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Maori Wood Carving

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The art of woodcarving was brought to New Zealand by the relatives of the present Maori, who probably came to the islands around 1100 A.D (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002). Early Maori Wood Carving shows stylistic similarities with wood examples from eastern Polynesia, where the ancestors of the Maori came from (New Zealand’s Premier Woodcarving site, n.d.). Examples of early Maori wood carvings are uncommon, however a number of them have survived due to the hiding of important carvings by immersing them in swamps during times of unrest. The soaking environment has consequently managed to conserve the wood of the carvings (New Zealand’s Premier Woodcarving site, n.d.).

Wood Carving Style and Tradition
As the generations passed, a uniquely Maori carving style steadily began to appear, turning into what is known as the classic Maori style around 1500. Some carvings are over 500 years old. Unlike its simpler ornamented forerunner, typically for the classic Maori woodcarving is the keen rendered three-dimensional form which surface is engraved with intricate designs (The Metropolitan Museum Of Art, 2002).

According to one of the Maori tradition, the art in woodcarving was introduced to their ancestors by the cultural hero Ruatepupuke. In this story, Ruatepupuke’s son Manuruhi offended Tangaroa, the sea god. As punishment, Tangaroa abducted Manuruhi, by transforming him into a woodcarving to decorate the gable of his residence at the bottom of the sea. Ruatepupuke went down to the sea, to search for his son, where he heard the carved ancestor posts of Tangaroa’s house talking to each other. The posts revealed him where to find Manuruhi. Angered by the opression of his son, Ruatepupuke put fire into Tangaroa’s house. He returned then to the world at the surface, bringing several carved posts and Manuruhi with him, and introduced the art of woodcarving to human race. The talking carvings in the story evoke the artistic standards Maori carvers desire to in creating their work. A master piece is said to “speak” to the viewer, while a less significant example remains silent (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002).

Te Toi Whakairo is the art of Māori carving, and Tohunga Whakairo were the master carvers – the great craftsmen. A very skillful carver was extremely considered. The Māori believe that the gods created and communicated through the master carvers with them (New Zealand in History, 2012). Carving used to be a tapu art, theme to the rules and laws of tapu. The pieces of wood falling sideways while the carver were working were never thrown away, neither were they used by making the fire for cooking the food. Women were not allowed to be near the carvings. The traditions, history, religion and language of the Māori people compose an important part of the carving art. For the Māori people, all things own a spirit (wairua), and a mauri (life force) (New Zealand in History, 2012). Cutting a tree was to fell down a relative of Tane, the god of forests and of man.

Before committing such an act, a karakia (ritual incantation) was recited by the Tohunga, in order to ensure that the act of cutting an offspring of Tane could be carried out without risk (New Zealand in History, 2012). The Māori are different from other Polynesians because they preferred curves to straight lines in much of their carvings. Many carvings have the characteristic koru spiral form, similar to that of a curving stalk, or a bulb (New Zealand in History, 2012). It is sometimes said that every cut in the Maori carving must have a meaning and a purpose, but in actuality probably much of it is simply decorative. The number of carvers of the nineteenth century who had been taught by pre-European experts makes it highly possible that most of the teachers’ knowledge was taught to the pupils (Maori of New Zealand Maori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.). There is no convincing proof that the data
was too sacred to be handed on, because informations of sacred matters were revealed even to Europeans in the early days of the settlement. It is a logical conclusion, therefore, that either the amount of symbolism in carving has been really overstated or that it had been lost by the time the Europeans came to New Zealand (Maori of New Zealan dMaori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.).

It is significant to keep in mind that the figures and symbols in Maori carving, with very rare exceptions, are not religious, but worldly. They do not represent idols, but rather well-known ancestors of the tribe. The closest approach to idols were stone figures associated with agriculture and the so-called “god sticks” of which there exist a few exhibits, mainly from the west coast of the North Island, in museums (Maori of New Zealand Maori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.). These consist of a wooden dowel which is about 18 inches long and has a carved head on the upper end and the lower end pointed so that it could be stuck into the soil. Occasionally there are two heads, and from time to time the body or at least a part of the body is shown. “It was believed that the tribal god would enter the object when the shaft was bound with cord in a certain way and a fringe of red feathers was bound round the head as a beard” (Maori of New Zealand Maori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.).” Without binding the object there wasn´t any religious significance.

