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The Maori: Yesterday and To-day

The Carved House

The Carved House.

The art culture of the Maori is a field which is now engaging sympathetic study by artists and architects, and designers of decorative schemes, and it has come to be recognised that there is much that is very beautiful and graceful in the wood-carving and painting and weaving developed by the native people. Superficial observation in the past has dwelt on the grotesque and barbaric side of Maori art, to the exclusion of the decorative designs which reflect the height of Maori genius. The forms of tree and flower, of bird and cloud and mountain, the story of the tribes, the soul and romance of native life, are expressed in these designs, evolved during many centuries of life in a country of great natural beauty. It would indeed have been strange had the Maori not absorbed the spirit of this beauty, and interpreted it as best he could in the materials at his hand.

“Maori designs,” a New Zealand artist has written, “with their oppositions of lines and spaces, their rhythmic sequences of curve and counter-curve, of thrust and counter-thrust, of balance and counter-balance, are expressive of the vitality and virility of both Maori and pakeha. The forms used seem to me to be the natural incarnation of our environment. They are the essence distilled from our surroundings, and are therefore part of the life and character of every New Zealander. Environment is the all-important factor in the creation of decorative forms.”

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The importance of the study and encouragement of the art that is native to the soil has been recognised by the New Zealand Government in recent years, and a practical result of the newly-born interest in wood-carving and its kindred arts has been the creation of a Maori Arts and Crafts Board. This body was established under an Act of Parliament passed in 1926, entitled “An Act to Encourage the Dissemination of Knowledge of Maori Arts and Crafts.” The duty of the Board is defined as “to foster and encourage the study and practice of these arts and crafts,” and in furtherance of its objects it is empowered to establish schools of Maori art or other institutions; purchase, acquire, or vend any carvings or other articles having distinctive Maori characteristics, and take custody and control of native antiquities. The first step taken was to establish a school of carving and other arts at Rotorua, under the management of the Board, and the first director appointed was Mr. H. Hamilton, son of the late Mr. A. Hamilton, author of Maori Art and for many years director of the Dominion Museum. The school has been established in a small way, but it is a start, and it is looked to as the nucleus of a technical training college which shall have for its goal the fostering of a very wide appreciation of the artcrafts native to the country and the application of those arts to European as well as Maori architecture and decoration. It is peculiarly appropriate that Rotorua should have been selected as the centre of such a circle of New Zealand culture, for the Arawa people of that district have always been regarded as the most skilful wood-carvers in the land, and the experts of the tribe are the best instructors procurable to perpetuate the knowledge of the designs and the traditions of an artcraftsmanship distinctive of New Zealand. page 116 Indeed the existence of such designs and such traditions are a very precious possession of our New Zealand people, and they will have a share of increasing importance in the moulding of decorative features peculiarly fitting to our landscape and our conditions of life.

The principal medium in which Maori artistry finds expression to-day is the totara-wood in which carvings are made, and interior painting in red, black and white, for the communal meeting-house—the whare-whakairo (carved house), whare-hui (assembly-house), or whare-runanga (council-house), as it is variously called. In former days the war-canoe figureheads and stern posts were beautifully carved, but this branch of the olden artcrafts has still to be revived. The tattooing of face and body, the famous art of moko in which the Maori excelled, was also a great channel for artistic decoration, but this, except in the case of the women's chin-tattooing (kauwae) is an art extinct.

During the last few years there has been a renaissance in wood-carving, especially in the Rotorua district and along the Bay of Plenty. The Maori type of house, even one unadorned with carving, has impressed many travellers as in fine harmony with the landscape, and a dwelling or a meeting-house with carved front and decorative finial or tekoteko and its warm but not garish colour scheme, has come to be regarded by the artist as a fitting and necessary complement to a scene of characteristic New Zealand life. The old village with its pretty orderly grouping of raupo and nikau or bark-roofed whares has given place to the new, which is too often the reverse of picturesque. But in nearly every village there is a carved meeting-house, the centre and focus of the township's social life.

