but do not ‘hold’ the usual pigment. Although such tattooing was generally regarded as being inaccurate — applied only to enhance the market value of Mokamokai — Robley saw a number of ways of addressing the ‘accuracy’ of these lines.
“I was very struck on seeing 2 heads before 1800 — brought here history real, and some is [tattooed] design cut on dry skin — so it is evident it was not always for trading this took place — Moko artists had to practise their designs (no drawing paper) & did so in this way … [One] is a fully covered head & what is not subcutaneous colour is added to very well by some practised hand in elegant designs …”
“Maori barters of old did often add by cuts on the dry skin to the patterns they knew, yet grooves & cuts looked different.”
“When I said post-mortem [I] did not mean man dead & then tattooed but when he had no patterns in some places the dried head had then added to it, as it were, by cutting on the dried head. I have had heads part moko — part scored with an implement like wood carving — this is generally deeper than the healed up cicatrices & was sign of the days when sale was wanted, and it would take in even a Museum …”
Robley recorded moko patterns openly, with little inclination towards constructing an absolute model by which he might adjudge the ‘correctness’ of given examples. On the contrary, he was more interested in the expansive nature of moko, the manner in which the act of its application triggered an apparently infinite range of patterns. Robley's identification of the basic structural manner in which the designs of Mataora Moko were articulated was of greater importance in suggesting ‘authenticity’ than a consideration of whether the patterns had been carved in life or after death.
“… none but Maoris even could or ever did score a head properly to ancient designs …”
“[my drawings record] the full custom, and the decadence of the art.”
“I beg to present you with photos … of a Maori Chief's head [NB: the photograph is missing]… the tatus show very well as they are done with the old bone implements — which has indented the skin into various patterns — The artist has exhausted [the] elegance of “moko” on the spaces near ears… (my emphasis)”
Robley's understanding of moko — better explained by his drawings than his verbal accounts — is based in an appreciation of the correlation between the physical properties of the practice of moko and the quality of its designs. In other words he approached a consideration of the art of the tohunga ta moko. If that art had altered during the period of European cultural ‘influence’, Robley was in no position to identify the nature or extent of that change. The design principles — if not the symbol principles — he considered to have remained steady throughout that change. It should not be assumed, however, that Robley accepted any or all Mokamokai as being authentic within this expansive model; those on which the lines of tattooing were poorly realised or were articulated by other than Maori artists were quickly identified and dismissed as worthless.
Moko pattern (detail)
Hocken Library MSI 488
Robley was keenly aware of the wide diversity of patterns within the carved, pigmented areas of moko. Many artists before him had failed to understand the importance of the lines left by the uhi of the tohunga ta moko.
“The smooth edged blade is the Uhi tapahi, cutting chisel, used for cutting the skin only. The one with serrated edges is the uhi puru, used to insert the pigment, the serrated edge holds the liquid. The patu used is simply a piece of stalk of fern.
The patu, or Ta, is held in the right hand between the first (index) and second fingers so as to leave the thumb and forefinger free for handling pigment. The uhi is held in the left hand, fingers closed on it except the little finger which is extended and rests lightly so as to steady the hand. After a stroke on the uhi puru the operator, with ends of thumbs & forefinger takes the piece of muka (flax fibre lying in wai ngarehu [pigment] and daubs pigment on blade edge of the uhi puru, still retaining grasp of patu which is gripped between base of 2 first fingers — the uhi is placed on cut line & a light tap forces it in, taking pigment with it — This takes but a light tap, for the skin has already been cut with the tapahi — The handles of uhi are made from wood of the branches of matai (podocarpus spicata).
The point of uhi was placed flat on the skin, not fashion — though with a slight inclination of the blade, ie. the point inclined inwards towards hand that holds it the blade not being set at right angle with handle — the cutting operation was just that of an adze, the cut inclining inwards slightly towards operator.”
“[One Mokamokai in my Collection] is curious as it shows the operations & difference of touch with the chisel of three artists, it seems … So intense is the pain, & so great the inflammation that quickly succeeds the operation, that only very small portions can be done at a time: and it is seldom that any New Zealander is fully tattooed on all those parts of the body, where tattooing is customary before he has passed the meridian of life.”
This sketch — appended to the foot of a letter — details Robley's understanding of the order in which the designs of moko were usually applied. He arranged his Mokamokai in accordance with this progression, the least tattooed being labelled No 1 and so on. This meant that at each new addition to the Collection the numbering system had to be altered. Because of this, drawings of the same Mokamokai — sketched over a number of years — may bear a wide range of numerical classifications.
Alexander Turnbull Library Robley-Mair: qMS/1898–1922
In drawing the patterns of moko the artist is open to a constantly expanding, infinite range of possible motifs. At each turn of a koru element, the artist may choose between a number of secondary ‘offshoots’. The decision made will give rise to a subsequent choice, and so the process continues. It is this radical generation of pattern that Robley's drawings — that is to say, his investigation — uncovered. Not only does the infrastructure of this design rationale suggest a continual creation of new patterns, it requires such an ongoing, changing replication. The creative element — and it is that quality which most profoundly informs Robley's understanding of moko — is essentially within the art. In the act of tattooing the tohunga ta moko was faced with the particular presence of the person to be tattooed: that person's peculiar physiognomy, who that person was, who that person was of, what that person was (occupation, social role). Working from the structural design base of moko the tohunga ta moko had to develop, to interpret, a design which would befit that person. In that moko implicitly referred to — and conferred — likeness, the artists changed with the ability to formulate and apply moko designs were regarded as persons of extraordinary mana. Thus empowered, the tohunga ta moko — who designed and carved moko — required considerable remuneration for their infinitely skilled work.23
Because so many Mokamokai had been tattooed during the period in which the ‘Trade in Heads’ had flourished, the designs they bore — and bear — may have been formulated without the specific criteria of traditional moko. The ‘symbol’ quality of many of the motifs found engraved upon these Mokamokai must — in lieu of any firm, comparative information — be regarded with a degree of caution. Robley's (generally) objective drawings of the designs he observed are not strictly validated or invalidated by the uncertainty of this question. Whatever the state of the art they record — be it one of page 78 decadence or otherwise — they do record a singular ‘system’ of schematic design; a ‘system’ which is essentially referential to — and may cast light upon — that contained by other arts of the Maori.
