Tā Moko as Much about Māori Identity as Art

The “unusual and pioneering exhibition” Māori Markings: Tā Moko, on until 25 August at the National Gallery of Australia, is curated by Crispin Howarth, and explores and documents tā moko over the past 250 years. Sasha Grishin reviews the exhibition for The Canberra Times.

“Much of the material is drawn from the National Library of Australia and the collection of New Zealand-born Rex Nan Kivell, which the library acquired through gift and donation in 1959,” Grishin writes.

“Tā moko is a form of tattooing practised in the Western and Eastern Pacific, where instead of the use of a needle that leaves a smooth surface on the skin, an uhi (chisel) made from albatross bone and inserted into a handle is employed. This is struck with a small mallet, known as a tā, to pierce the skin. The uhi is dipped in the awheto (vegetable caterpillar fungus) for the body colour and ngarehu (charcoal mixed with oil) for the blacker colour. In contrast to the more usual tattoo, tā moko is a form of scarification with deep grooved furrows dyed with dark pigments.

“In the relative isolation of Aotearoa New Zealand, the tā moko developed its unique pictorial language and paraphernalia such as the korere (feeding funnels) through which food could be administered to swollen lips of those receiving the tā moko and oko vessels in which the pigments were stored.

“Moko in Māori society designated status, identity and ancestry. Some of the designs, such as the spiral elements on the nose, cheek and lower jaw, and the curvilinear rays on the forehead and radiating from the nose to the mouth are widespread and universal; others may be peculiar to the individual. There was a way of reading the Mataora – the living face – like a diary of identity.

“This exhibition is as much about Māori identity as it is about Māori body art.

“One of the more memorable pieces is Serena Giovanna Stevenson’s digital photograph Turumakina Duley and niece Ashley Duley taken in 2004. Stevenson, an Auckland-based photographer, spent eight years travelling and recording the tā moko, not as curiosities or the signs of fierce warriors or insignia on members of gangs, but as marks of cultural identity. Unlike the colonial images, this is an intimate record of Turumakina Duley, the hand of his niece on his arm providing a humanising element to the composition. The tā moko is part of life, strong and affirming identity, and culture.

“Māori Markings: Tā Moko is an important and quiet exhibition that in a scholarly manner explores an important aspect of the cultural heritage of our nearest neighbour.”

Original article by Sasha Grishin, The Canberra Times, April 6, 2019.

Tags: Canberra Times (The)  Māori Markings: Tā Moko  Rex Nan Kivell  

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