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Interior of a Carved House, Rotorua. [Photo, by Josiah Martin, Auckland

Interior of a Carved House, Rotorua. [Photo, by Josiah Martin, Auckland

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The martial tattooed figures carved at the entrance and around the walls of a whare-whakairo represent ancient chiefs and heroes, and atua or deified ancestors. The interior of such a house is bright with rafter scroll patterns, and adorned with rich carving and with tuitui, fanciful lattice-work done with lathes and reeds. A pretty design is the purapura-whetu or star-dust in groups of tiny stars. The scroll paintings in black and white and red are described as tuhituhi (do not confuse with tuitui) which means to depict with brush or pencil or charcoal. They are used in the broad frieze which runs, around the building; they are graceful conventionalised representations of natural objects, chiefly the drooping flowers of the kowhai, and the uncurling new fronds of the fern-tree; there is also an idea based upon the appearance of the hammer-headed shark, called the mango-paré, and there is the puhoro, the tattoo-pattern specially devoted in former days to the upper part of the legs.

Many Maori designs are used in the adornment of the interior of churches in native districts. The pretty church of St. Faith at Ohinemutu is an example. The front of the pulpit is a series of panels of taniko work, the beautiful mat-border design; it seems to be painted until a close inspection shows that it is really woven fine flax, most delicately and skilfully done in black and white diamond shaped and zig-zag patterns. The tuitui (to sew or to stitch), or arapaki, in lathes and reeds, and coloured flax and other tough fibre binding, covers a great variety of patterns. Some of these have poetical names, indicating their origin or fancied likeness. One is niho-taniwha or “dragon's teeth”; another is called “albatross tears.” When bird-hunters years ago, the Maoris relate, went to the Rurima Rocks and other offshore islets in the page 119 Bay of Plenty in search of the young (kuao) of the albatross, the young birds seemed to know their fate, for when the men approached they wept tears, which fell in long drops—the roimata toroa. Over the doors is the kaokao or “rib” pattern, a series of chevrons. There is the diamond pattern, which is called patiki, because of its imagined resemblance to the shape of the flounder. The poutama is a succession of steps in black and white.

A decorated house of the olden type, in Tane-nui-a-Rangi pa, Hawke's Bay, 1858.

A decorated house of the olden type, in Tane-nui-a-Rangi pa, Hawke's Bay, 1858.

Many of the tuhituhi or painted scroll patterns are immeasurably ancient. Maori legend says they were first pictured by Tangaroa, the Maori Neptune, whose carved house in the depths of the ocean was hooked by Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga, when he made his titanic fishing haul. The hook caught under the front gable end of Tangaroa's house, and drew it to the surface; and this mountainous island of ours is really nothing but the tahuhu, the painted ridge-pole of the sea-god's dwelling.

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Some of the olden customs and ceremonies are adhered to quite strictly in the building and ceremonial opening of these carved houses. I observed at Maketu an illustration of one immemorial observance. The carved slabs had been set in position round the interior of the 60 ft.-long whare, built on concrete foundations, and the workmen were preparing for the raising of the heavy totara maihi, the two large carved front barge boards. There was a notice in Maori painted on a board in front of the building: “Women must not enter this house.” This prohibition against feminine visits applies to pakeha as well as Maori. No woman is allowed to set foot in a newly-carved house until the tohunga and the chief carvers have carried out the ceremonies of the “taingakawa,” or “kawangawhare,” for the removal of the tapu which attaches to all buildings in which the children of Tane-Mahuta, the god of forests, have been carved into the figures that represent tribal gods and ancestors. The final act in such ceremonies is the entry into the house of a selected woman, a chieftainess of the tribe, who is accompanied by the tohunga and the carving experts. They walk round the decorated interior, eating portions of cooked kumara as they go, and the priest recites the ancient karakia. Then, but not before, is the house free to all. A somewhat similar antipathy to female interference exists in some parts of Polynesia. At Niue Island no woman was permitted to board a fishing-canoe.

The ancient prayers for the removal of the mystic spell of tapu are by no means forgotten. An old acquaintance of mine at Rotorua is frequently called in to perform these kawanga-whare ceremonies; he is a tohunga of high order, and he told me once how he had been karakia'd over in his youth by the famous Tuhoto Ariki, the ancient page 121
The carved and tattooed statue of Toroa, at the foot of the main roof-pillar in the assembly-house “Te Whai-a-te-motu,” Urewera Country.

