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Mokomokai: Commercialization and Desacralization

Modern Western Attitudes Towards Mokomokai and the Maori Cultural Renaissance

Modern Western Attitudes Towards Mokomokai and the Maori Cultural Renaissance

The original attraction of Europeans to the mokomokai seems to be a fascination with the exotic and noble savage. An early commentator wrote that, “There is no doubt that to arrive at such pre-eminence of such complete tatuing a man must have killed and eaten many of his fellows” (Lewis 1996: 93). The connection of tattoo to cannibalism, sex, and war is often stressed, while ignoring the more complex and nuanced cultural, political, and religious meanings. This depiction of moko is typical not only of early western colonialism, but also of modern writings about the moko. In 2000, Gilbert writes that, “An elegantly tattooed face was a great source of pride to a warrior, for it made him fierce in battle and attractive to women” (Gilbert 2000:67). And Starzecka comments that the moko made warriors “intimidating” and “enhanced the carrier’s erotic appeal quite considerably” (Starzecka 1996:42). The stereotypes of the fierce and erotic savage continue to this day.

One original Maori reaction to European fascination is described in Robley’s account of Hongi’s visit to England. He writes that “Hongi’s bearing was dignified when treated as a great man, but when regarded merely as an object of curiosity he never failed to show his disgust and even indignation” (Robley 1998:107). Of course the European fascination continued and later an English showman brought two Maori with moko to show them off and make money in England (Robley 1998: 109). The number of books on Maori moko, as well as their depiction of ta moko indicates that by and large European fascination with moko continues.

This fascination with indigenous cultures is visible in popular culture (tattoos, fashion design, photography, television, and video) and modern genetic research. Camphausen, a modern tribal enthusiast, notes that the both western and as well as Pacific Islanders are gaining a renewed interest in traditional arts (1997: 2). Camphausen romantically continues that what he terms “Return to the tribal” is the beginning of a “global village” and a return to “the primordial feeling, the tribal emotions from which a few centuries of literacy have divorced us” (Camphausen 1997: 5). He writes that, “Stimulated by the new appreciation of, and demand for, their arts and knowledge, people from the Pacific to Africa are now recovering and reviving what was almost lost, motivated and helped by a new kind of tourist who is interested in these practices” (Camphausen 1997: 5). This romantic view of the modern tribal movement places modern indigenous people as the heroes of some pre-literate past, instead of recognizing their role as modern actors in the global community. Furthermore, Camphausen praises the western tourist’s fascination with the indigenous and even credits this fascination with indigenous art for the cultural renaissance occurring throughout Africa and the Pacific. In doing so he fails to recognize the political, economic, and cultural battles fought by indigenous activists, motivated by a desire for sovereignty and the right to cultural self-determination, not, as Camphausen imagines, “a new kind of tourist who is interested in these practices.” Western popular culture and accompanying capitalism inevitably desacralize the important rituals and symbols they seek to imitate.

Of course the issues are much more complex, and modern Maori continue assert their right to represent themselves and strongly disapprove of being made a spectacle for western curiosity. Nicole MacDonald writes,

Maori are prepared to fight to protect their traditions, to hide them, if necessary, from the bored, fascinated eyes of a world hungry for the ‘exotic.’ Though they do not feel compelled to share their culture with those who do not respect it, they are eager to educate others who are willing to understand. They want to show them that there is important, sacrosanct meaning behind the beauty of the design, in order to further protect the art from those who look purely out of horrified curiosity or who attempt to appropriate the patterns for uses other than those that are personal and sacred. (Neleman 1999:13).

Interest in Maori tattoo is growing due to the Maori cultural renaissance (Blackburn 1999:15). Pita Turei describes how “In the 70’s, young urbanized Maori in search of powerful symbols of ethnic identity rediscovered the art, and moko found a new generation of skin” (Neleman 1999:11). The female chin moko has continued to some extent up until the present day and since the 1970’s has become “a potent symbol of Maori identity and cultural resilience” (Starzecka 1996: 41).

Harry Sangl, a modern artist, worked for several years to document the chin moko of many Maori kuia, or elderly women. Some allowed her to, but many also refused, due to the belief that if the moko were reproduced the wearer would die. Strong beliefs continue, even until the present day to surround the moko (Sangl 1980:13) Tame Wairere comments,

The resurgence of ta moko among Maori is a direct means of reasserting our tono rangatiratanga (absolute sovereignty). It is in defiance of past and present political agenda, laws and regulation that continually deny access to our lands, language, customs and beliefs.

The impact of colonization has seen many of our taonga (treasures) taken to private collections and museums throughout the world. Ta moko and mokomokai are testimony to our tipuna (ancestors), are links to our past, and are therefore extremely important to the continuation and promotion of our culture. They must be returned to where they rightfully belong— Aotearoa. Wearers of the art of ta moko ensure that this tradition continues into the new millennium. (Neleman 1999: 9)

The correct understanding and portrayal of sacred symbols embodied in the Maori moko has much broader implications than just respect for another worldview. Moko are an important part of the modern Maori political, cultural, and religious identity. The threat of commercialization is still relevant and real.

The key issues here are the proper respect for Maori cultural and intellectual property, for the right of the Maori to determine how they will view and understand the body and how this understanding will translate into correct protocol for genetic research. The danger lies not in the research itself, but in the imposition of western paradigms, of western legal and economic structures. As illustrated in the history of the mokomokai, commercialization and the introduction of new economic paradigms threaten the cultural and social fabric of the Maori way of life. Through attempts of modern popular culture to commercialize the moko, we can see the continuity of western cultural imperialism. More importantly, the response of the Maori to this commercialization highlights the demand by the Maori people for the right to determine their participation in modern society—be it popular culture or genetic research.