Robley's study of the patterns produced within this extraordinary artistic structure appears to have engendered in him an enthusiasm to employ its implied expansion. It was that desire to actively engage the creative principles of moko — and therefore of Maori art — which informed the work he undertook from the turn of the century until his death in 1930.
Within his drawings — through which his involved investigation of moko was effected — Robley describes something of the energy which attracted him to the art. It is a life generated by his continual making of these images. The student of moko — and especially the practically emulative student — will recognise in his work an understanding of the artistically generative nature of that energy.
On the 15th October, 1923, Gilbert Mair wrote his last letter to Robley.
“My very Dearest of Old Comrades,
Not withstanding your loving wishes, united to those of hundreds of durable friends & relatives & [an] almost unimaginably strong constitution, the call which must sound for us all, sooner or later, has sounded & I thank God that time has been afforded me to say my last farewell. My dear old General, our friendship has stood the test of many years and it gives me a wonderful consolation to know that I have held yours for so long. I hold treasured up as little mementoes almost every scrap of writing that you sent me since being parted from you, [The] little embellishment of your inimitable skill. All, all, I have kept sacred, Not withstanding a very strenous [sic] & active life. And now the time has come to say a last farewell. You have led a much more useful life in one particular direction which puts one entirely to shame — I mean by preserving one particular & most interesting phase of savage life. The Art of Tattooing Amongst the Most Interesting Savage People of the World. Despite your removal of 16,000 [miles] to distant lands & immersed as you are with high military duties. Yet you found time page 79 to render this great scientific service thereby making Society your debtor for all time. In your notable works on tattooing, being your masterpiece, you are the greatest acknowledged authority. I consider this the very highest accomplishment possessing as you had the limited opportunities at [your] command. It is extraordinary what a deep regard the Maori people hold towards you. They look upon you as the preserver of the most interesting custom existing & consider your knowledge priestlike and divine. Time will never lessen the importance of your work. Will you convey to those 2 or 3 of our comrades who are still with us my affectionate regards and good wishes. It would have been glorious to have seen you face to face once more but it was not to be & I can only pray to God to fill your remaining days with every blessing & mark of his favours. From your affectionate old comade Gilbert Mair.”24
Robley was immensely proud of this letter, transcribing it on a number of occasions and sending the copies to his friends in New Zealand. “The Most Interesting Savage People of the World” — a phrase which Robley himself often used in reference to the Maori — provides the key to an appreciation of the perceived relationship between the pakeha ‘friends of the Maori’ and the Maori people. It is a relationship which linked Mair, Robley and Te Arawa (the Maori to whom Mair is referring) during the campaigns of the 1860s. It is, as well, coined in language which has a sense removed from the modern standpoint.
Robley's pleasure at receiving this ‘Maori’ praise for his work highlights the isolated nature of his dialogue with the race. Had he actually made a return visit to New Zealand, had he met his son and grandchildren, had he talked with kaumatua and tohunga, his understanding of moko — and of the Maori — may have developed somewhat differently. Certainly he would have become aware that the ‘decadence’ into which a knowledge of moko had passed was not as he — and other observers — had imagined. As it was, his dedication to the study of Maori art was the principal medium of any dialogue he maintained with the race. The response of Maori people to his endeavours — of which Mair's letter represents one of the only examples (and certainly the most praising) — could hardly have failed to please and move him.page 80 page 81
1 Robley-Adams:n/d ATL MS16/9
2 Te Pehi Kupe visited England in 1826; “Whilst [there] his head was sketched by Mr. John Sylvester of Liverpool in such a way as to show distinctly every mark and line of the artistic design tattooed on his face. Te Pehi Kupe also made a delineation, without the aid of a mirror, of the stains on his own face, besides manufacturing other pictures of the tattooing with which his face and body were impressed … Major General Robley … will be glad to hear from any one who has any of the original sketches referred to done by Te Pehi Kupe.” Newsclipping (no source): c. 1898 Hocken Library MI488
3 Blackman:1979 p.7
4 see Note 2
5 Robley-Best:1926 ATL MS16/2
6 Robley-Mrs McLean:n/d ATL MS16/6
7 Robley-Best:n/d ATL MS72/5a
8 Best-Robley:1905 Hocken Library MSI 488
9 Robley shared this term of address for Best with many others; Fildes, Mair, Cowan.
10 Robley-Donne:n/d AIM MS256 R66
11 Robley-Mair:n/d ATL qMS/1898–1922
13 Robley-Fildes:1922 VUW Fildes/10
16 Robley:n/d AIM MS2256 R66
17 Robley-Fildes:1920 VUW Fildes/10
18 Robley:n/d AIM MS256 R66
19 Robley-Thomson:1914 NMNZ Ethn.MS
20 Robley-Shepheard:n/d AIM MS256 R66
21 Best-Robley:1906 Hocken Library MI 488 p. 50B
22 Robley:n/d ATL MS1387/26
24 Mair-Robley:1923 ATL MS1503/1