Maori of New Zealand
The Maori are regarded as the native populace, the people of the land of New Zealand. The Maori’s ancestors have come from the Pacific Islands to New Zealand and settled on the coast many hundreds of years ago. These Polynesian people formed their own particular culture, language and traditions. The ancestors of the Maori owned an abundant culture of oral stories and honored the gods of the natural world. Therefore, the Maori saved heritage of ancestors and grew into very rich people in their culture, traditions and legends. Over the centuries the Maori of New Zealand have adapted to new circumstances – some have been accepted and integrated, while others have been rejected and left in the past. Nevertheless, the Maori people have become an inherent part of contemporary New Zealand society. Therefore, the oral stories, legends and poetry of the Maori of New Zealand have found their expression in two main forms of the Maori visual culture – carving and weaving, and this tendency is kept even today.
The Maori take their beginning from Polynesian nations who had arrived to the territory of contemporary New Zealand near the end of 13th century. Most canoes, on which Polynesian people had arrived, explored the coasts of unknown land and eventually settled there. The Maori people faced the challenge of severe climate and new species of animals and plants. Furthermore, the early settlements of Maori people were often close to the sea, where they had opportunity to fish. The Maori also extensively hunted, mostly birds, to provide themselves with meat. Moreover, cannibalism, as well as polygamy was a particular feature of the Maori society. The warfare in traditional Maori society had a great importance as it could be seen from their oral legends. Tribal oral histories shed light on the Maori armed conflicts and many remains of fortifications within New Zealand are evidences of the intertribal hostility, as well as conflicts with Europeans. Additionally, the Maori people had a sacred relationship with nature – the seas, meadows and forests. Thereby, the contemporary culture of the Maori nation continues to display not only this close connection with nature, but also many other peculiarities of the Maori history in their oral stories, legends and poetry that are also expressed in their visual arts.
Nowadays, the Maori men live across the territory of New Zealand and most of them actively attempt to keep their culture and traditions. Being the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori people keep the heritage of their ancestors. The Maori culture is plentiful and varied because it joins both traditional and modern arts. For instance, carving and weaving can be recognized as two main forms of the Maori visual culture that combine techniques of ancient times and the new ones (Hanson & Hanson, 1983). The Maori traditional carvers maintain the culture alive in their complicated works that are manifestation of respect to the past. Every piece of such carved works displays a story, which remains incomprehensible to those who do not know how to read it. Each detail in these carvings is very important because the position of the body, gestures, the shape of the heads and patterns that surround them create an event, which has to be remembered. In addition, the integration of the Maori culture with the elements of the European one enriched it with several improvements. One of them was the change of stone tools of carvers with the metal chisels that greatly facilitated the work. Therefore, carving alongside with weaving has become a traditional art of the Maori people that is practiced throughout New Zealand. Such practices combine contemporary forms and techniques with those, which have been used hundreds of years ago, thus expressing the past and the presence.
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While being one of the main Maori visual arts, carving represents various stories, myths and legends of the Maori nation that have been passed down orally from fathers to sons. The oral folklore of the Maori culture always purposed to preserve their legends and beliefs till present days. Thus, the Maori carvings have been and continue to be the way in which oral legends and stories are expressed in visual art. The Maori carving can be performed in wood, bone or greenstone called Pounamu in the Maori language. Most carvings connect elements from several branches of mythology which interact with each to represent a story. For example, such interaction can be seen in numerous carved meeting houses throughout the Maori villages, where each of them is devoted to an important ancestor. Therefore, the carving on Tanenuiarangi meeting house depicts the mythological character Kupe who fights two sea monsters. This wood carving refers to late 20th century and represents a legend of Kupe’s arrival to New Zealand among the other canoes. The Maori legend tells that Kupe has allowed his cousin Hoturapa to sink while they were fishing to steal his wife. Kupe and Hoturapa’s wife Kuramarotini journeyed in a large canoe called Matawhourua and overcame many sea creatures and monsters (Craig, 1989, p. 127). Thereby, the caving reflects one of Kupe’s victories over sea demons. In addition, cavings in meeting houses are very important to the Maori people and convey sacred and spiritual meaning.
Many Maori legends were also carved on the rock, and one of them can be found at Mine Bay, Taupo. The main rock carving has a height of 10 meters and can be observed only from a kayak or boat. The carvings may remind the ancient remains of Maori village, but it has been created in the late 1970s. The creator of these rock carvings was Matahi Whakataka-Brightwell, who attempted in such way to make a gift to Taupo and show appreciation to his teachers, Maori elders. This significant carving consists of several individual carvings, and each of them tells its own story and has its own meaning. The main caving represents Ngatoroirangi – a navigator from Maori legends and stories, who has led two tribes of the Tuwharetoa and Te Arawa to the territory of contemporary Taupo during the great migration more than thousand years ago (Hanson & Hanson, 1983). Due to multi-cultural nature of New Zealand, the talented carver created two smaller figures – the south wind, performed in the Celtic tradition, and a mermaid. The face of Ngatoroirangi has a facial tattoo called moko that conveys actual appearance the navigator has had in real life. The family tree Whakapapa is carved on the forehead and represents four generations of Ngatoroirangi’s ancestors. Therefore, these magnificent carvings are not only an example of the Maori visual art, but also a record of the oral Maori stories that possess spiritual and cultural beauty. The Taupo carvings is a clear demonstration that traditional Maori oral legends can be expressed in their visual arts even today and thus, continue to be passed from one generation to another.
Weaving is one more visual art within the Maori culture that has brought oral legends and stories throughout the centuries. According to Puketapu-Hetet (1989), “Weaving is endowed with the very essence of the spiritual values of Maori people. The ancient Polynesian belief is that the artist is a vehicle through whom the gods create” (p. 2). Maori weaving contains hidden meaning and symbolism expressed in both ancient and modern patterns. Women who are weaving sacred cloaks or simple baskets for storing food are considered in the Maori religion to be mediums used by the gods for their creations. For instance, weaved cloaks are mentioned in such mythical stories as Mataora and Niwareka and in the legend of Pare and Hutu. In Mataora and Niwareka, mythical character Niwareka was continuously weaving cloaks. Moreover, weaved cloaks are recalled in the Maori legends as parting gifts. In addition to this, at the beginning of the myth of Pare and Hutu the different types of most beautiful cloaks are mentioned in the house of Pare. Thus, such respect and special attention to weaved cloaks speaks of its symbolism and importance. Therefore, the Maori visual art and oral legends are in close relationship with each other for centuries as they transmit knowledge from generation to generation.
Additionally, visual art has a crucial role in the Maori culture. Oral stories, myths and legends expressed in such forms of the Maori visual art as carving and weaving have linked living people to the legendary mythological heroes and sacred gods. The Maori carvings have special value because they keep tribal history and the legends of the gods alive. Using different forms of visual arts extending from cloth weaving to wood, rock and bone carving, the Maori people transfer their knowledge through generations. The Maori’s great respect for nature has been displayed in many legends and each element of such mythological stories has been endued with specific meaning and the way it is portrayed in a carving or weaving. Maori carvings can be observed in different surfaces from traditional meeting houses to rocks that adds some special peculiarity to their nature. Therefore, Maori carving and weaving continue representing oral legends of the Maori ancestors and thus, flourishing both in its traditional cultural context and through modern interpretations and views.