The carved and tattooed statue of Toroa, at the foot of the main roof-pillar in the assembly-house “Te Whai-a-te-motu,” Urewera Country.

page 122 wizard who was dug out alive at Te Wairoa after having been buried in his little hut for four days by the ash and mud from the Tarawera eruption in 1886. Nowadays, as a concession to the pakeha Church, clergymen are called in also to bless the new house. But the tohunga Maori says his prayers first, and nothing that the pakeha parsons can say is so appropriate or so beautiful as some of the passages in the ancient Maori ritual.

Ngati-Porou, around the East Cape, have some large and artistic village halls, combining ancient patterns with modern comfort. But no carved house I have seen in all the villages of Maoridom is superior, for true ancient artistry and primitive consistency of construction, to the Whakatohea meeting-house and prayer-house called “Tane-Whirinaki,” which is to my mind the best extant example of a native decorated building. It stands among the peach trees on a pretty mound above the Waioeka River, a settlement called Opekerau, about six miles inland from Opotiki. The house was built by the chief Hira te Popo, of the Ngati-Ira sub-tribe, forty years ago. It is massively and richly carved in designs embodying tribal mythology and history, and is not disfigured with pakeha door and glass window like most Maori halls nowadays. The paré, or architrave above the doorway, the ruru head above the entrance, and the parata, the end of the ridgepole in the porch-roof, with the tattooed head of Rangi-Kurukuru, the Sky-father, are particularly good examples of Whakatohea artcraft. This house is of remarkable interest in another way, for it is tapu to Europeans. The Ngati-Ira are all adherents of the Ringa-tu church the—offshoot of the old Hauhau religion—and are strong in the faith that Te Kooti promulgated, and their prayers and chants rise in “Tane-Whirinaki” every night and morning.

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In the heart of the Urewera Country, at Mataatua, is the largest whare-whakairo of purely Maori construction. It is about 80 feet in length and 36 feet in width. The raising of the massive ridge-pole, when the house was built for Te Kooti in 1890, engaged the united efforts of a hundred men. For many years, this house, “Te Whai-a-te-Motu,” was sacred; no food was allowed to be taken into it, and all persons entering had to deposit articles such as
“Te-Whai-a-te-Motu,” the carved meeting-house at Mataatua, Ruatahuna Valley, Urewera Valley. [Photo by W. A. Neale, Tapui.

“Te-Whai-a-te-Motu,” the carved meeting-house at Mataatua, Ruatahuna Valley, Urewera Valley.
[Photo by W. A. Neale, Tapui.

tobacco, knives and matches, outside the porch. Surmounting the front of the house is a carved head or tekoteko with outstretched tongue and glittering shell-made eyes. This represents the warrior-chief Te Umu-ariki, who was a leading brave of Tuhoe a hundred years ago, and who was killed by the Ngati-Ruapani tribe at Waikaremoana. Below the tekoteko is a carved and painted monster, half dog, half crocodile. This is Tangaroa, the enchanted dog of Taneatua, a chief who arrived on these shores in the Mataatua canoe. The dog, say the Maori, was page 124 left by Tane-atua at a small lake in these mountains, where it remains to this day as a tipua or dæmon. The porch and the house-interior are rich with carved effigies of ancestral heroes, cut out of solid slabs of totara and grouped around the walls—stern figures with huge distorted heads, and leering mouths from which project red-painted tongues; three-fingered hands gripping stone weapons (sometimes a steel tomahawk) in attitudes of defiance, faces tattooed in exactest imitation of the moko of living men. There are strange reptilian forms, ornate and fantastic, recalling pictures of the plesiosaurus and other fearsome creatures of the past, as reconstructed by the scientist. The lofty painted ridge-pole is supported by three pillars. At the foot of the first one, the sacred poutoko-manawa, is the carved wooden statue of Toroa, the semi-deified kingly ancestor of the tribe. It was Toroa (“Albatross”), who commanded the canoe Mataatua, which brought some of the ancestors of this people to the shores of the Bay of Plenty from the South Sea Islands six centuries ago. The head and face are beautifully carved, and the majestic scornful visage of the Polynesian Viking-chief is scrolled with blue lines of tattoo. The head is surmounted by a putiki-whai or topknot, after the olden hair-dressing mode of the Maori. Depending from the ears are snow-white bunches of albatross down, and the figure is draped in fine flax and feather mats.

