Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesia Art at Auction – Head Pukeroa Pa? - Maori, New Zealand


Polynesian Resource Center

The main interest in this head carved in the early 1800's is that it is catalogued by Sothebys as likely to be part of a series of architecture elements for Pukeroa Pa on the foreshore of Lake Rotorua. The most famous surviving element is a superb massive gateway that is regarded as one of the great treasures of Maori Art. On the back of the carving under discussion is an old inscription which suggests this and Sothey's find similarities in the carving styles. The gateway itself had a checked history, and was reputed to be carved in the early 1800s by Te Umanui. A log was pulled from the Ngongotaha Stream and one half became the gateway while the other became a pouwhakarae. Both gateway and the pouwhakarae played a major part in the defence of the pa, Muruika. When Ohinemutu was attacked by Waikato, the gateway was re-erected beside Utahina Stream to become one of three main entry points into Pukeroa Pa. Following this, he was again moved and became the gateway into Ohinemutu's urupa, Waihunuhunukuri. In 1889 it was gifted to the Crown by Warihi Makitaunu and afterwards was presented to the Auckland Museum.



Polynesian Resource Center

This photograph of when it was in situ at Ohinemutu, is by an unidentified photographer, but we know by 1893 it was photographed painted with ugly red paint the fate of much Maori Art. The restoration to its original colours took place in 1982 just before the Te Maori Exhibition in New York. With the gateway its original colours were identified beneath the red paint and from old photographs, but in fact this colour scheme is probably from the 1840's. However, these colours whether original or not are certainly beautiful and one wonders if tests have been carried out on the head that is suspected of being part of the orginal carvings of Pukeroa Pa architecture elements for traces of similar pigments. At Sotheby's (Paris, 30 November 2010, lot 74) a canoe prow ornament in a similar realistic style, the open mouth of which represents, according to David R. Simmons, 'Hema, a legendary hero of Maori mythology was sold and is pictured below. What grounds Simmons has for this attribution is not given. The interesting point on the Pukeroa Pa head is the unfinished upper left forehead tattoo or moko. This suggest to me strongly that this is an ancestoral portrait of a real individual rather that a mythical figure, where the artist has liscence to add as much detail to the moko as he likes and would be highly unlikely to leave a section unfinished.

The Sotheby's 2010 head being a canoe prow ornament seems an unlikely subject for an ancestoral portrait, but the whole subject of portraits in Maori Art is unstudied, and therefore rich in possiblities. Attribution of carvings is however a risky business, especially when subject to wishful thinking which is what I would label this attempt to ascribe this head to Pukeroa Pa. If we look at the face of the gateway figure the carving of the moko is very unusual being not in my opinion an attempt to copy a tattoo rather to suggest a tattoo, as a true tattoo is made up of parrellel lines while the spirals on the gateway are solid with not the tattoo cut away but the surrounding areas of wood. In this way it seems likely that the gateway figure was designed to be painted but not I suggest with green pigment rather the two pigments Maori had available which would have been red and black. The red being kokowai; red ochre and shark oil and the black a burnt pigment of which there were several recipes that would produce a black. Augustus Earle shows several pa with architectural elements painted using white and it is possibile this was aquired from Europeans in the form of white wash used on European sod cottages. Some early European painters have been critizied as representing Maori carving inaccurately, but I am not so sure as Maori were very quick to experiment with new ideas.

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