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A Critical Look at Modern Maori Carving

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Some care is required on this subject because it is not my aim to be critical of specific artists, but it is necessary to use pertinent examples in discussing the merits or otherwise of modern Maori carving. As we shall see my argument is not against modern Maori carvers but the whole issue of Maori carving being an ongoing perpetuation of 19th century steel carving which was the style that developed forty of fifty years after Cook first arrived on these shores in 1769 and introduced iron in the form of the spike nail.

Early Contact Period carving was pretty much the same as Pre-Contact Period carving with iron and soft steel being used in parallel with stone carving and burnishing and carvings of this period are difficult to tell apart, but eventually steel especially high carbon steel allowed the Maori love affair with curvilinear decoration to explode and the strong sculptural under lying strength of Maori carving to be buried under ever more extravagant surface decoration. This lead to a long slow decline in Maori carving till by 1900 Maori carving was in any real sense dead or if not dead so degraded that death would have been preferable. In the late 1920's an attempt was made to resurrect near-extinct carving skills through starting a carving school in Rotorua which had been for fifty year the center of Maori Tourism. Unfortunately this school not only taught 19th century steel carving but very much pushed one regional style. This situation has not changed much in 85 years except there is a positive growth of interest in all things Maori and a slow but ever growing market for quality carving.



Before the introduction of iron and steel allowed Maori to indulge their taste for curvilinear surface decoration the tools of the Maori carver were bone, nephrite jade or argillite tools or sandstone files and boulders that allowed a slow reduction by abrasion. These primitive but effective tools took enormous skill and patience and time with carvings taking months of slow application. The actual process could only be achieved by breaking the day into periods of effort relieved by putting the work aside to hunt or fish or indulge in simple horicultural tasks before taking up the work again for another hour or so of concentrated effort. These periods of intense effort interspersed with sleep and domestic tasks encouraged a great deal of thought about a design and tended to lead to tasteful and restrained decoration with very strong figurative element to the finished carving. Inseparable from this type of carving was a great deal of free time and a lack of a modern economy; a specialist carver being paid in food, sexual favours and Mana, the respect due a great Man favoured by the Gods.

So having covered the background to Maori carving some comparison between Pre-Contact and Post Contact carving as it survives today might be illuminating. The images above are of Rei Puta; the Sperm whale tooth pendant; a contemporary version on the left and Pre-Contact version on the right and above in Sydney Parkinson's classic watercolour from Cook's first voyage. Between these two carving are two hundred and forty-six years of iron, soft steel and high carbon steel carving. An 18th Century Rei Puta is a strange design that probably survived for three hundred years and has no precedent in Maori Classical Art being in reality a survivor from the Archaic. Its upsweeping form, bulbous nose, simple Picasso like drawing of eyes and nose is pure design, its three holes for suspension are there to make a feature of the elaborate muka binding as shown in the Parkinson drawing, because binding relates to the concept of man controlling the Gods. The Modern carver chooses to ignore these features, concealing the suspension binding at the back of the carving, shaping the rei puta like boat-tailed bullet, concentrating on detailed surface decoration for effect, using garish paua shell for the eyes; in other words a very master class in 19th century steel carving.

In contemporary Maori carving there is a fault that permeates much of the design, it is rooted in a lack of education and an exposure to childish reading matter in the form of fantasy comics. One can imagine these young men doodling this imagery in the back of school exercise books instead of paying attention to a History lesson all the while imaging they have talent. Later when they are aspiring Maori Artists this imagery spills into their work and unfortunately producers of this garbage which has no place in Polynesian Art start replicating each others work till it is everywhere. At its core is a lack of training in true Polynesian Aesthetics, but sadly young men who did not want to listen to history preferring their childish doodling are unlikely to set themselves the task of disciplined study that a deep understanding of Polynesian Art requires. Below on the left is a typical example of this style, which is interesting because this carver has skill yet the world he sees is still filtered through childish imagery that is not Maori Art. Yet if one looks at 19th century Maori steel carving with its swirling over busy curvilinear surface decoration one can see how this Fantasy Art virus can infect the host. This carver also carves impossible fish hook pendants so it might be worthwhile to show the viewer a real early Maori bone fish hook pendant. This hook was found at Papanui Inlet on Otago Peninsula and is in my opinion one of the three greatest surviving Maori Fish hooks in existence.


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The question I ask the reader is can they find any resemblance in style, motif or form between these two objects? Do they appear to be produced by the same peoples or culture or part of the planet? The Papanui Inlet hook was probably produced by a member of the Kati Mamoe Tribe, the contemporary pendant by the Ngati Comic Book Tribe. Geographically the Kati Mamoe occupied the Southern half of the South Island of New Zealand, Ngati Comic Book Tribe can be found anywhere on the planet where people have no love of learning.

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Before moving on from this depressing subject we may as well look at one more of these abominations this time by someone confusing Maori aesthetics with a bad Chinese tattoo. The image is described as a matau which is Maori for fish hook which it is not in any sense. The pagoda motif on the outside curve of the carving has no relationship to any Maori motif in any century since Polynesians first stepped off the boat in New Zealand. I have no objection to people carving this stuff and selling it to the unwary I only object to them mis-representing it as Maori Art.

However, it is not all gloom and ignorance, percolating up from this confusion are signs of real talent that only needs to be teased forth and encouraged. On a trip to visit Te Papa the National Museum I walked into the Museum Shop something I normally avoid in New Zealand Museums and there amongst the usual Comic Book crap was a plain little stone pendant that could have been made in the Archaic. The detail was fine and delicate, simple and elegant, displaying real taste and a feel for the subtly of Maori Aesthetics. This was very exciting and it was no accident that the artist was a woman, as girls don't read comic books. But some male artists mainly wood carvers are also beginning to display this true grasp of Maori Aesthetics and especially in the area of Deity carving which always in Polynesian Art has an air of otherworldliness, of sacred or tapu. It is true these artists are still locked into 19th century steel carving aesthetics but to be fair the introduction of steel did not destroy individual Maori artists ability to produce great Art. There was much beautiful art produced in the 19th century even though the seeds of Maori Art's demise was rooted in it. And it should be no surprise that young Maori artists today display the same skills as their ancestors, it is just that it is more difficult than when a boy grew up in a Maori village surrounded on all sides by true Maori imagery.

The future of Maori and for that matter Polynesian Art is to be found in increasing prices in response to increasing quality. But how can quality improve when the majority of Maori artists have only a very tenuous grasp of Polynesian aesthetics. The answer in the absence of any formal training available in the subject of aesthetics is probably to be found in encouraging the best artists to produce art that conforms to the principles of Polynesian Aesthetics and letting them see the rise in prices that results. One should never under-rate the public's ability to tell the difference between good and bad taste and pay accordingly.

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In this website the Te Fare Atua Trust has the means to encourage artists of quality by selling their work or more specifically by selling some of their work and politely declining to endorse anything that fails to meet our standards. That and increasing their prices is the key to improving the quality of Maori Art available.

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