The leading motive in Maori art is the spiral (pitau). Bold in design, beautifully accurate, it is purely a product of the native life in these islands. It was evolved in New Zealand from the study of natural objects. But it has its likenesses in many Oriental countries, and a poet reminds us that it appears in the decorated designs of ancient civilisations in Central and South America:

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“On Aztec ruins grey and lone,
The eireling serpent eoils in stone,
Type of the endless and unknown.”

The spiral is everywhere in Maori decorations, in the carved house—particularly on the ends of the maihi or bargeboards—the canoe figurehead and stern-post, and the tattooing on the face and hips. The double spiral design is beautifully open-worked or fretworked in the figureheads, now only seen in museums. Various objects in nature are given by the Maori as the original suggestion on which the carver and tattooer based their pattern. The term pitau is derived from the young first-unfolding fronds of the fern-tree. There is too, the web of the spider (whare-pungawerewere); the pitau is remarkably like a web. There are the wave-like markings on sandstone cliffs, such as the great white
The Finishing Touch.

The Finishing Touch.

page 126 pari at Otamahuka, near Matata. Again, a wood carver turns up his thumb and shows the spiral markings there; “are they not like the pitau?”
Whence did the Maori derive the design of the three-fingered hand, almost universal in the real old wood-carvings? The question has been asked many a time, and many different theories, mostly fanciful, have been advanced to account for this peculiarity in native decorative art. This is a legend told to me many years ago by an Upper Wanganui Maori who was a wood-carving artist: “The first man of the Maori race to carve and decorate houses as the carve them to-day was Mutu-wai-teko, a man of Hawaiki, in the South Sea Islands. He had only three fingers on each hand, and he perpetuated this in his carvings. All his figures he carved with but three fingers on a hand, and this has been kept up to this day by Maori carvers. This was in the very remote past, when my ancestors lived in the islands of the Pacific, Moana-nui-a-Kiwa. One day Tangaroa, the chief, paid a visit to a wonderful house which Mutu-wai-teko had built and adorned with carved figures. These effigies were carved on the side slabs of the house. Tangaroa entered the house, after greeting Mutu with the customary nose pressing. Then, seeing in the dim light of the interior of the house a tattooed chieftain-like figure standing at the side of the wharé, he approached and advanced his nose to that of the other in the greeting courtesy of the hongi. To his amazement he found that the tattooed chief was nothing but a wooden effigy. He was wonder-stricken, and chagrined that he had been so deceived by the cunning art of the wood-carver. And when you look upon the strangely carven and tattooed figures of the Maori houses of to-day, bethink you of the father of carving, Mutu-wai-teko, the three-fingered, the page 127
Carved figure of antique type with three-fingered hands.

Carved figure of antique type with three-fingered hands.

page 128 skilful worker in wood, whose chisel-art deceived Tangaroa.”

This explanation, of course, is not necessarily to be accepted. The three-finger conventional design in the carvings seen in Maori work no doubt originated far back in the ages in Asiatic lands—it has been observed in Alaska too—and who shall say now what object it served or what peculiar belief suggested and perpetuated it? Some will have it that it is intended to avert ill-luck, by varying the effigy somewhat from the human form, but this may be European theory.

A meeting-house of the Urewera Tribe, at Ruatoki, Whakatane Valley.

A meeting-house of the Urewera Tribe, at Ruatoki, Whakatane Valley.

Another curious design is the beaked manaia pattern, with its suggestions of some prehistoric creature. At Rotorua you see it carved on the ends of the choir seats and the pews in the Maori mission church of St. Faith at Rotorua. The design embodies, according to the Arawa carvers, the remembrance of a strange being of old who lived in page 129 the ocean. In the sea he was a fish; when he emerged he took the form of a man. Moreover, he was a god, and it was bad luck to get him in your fishing-net or on your hook. The most extraordinary thing about the god creature was that he had only one human side to his face. Seen in profile form one side he was to all appearance a man, but let him I turn his face and you would see that the other side was that of a fish. He had but one eye and one arm; and so you never see a manaia carved in full face but only in profile, with the one eye showing. One is reminded of the stories of Dagon the fish-god and other classic mythological apparitions, but our Maori manaia out-freaks them all.