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The Coming of the Maori

Polynesian Carving

page 307

Polynesian Carving

In Maori wood carving, the human figure was the most general art motif but, with the exception of figures supporting the middle ridge posts, some ancestral forms on the gable house fronts, and at the base of canoe stern posts, no attempt was made to copy the normal anatomical proportions. It is probable that the few realistic forms were a late development. A survey of the human figures carved throughout Polynesia reveals the same lack of attention to the relative proportions of the various parts of the human body. Both the Polynesian and Maori carvers were capable of producing more realistic forms and the fact that they deliberately ignored anatomical proportions indicates that their ancestors must have early developed conventional ideas of art in which the human figure was treated conventionally and not realistically. In Polynesia, most of the human figures were carved to form symbols of their gods, who, with few exceptions, were deified ancestors. Thus it may be that the early craftsmen, while accepting the human form as a motif, purposely refrained from making the images appear too human in detail. What may have originated in religious art was perpetuated in secular art.

The conventional patterns exaggerated some anatomical features and reduced others and each island group developed its own forms. See Figure 90. One feature retained in common throughout Polynesia and New Zealand was the flexion of the legs. This attitude appears to give the figures more balance and the odd specimens with straight legs seem strange unless it has become the normal posture as in Easter Island.

A problem which faced the early carvers was what to do with the arms and hands. Two main treatments were followed, one with the arms flexed and the hands resting on the abdomen or chest and the other with the arms pendent or resting on the hips. The flexed arm position prevails in New Zealand, Cook, Society, Marquesas, Austral, and Mangareva but in Mangareva, the hands are free of the body. The pendent straight arms occur in Tonga and Hawaii and hands resting on the hips in Hawaii. Both flexed and pendent positions were used in Easter Island.

Occasional departures from the symmetrical placing of the forearms and hands took place in bringing up one hand to the mouth in Tahiti and New Zealand or in the lowering of one hand to the pubic region in Easter Island and New Zealand. The deliberate ignoring of accurate detail is evident in the treatment of the hands which were usually blocked out in mass and the fingers then separated by grooves. In the Marquesas, the fingers sometimes exceeded five and in Tahiti, though the usual number was five, they were sometimes four or three. In Rarotonga, the well-made fishermen's gods though usually with five fingers, sometimes had four but in the multiple small figures on the staff images, the common number was page 308
Fig. 90. Polynesian carved figures.a, Rarotonga; b, Aitutaki; c, Tahiti; d, Raivavae; e, Marquesas; f, New Zealand; g, Mangareva; h, Easter Is.; i, Hawaii; j, Tonga.

Fig. 90. Polynesian carved figures.
a, Rarotonga; b, Aitutaki; c, Tahiti; d, Raivavae; e, Marquesas; f, New Zealand; g, Mangareva; h, Easter Is.; i, Hawaii; j, Tonga.

three. In some images from Tahiti and Aitutaki, the craftsmen did not even bother to define the fingers. I mention these irregularities because in old Maori carvings the common number was three fingers with a back projection for the thumb. Various symbolic meanings have been sought for the number. The Maori have a myth that carving was obtained frompage 309the house of Tangaroa, situated on the floor of the ocean, by an ancestor who was conveniently named Mutu because he was short of a finger.

The feet throughout Polynesia received even less attention than the hands. They were often shapeless expansions of the lower ends of the legs and they may or may not have a number of notches to roughly define any number of toes. In one Rarotongan image with the lower legs flexed horizontally, there are no feet but an acknowledgement of their existence was made by cutting two angular notches in the middle of each leg (99, Fig. 194d).Sometimes when the legs spring directly from a wide pedestal, the craftsman has cut V-shaped notches along the entire lower border of the pedestal, as an art motif which paid no heed to the number or anatomical position of the toes.

Considerable variation was present in the treatment of the main features of the face. The ears in many Polynesian images were not represented. In Rarotonga, they were exceptionally large and were pierced with holes for the suspension of feather ear ornaments. In Tonga, some images have crude ears shaped like the V-shaped suspension flanges of their kava bowls and others were carved naturalistically with the helix groove and the tragus projection carefully executed in detail. In Easter Island, the ears were carved in similar detail but with elongated lobes ending in a round expansion to represent the local ear ornament of a shark's vertebra.

