When looking at Maori art, there is one thing that sticks out amongst everything else with me, and with most likely everyone that sees it for the first time, this is their tattooing skills. They are equipped with many other art skills such as their carvings, weaponry, and townhouses, but the tattoos represent the tribe as a whole and are visible on the people themselves.
The art of tattoo was brought to New Zealand by the Polynesians when they migrated to New Zealand. Men of the tribe are more elaborately tattooed than the women. Their entire faces may be covered as opposed to the women who may only have certain parts of their faces covered such as their chins, cheeks, upper lips, and between the eyebrows. This is to show the dominance in ranking of the men over the women. The fact that the women cannot advance as far as the men shows how that the Maori felt when it came to male dominance over the women.
Other parts of the body can also be tattooed and other colors such as red and blue have been used to tattoo as opposed to just black. The body Moko (tattoos) is used to mark achievements personally in one’s life, and also achievements physically such as puberty. Again, these techniques are less practiced in women than in men.
Overall, the tattoos are used to recognize who the people are in each tribe. They specify things such as rank and faith. There are eight ranks among the Maori and each have their own design. A formal rise in rank is granted by a superior of the tribe, but can also be claimed on the basis of hereditary status. Although these tattoos are significant to the Maori, some people may see these tattoos as a way of decorations for barbaric people. In society, we know face paint to symbolize war and hate such as the Indians on television. If one were to see the Maori, they would think that the Maori were either going to war or just returning from a battle.
The women receive their tattoos also through achievement and hereditary claim, but to a lesser extent. Examples of these are tattoos on the nose, which represent sevants, or tattoos on the back of the legs that represent that the woman has married outside of her tribe. Genital tattoos protect the woman and her children of future hereditary claim.
Meetinghouses were of great importance to all tribes across New Zealand. These houses were the symbol of the past for the tribe. They were the most elaborately decorated houses in the village. If another house were to be more beautiful, it would be an insult to the tribe. Here, the reflections of the tradition, spirit, and history could be seen in the carvings and elaborate designs in and around the house. The area in front of the meetinghouse was most important than even the house itself. Inside, carvings of figures of ancestors and gods told the story of the tribe and it’s history. The Maori gather here to mourn, celebrate, discuss family matters, or whatever the occasion.
Bone artwork is a traditional and sacred craft that is practiced by the more warlike native tribes around the world, but the Maori make the carvings more beautiful and wearable than any of the other bone carving tribes. The Maori had no original written history, but these carvings contain a storied history of the tribes. These objects are handed down from generation to generation and are considered sacred objects. They also can be used as weapons for hunting or to defend their land. These tools are not just made out of bone, but also from wood and teeth of animals they had already killed. Some would contain figures with their tongues hanging out, which may be taken as an insult to enemies or as confidence of the Maori.
The Maori people may not have a written past that we can follow, but things such as carvings and tattoos show that they have a way of preserving their past. It also shows that there is a hierarchy and a form of government amongst the people. These facts tell us that although these may have been less civilized people than the rest of the world, they were disciplined and have the knowledge to keep their tribes together and peaceful.
-Class notes Aussie/N.Z. Spring 2000
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