The practice of binding or wrapping deities was known in the Cook Islands and in Niue “(Maori of New Zealand Maori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.). The big carved meeting house (whare runanga) was usually given the name after an important ancestor and, nearly every where in the country, was a symbol of that predecessor. The front of a carved house has at the peak of the gable a large carved head without any part of the body visible. “This head is known as the koruru or parata “(Maori of New Zealand Maori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.). In old houses, it is actually carved on the projecting end of the ridgepole (tahuhu), and the body of the figure can be seen on the ridgepole inside the porch of the house. However, the house itself also represents the body of the koruru, who is the ancestor after whom the house is named. The arms of the koruru are the maihi or sloping bargeboards. “In a paragraph by Elsdon Best (N.Z. Journal of Science and Technology, 2006), there are some illustrations of snakes in Maori carving.”

This does not mean, however, that the lizard is a post-European facet, especially in view of the permanent tradition of carving in the Arawa district. The carved house which is located at the Spa Hotel, Taupo, was the work of Wero, one of the most excellent carvers of Te Arawa in the middle of the nineteenth century which also was a student of other great carvers. In this particular house there is a large lizard superimposed on the statue at the base of the pou toko manawa, or the central pole which is supporting the ridgepole. This is important in view of Best’s announcement that a lizard was usually buried under one of the three posts which are supporting the ridgepole of a school or other central buildings, the lizard was generally viewed as an useful guardian. Both examples which are figured by Best exhibit a lizard on the koruru head at the top of a house.

The lizard can be also found in North Auckland carvings. A mostly nice example given by Best is on the top of a burial chest. “Another lizard appears on the supporting post of a small carved storehouse painted by Earle in North Auckland in 1827 and given in Phillipps” (Maori Houses and Food Stores, 1952). This depot is the kind used to hold the bones of chief people. There is most likely an facet of protection in both of these examples. “The same may be said for a large lizard carved on a tomb illustrated by Taylor” (Te Ika a Maui, 1855). There is a lizard carved on the outer threshold of the depot “Hinana” built by Iwikau (Te Heuheu Tukino III) of Ngati Tuwharetoa in the years between 1854 and 1856. This again could have been a warning of the tapu character of the building. The elaborate pataka which was built by Te Pokiha of Te Arawa in 1868 and which is now in the Auckland Museum has several lizards carved on the ridgepole. In the Dominion Museum in New Zealand there is a canoe on which there are two lizards carved. It is said to be the thwart on which the Tohunga sat. There is also a lizard carved on a bone flute in the British Museum. The lizard was also usually carved in an amulet.

A good example is given by Skinner (JPS, 2004). Another really beautiful example of Maori art is the rock painting where two reptilian figures faces the same side. It is an important fact that the human figure was one of the basic designs of the Maori carver, and when he was decorating items, such as feather cases, he used this basic design and had most probably no clue of symbolism. It is remarkable to mention that on the minor objects the human figures were very frequently female. This is logically because of the lack of tapu related with women (Maori of New Zealand Maori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.). So many forms which were used in surface decorations, spirals were one of the most important elements in relief carving.

Maori spirals are nearly every time double, though single spirals are normally seen on stone objects. “As the elements in relief carving consist almost entirely of human figures, apart from the spiral, Archey has put forward a theory that the spiral itself has evolved from interlocking manaia, or the interlocking mouths of manaia” (Maori of New Zealand Maori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.). It is right that there are some examples of openwork spirals which consist of two manaia or one interlocked manaia mouths. “The spiral was commonly a prominent feature of maori male face tattoo” (Maori of New Zealand Maori Art – meaning and symbolism, n.d.).

Reference List
Wagelie, J. (2002). Early Maori Woodcarvings. Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Retrieved February 20, 2012 from http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/maor/hd_maor.htm Woodcarving.co.nz (n.d.) New Zealand’s Premier Woodcarving site. Retrieved February 20, 2012 from http://www.woodcarving.co.nz/new-zealand-specific-information/2-maori-wood-carving New Zealand in History (n.d.) The Maori. Retrieved February 21, 2012 from http://history-nz.org/maori4.html Maori of New Zealand (n.d.) Maori art meaning and symbolism. Retrieved February 21, 2012 from http://www.maori.info/maori_art.htm Phillipps, W. J. (1952). Maori Houses and Food Stores. Govt. Printer.

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