The eyes range from straight or elliptical slits to various forms of elaboration. The Marquesan eye is delineated by a low raised flange to enclose a fairly large circular space. The Rarotongan eye is very elaborate with a raised elliptical middle part to denote the eyeball, a curved flange below for the lower lid, and two curved flanges above for the upper lid and the eyebrow. The two eyes meet in the middle line and extend outwards to cover the entire width of the face. Another elaborate form was developed in Easter Island in which the eye was represented by a piece of obsidian set in a well-formed socket with a ring of white shell or bone surrounding the black pupil. The eyebrows were prominent and ornamented with a row of incised chevrons to represent the hairs. In Hawaii, a unique image was carried a step further in realism by boring small pits in the eyebrow ridge, placing the ends of short tufts of human hair in them, and plugging them in position with tightly fitting wooden pegs. This technique, however, was borrowed from the method of producing a hair covering for the head in some specialized images. In other Hawaiian images, elliptical sockets were made for the reception of closely fitting eyes of pearl shell. In New Zealand, owing to the abundance of the Haliotis (paua), elliptical and round eyes with paua-shell inlay were in general use. Some were formed with a sunken circle around a central page 310knob which assisted in retaining a ring of paua shell when used, but in all cases gave the visual effect of a pupil.

The nose, on the whole, was much neglected as regards detail. In Aitutaki, it was represented by a narrow vertical ridge usually of even width but sometimes with a slight widening at the lower end. The crudeness of the Aitutaki images may have been influenced by the fact that the Aitutakians had another form of divine symbol in carved slabs with geometric motifs and it is apparent that less care was devoted to the image form of symbol. In Rarotonga, however, where the images were the only form of symbol with elaborate eyes and mouth, the nose was left out altogether with the exception of one unique image with other elaborations. In Tahiti and Tonga, the width at the nostrils was recognized by making triangular projections with the base downwards. In the Marquesas, the nostrils received further attention in the form of exaggerated lateral expansions at right angles to a middle ridge. In Hawaii, a variety of forms occurred, some long and narrow and others widened at the base. A unique form in some of the temple images consisted of a short bridge connecting two large nostrils with large apertures opening outwards. The Easter Island nose was prominent with a convex profile, wings for the nostrils, and holes to represent the nasal apertures. In New Zealand, the nose was more or less natural in form and sufficiently large to admit of appropriate tattooing patterns being carved on the sides. In profile, they formed characteristic raised loops with a lateral perforation.

The mouth was subjected to variations in conventional treatment. The simplest forms consisted of straight or elliptical slits similar to the eye and in some the elliptical shape was formed by two curved grooves which enclosed a middle part evident meant for the tongue. The Rarotongan mouth was elaborate with deep, V-shaped grooves to define the tongue, and upper and lower lips formed sharp-edged ridges. In the Easter Island images, the lips were well formed and slightly everted, which gave the large stone images a somewhat supercilious look, a feature shared by the Mangarevan wooden images. In Hawaii and New Zealand, the slight downward projection of the human upper lip in the middle line was exaggerated in carving and a desire for symmetry probably influenced the carvers in making an upward median projection of the lower lip. The outer angles of the mouth were rounded off which resulted in the peculiar figure-of-eight mouth so common in the art of both groups. In some Hawaiian images, the rounded end of the tongue is represented in the open mouth without protruding beyond the lips. In New Zealand, the protrusion of the tongue was a sign of defiance and in war dances and posture dances, the performers vied with each other in protruding the tongue as far as possible. The carvers made the protruding tongue a common motif in their craft and it is a characteristic feature of Maori art.

page 311

Another unique feature of Maori art is the carving of tattooing patterns on the face, buttocks, and thighs of the larger figures.

From the preceding analysis, it would appear that there was no set pattern of carving the human figure when dispersal took place from central Polynesia. The Maori ancestors, therefore, brought nothing beyond, perhaps, the conventional posture of the flexed legs and the hands clasped on me abdomen.

Fig. 91. Maori carved heads.a, weku; b, koruru; c, ruru; d, ngututa; e, manaia (a-d, after Anaha; e, after Archey).

Fig. 91. Maori carved heads.
a, weku; b, koruru; c, ruru; d, ngututa; e, manaia (a-d, after Anaha; e, after Archey).