Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Masterpieces of Old Polynesia – Maori Preserved Head

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We should start by making no bones about the fact that treating a 19th century preserved Maori head as an art masterpiece is sure to distress some and disgust others, but the fact is that beyond thos object being human remains it is Art and it is a Masterpiece of Maori Art. This head is most likely to be a trophy of war sold to a white trader or passing sailor for the price of one used musket. On occainsions the head of a slave would be tattooed and when the swelling subsided he would be shot and his head preserved and sold. In this case the quality of the tattoo precludes this possibility. This practice of selling heads was not a Maori practice, but a demand introduced by Europeans. No Maori would sell the preserved head of a relative, though in the terrible Musket Wars of the 1830's owning muskets meant the difference between life and death for a tribe. Preserving heads was often done when a warrior died far from his relations and his head would be preserved to carry home that they might tangi over him.

Enemy were treated differently, their heads were preserved as trophies often to serve later as tokens of an eventual peace. Europeans disturbed this ancient practice when early sailors recognized there was a market for preserved tattooed heads in Europe or in closer Sydney where the going price was five pounds. The art of course is in the quality of the tattoo or moko and Maori tattoo differed from other Polynesia tattoo in that the design was curvilinear and chiseled deep into the skin using Albatross bone chisel points. This produced deep cuts into the epidermis which show clearly in the above image and create a design that is sculptural and a design that follows cleverly the natural curves of the facial features. The whole process being deeply painful with breaks needed to allow swelling to subside between tattoo sessions.

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This art of the skin normally was extinguished upon the death of its owner, but disgusting though trade in human heads may seem to some, in fact this trade allowed several hundred of these art works to survive. The greatest collector of these was Horaitio Robley an English officer who fought in the Maori Wars of the 1860's. His collection numbered an astonishing thirty-six heads formally in the Smithsonian in Washington DC, now returned to New Zealand. He was a skilled amateur artist and wrote a book on Maori Tattoo, based on information he had gathered in New Zealand and later in Europe. This particular head is beautifully preserved and the image shows off the delicate skill of the moko artist. Unfortunately these objects are currently not exhibitable due to cultural sensitivity with many being returned from collections all over the world to New Zealand only to disappear from sight to perhaps never reappear. However, in coming generations I hope that Maori people will overcome their queasiness about showing these beautiful artworks. There is nothing in the trade of these heads that reflects badly on Maori as almost all aspects of their actions were 'tika' or correct according to the laws and customs of their ancestors including tattooing a slave only to kill him, as his life was forfeit from the moment of his capture and it truly did belong to his owner who could dispense with him as he chose. Almost none of these heads have a provenance so much of the wailing over their fate in foreign collections is ridiculous as while everyone of them was someone's relative, in reality they were either defeated warriors or slaves tattooed and killed and none that I know can be identified. There is one recorded incident where a sailor stole preserved heads that belonged to a tribe in the lower South Island and the presumption was that these were heads of family members but no head in any collection has been identified as these specific head or heads.

Currently it is nor possible to identify these heads to living decendents through DNA but it will happen and when it does museums better brace themselves for a world of trouble. The Smithsonian made no allowance for this when they agreed to return them and sort no legal assurances which is a culpible act as when these are identified to living decendents there will be protests, legal action and cries to bury these objects which is just another way of asking for their distruction. Maori have currently a small window of opportunity to head off this disaster via a serious education and awareness programe unfortunately there is no sign of this happening, rather they have disappeared into museum vaults and all concerned are congratulating themselves seemingly unaware of the ticking time bomb under their feet.

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But in fact returning these object to Maori was the correct move as only Maori could ever display these objects the problem being the ignorant gawking attitudes of humanity. But it would be hard to imagine how you could have an intelligent exhibition of these objects without a massive education of the public, and to make that possible the Maori would need to educate themselves first. When they treat these objects as Great Art Works in human skin executed by their ancestors on their ancestors, the process of getting the rest of the population to take these objects seriously will begin. Pre-contact and post contact Maori were slave keeping cannibals, but they were also a great culture of artists, poets and warriors. Rome was also a great culture of artists, poets and warriors, but their art I suggest was far out stripped by the art of the Maori, just as Romans far out stripped Maori in keeping slaves. But perhaps most of all Maori are missing an opportunity to promote the greatness of their Art; an exhibition of Robley's Collection under conditions imposed by Maori and with the entire process of the exhibition conducted by Maori themselves under Maori protocol would be one of the greatest sensations in the Art World.

Interestingly Terence Barrow who always had an intelligent and fresh view point to offer on Maori Art suggested that the act of creating preserved heads had a great effect on the look of carved ancestral figures, which the figure above from the Menil Collection, Houston, Texas amply demonstrates, the eye lids joining together in the center of the eye rather than the top lid closing over the entire eye, showing that this head is a wooden copy of a preserved head, one than probably was poorly cured and deteriorating. This concept of images of the dead influencing carving styles is now the accepted theory of Easter Island moai kava kava, which makes one wonder if there are other examples in Polynesian Art. Perhaps here also lies the answer to the exhibition of preserved Maori heads as it would be perfectly possible to reproduce these as absolutely lifelike silicon models with real human hair inserts or as beautiful carvings in wood again with human hair inserted into the scalp and real human teeth. Another possibility would be artistic photographs in black and white silver gelatin prints. I think all these ideas would work but would work best in an exhibition that culminated in a darken room where real ancestoral heads were displayed. Again this unimaginable unless conducted by Maori under Maori protocol. Such an exhibition would also have carved wooden ancestoral heads such as the Menil Collection example but in fact there are better examples in public collections and Goldie paintings would also work very well in such an exhibition. But Maori should be moving on this issue now, they owe it to their people to bring these objects forward and share them with the world presented in context and I believe in this way they would secure the presevation of these objects for eternity and their ancestors deserve better that to be hidden away as if they are a shame rather than an integral part of the glory of a Great Culture.


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