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The New Zealand Railways Magazine, Volume 9, Issue 7 (October 1, 1934)

Maori Carving — Revival of an Ancient Art

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Maori Carving
Revival of an Ancient Art.

Above: The carved prow of a war canoe. Below: The stern ornamental carving of a war canoe.

Above: The carved prow of a war canoe. Below: The stern ornamental carving of a war canoe.

One of the most striking characteristics of the Maori is his carvings— handsome and intricate in design. Handsome is used advisedly, yet it may be that that description is only understood after some careful and sympathetic study of carving technique. The so-called decorative woodwork on many of our pakeha dwellings is far less interesting, and lacks those evidences of art which are found in Maori carvings.

The Maori who lived close to Nature had an imagination which had to find some form of expression. He had no written language whereby to transfer his thoughts to books. Thus he used the wood of the bush, suitably embellished with carved scroll-work, as a medium to express his thoughts. The Maori is very conservative and the designs seen in ancient carvings have, in the main, been followed by successive generations of carvers. Augustus Earle, who was draughtsman on H.M.S. “Beagle,” visited New Zealand in 1827. From an artist's point of view he found much to praise, in the Maori carvings he inspected. The symmetry of design, and accuracy of the curvilinear details, excited his admiration.

In the old days the art of carving was looked upon with sacred awe. Only persons of good birth and breeding were initiated into the carvers' cult, and taught the intricacies of the art. A karakia, or incantation, would be recited at the felling of the tree. Further karakias were necessary at the commencement of the work, and during its progress. Mistakes were regarded as unlucky, both for the artisan and the owner of the work. If a hara (false stroke) were made ill fortune would inevitably ensue. It was equally disastrous to blow the chips from the work. They could only be removed by the hand, or by turning the work over. The carver and his tools would be tapu during working hours. Even the chips from his stone chisels and gouges were highly tapu. When members of the Ngati-Awa tribe came from Whakatane to carve the Hoturoa house at Thames, a serious sickness befell them while the work was under way. Inquiry revealed the fact that some of the women had used chips from the carvers' work-place, wherewith to cook food. It was Mereana Mokomoko, wife of the chief Apanui, who, by reason of her mana, was able to carry through the necessary ceremony, which overcame the infringement of the tapu, and so stayed the pestilence. (This house, when completed, was a splendid example of the art of the Maori carver, and it is now housed in the Auckland Museum.)

When we consider that the old time carvers had only stone tools to achieve the results we so much admire to-day, we must credit them with an art sense above the average, coupled with a surprising facility in the use of their prehistoric tools. The tohunga carver had no patterns to guide him in his carvings. His fertile brain would imagine the design. Once conceived, the idea would be mentally projected on the object to be carved, the outline, traced with charcoal or other medium, and then the actual carving would commence.

It is interesting to note here, that the human figure, with wide variations, predominates in Maori carving. A koruru, the huge figurehead seen on the gable of tribal meeting-houses, seems to be the outcome of the carver to express the features of a toa, or warrior, whose grimaces were calculated to instil fear into the hearts of his enemies.

Another point of interest is that the ancient tohunga scorned straight lines. On the oldest carvings the incisions were of rather a shallow cut, with notches, and lines between. Later methods were to cut deeper. The beautiful curved ground was introduced, turning itself round and round like a comma. It is marvellous how the expert carver would cut the double spiral with its attendant intricate curves without any geometrical aid.

The carved Meeting House, Te Hono Ki Raratonga, at Tokomaru Bay, North Island. (The carvings for this house were made at the Government School of Maori Arts and Crafts, Rotorua.)

The carved Meeting House, Te Hono Ki Raratonga, at Tokomaru Bay, North Island. (The carvings for this house were made at the Government School of Maori Arts and Crafts, Rotorua.)

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A peculiarity to be noted in old carvings of the human figure are the hands, with only three fingers. In quest of information regarding this custom in old carvings, the writer sought the opinion of the late Mr. E. Best. His reply was that the meaning or reason of such was lost. Explanations have from time to time been advanced by others, but an opinion from such an authority cannot be lightly ignored.

The most elaborate designs in carving will be found in the tribal meeting-house. The possession of such a building gave increased social standing to the tribe, or sub-tribe, owning it. Former ancestors of the tribe would be represented by the carver in a form relating to some incidents in the ancestor's career. Such an easily read carving graces one of the side slabs of the interior of the Tama-te-kapua house at Ohinemutu, Rotorua. Here is seen the tribal ancestor, after whom the house was named, mounted upon pou turu, or stilts. This has a reference to an incident which happened in far off Hawaiki, prior to the heke of 1350.

It is really a very difficult matter these days to find a Maori who can explain satisfactorily the various patterns and designs. Those who had that knowledge have passed away without handing it down to others.

War canoes were profusely carved on prow, stern and sides. The Dominion Museum houses some beautifully carved stern ornaments, and it is fortunate these have been preserved. Implements, weapons, and objects for social use were also made to illustrate the art of the carver. Many private collections, besides those in the different museums, contain articles shewing the artistic temperament of the old-time carver.

Our Governor-General has sounded a wise note when he recommends the Maori of to-day to try and recapture the art of carving, along with other customs, which shewed a tendency to die out. The Government has instituted a Maori “Arts and Crafts” workshop at Ohinemutu. Under the able guidance and fostering care of Mr. McDonald, serious efforts are being made to encourage a desire among latter day Maoris to attain to the artisanship of former times. Already some very fine expositions of the carver's art have been turned out, a notable example being the work done for the “Te-Hono-ki-Rara-tonga” meeting-house at Tokomaru Bay.

Mr. Heberley, of the Dominion Museum, is carving better than he knows, for in years to come the work he is now doing in rehabilitating old and valuable carvings, will reveal to later generations the work of the Maori carver at its best.

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