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A year among the Maoris: study of their arts and customs

Chapter IX — Maori Carving

page 109

Chapter IX
Maori Carving

"The young people no longer gather in the evenings in the whare-whakairo," said an old chief to me one day. "They no longer sing old songs and tell stirring tales of their ancestors, or make fun of one another on the events of the day. Now you know where they go? They go see pictures that walk very fast, and where Castles dance, and they no more dance Maori haka, but dance Castle dance. All the Maori girls dance Castle dance with pakeha in dance hall." He was very pleased to hear that the Maori haka interested me more than the modern dances which were so well reproduced on the moving-picture screen by Mr. and Mrs. Castle, and that the Maori carvings were thought by pakeha artists to be amongst the finest in the world.

So it was that I found it quite useless to enquire of the young people regarding the arts of the Maori. It is only with the oldest people that a meagre knowledge of the arts exist. Sometimes it is only a memory, and they will say: "Oh yes, my father know how do that," or "My grandfather make that." The old chief was delighted with my interest in carving, and he explained that the old Maori carvings were done to please the gods, and the carver was made sacred by the tohunga. A few old carvers, he said, lived in the village of Ohinemutu, close by, and he would be pleased to take me to see one. Upon arrival at our destination, however, we found that the carver was involved in a lawsuit, and was away from home. I suggested that page 110possibly he would not be at the land court all day. "When Maori go to the land court," replied my host, "he talk sometime in court room, but when he get outside he talk in street. He talk long time to friends. Sometime talk all day. Man who talks most gets most land."

It was afterwards explained to me that the chief had in mind the ability of certain well-informed Maoris to recite their genealogy back to the time of the landing of the first canoes. Naturally, such a recital took some time, and was accepted as good evidence of the right to any land in litigation. Still more time was needed if the exploits of each ancestor were recounted, but it is a performance dear to the heart of a Maori, and his audience will listen for hours without interrupting.

A few days later the native clergyman of Ohinemutu took me to the whare of a wood carver who had done much of the decorative work in the local church, and who, as a matter of fact, I had heard read the Scripture lessons in Maori on the previous Sunday. In the church, European and native arts are tastefully blended, though the latter are not done in accordance with the old customs. Owing to the encouragement given by this clergyman, and also by the priests of the Roman Catholic Church near-by, which is also decorated in Maori fashion, some resemblance of the ancient arts are surviving in this neighbourhood. The clergyman had also revived the native dances of both men and women, and had taken a company of his accomplished parishioners on tour throughout New Zealand, the performances being well attended by both Maoris and the white population.

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Front of Pataka

Front of Pataka

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The wood carver, who was a man well advanced in years, said he had been a carver in his younger days, but he had made use of the European chisel, and not the native tools of sharpened stone, shell, bone, or shark's teeth. I commissioned him to carve me a small model of a Maori canoe, particularly to show the method of lashing on the top sides. This he undertook to do, and the model was sent on to me later at Auckland. Its value lies almost exclusively in the demonstration of how an art can be lost. The old man, however, was most useful to me while I was at Rotorua. I asked him to carve me a head, so that I might watch the process from the very beginning. First he brought a log of wood, and with a hatchet he chopped off a piece of the requisite length. Then, with one skilful stroke, he sliced off the top plane. Two oblique strokes were needed to prepare the side planes, so that with only three strokes of unerring precision the three great planes were established. Picking up a lump of white pumice which formed the earth about him, he drew the conventional Maori features, and thus the work was designed.

Before my instructor had begun the work he had taken his coat off and replaced it with a Maori cape. Then he had removed his socks and shoes. These slight changes were enough to inspire him, and he felt more like the real thing at the old occupation. Many an old memory must have stirred him, for he continually remarked: "Now I remember." Like a child he began to show me all his accomplishments. It was a rare opportunity, and I played up to it as well as I could, for the Maoris are most reluctant about page 112showing any native custom, and dislike being found at any occupation. When a white person is seen approaching, someone will call out "Pakeha!" and the Maoris become inactive. I have seen the women let the pot boil over rather than attend to their duties until the pakeha had passed on. They soon chase away any intruder who acts contrary to their taste. The Government photographer told me that on one occasion he had persisted in taking photographs after he had been asked not to do so, and his camera had promptly been destroyed.

I asked my host why he always drew the head in the conventional manner, and if he had not sometimes tried to draw it with more realism. Garbed in the old Maori cape, and engaged in an old Maori occupation, he quite forgot his missionary training. No Maori, he said, drew but in the same old manner, and so strict had been the rule that a death penalty had been inflicted for any infringement of it. "The old Maori," he said, "thinks that the gods wish it done that way."

We were presently joined by another old man whom I had previously met in Rotorua, and in the most fluent English he told me how interested he was in the work I was doing for the American museum. "It is only in our museums," he said, "that one can now get an idea of the high state of culture reached in Maori art. You are really doing a great service to the Maori race, and we should give you all the information in our power, for when the present generation passes, with it will pass the knowledge of the old arts and the old traditions.

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Carved Pillars for Interior of House

Carved Pillars for Interior of House

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"As a child," he continued, "I knew something of carving, more by inheritance than by practice, I think, for I do not remember having learned it. I went to a Catholic mission school, and I learned good English, and sometimes I carved for the priests, like my friend here, who has done some of the carvings for the Protestant church. I met with discouragement, however, for the Maoris said, 'This is not Maori work,' and the priests said, 'Remember, you are not carving the old subjects.' As a Maori, I love my old Maori work. I am a Christian. The old Maori was not. Now he has gone, and soon we shall go, too, and I think if the old Maori was good, as he knew goodness, he will go to heaven, and I think the good Maori Christian will go to the same place."

My host brought out another mat and spread it on the ground for the visitor, who now not only spoke for himself, but acted as interpreter for his friend. He said it was not chance that made my host place a mere (stone axe) at his side. In the old days a man never left his whare unarmed, and it was the custom at all times to have a weapon within reach. When a mat or kilt was worn, this particular weapon was thrust in the belt of the kilt. In the case of a greenstone mere, he added, the work of making it was often not finished during the lifetime of one man, and it was taken on by someone of the next generation. What little work of this kind was left now would never be taken up again, but would probably be placed in museums.

Upon being questioned by the visitor, my host acknowledged that he remembered how to tie the knot formerly used in making fish nets of split flax leaves. page 114For a reason I deemed it wiser not to ask about, he said he would not make a net then, but would send it to me later. He was true to his promise, and with the net was a measuring stick for spacing the meshes. These two articles I handed into the American Museum of Natural History, as I said I would, and it was with regret that I felt it my duty to hand in as well the little model canoe which had been so poorly made.

The old man's memory travelled back to the days of his youth, and he recalled having lashed up the wooden stockades which surrounded his pa. Even at the present day the villages are surrounded by a stockade, which has degenerated into a mere fencing of small branches. Formerly it was of heavy timbers, and even of the whole tree trunk. Now, he said, they nail the horizontals to the uprights; in the old days they bound them with supplejack. "We had no nails, for we had no metal," he went on to explain. "When the first ships came to Maoriland, and the traders gave us nails in exchange for our flax, we sharpened them with great labour and made tools and weapons of them."

With great thoroughness he erected a miniature stockade, regretfully using rope instead of the vine or creeper. He laid great stress upon the fact that the crossing of the ropes was done on the outside of the stockade, and that on the inside the binding lines were horizontal. As such a stockade in reality would be skirting a terrace in a hill-side pa, he stood on what would be the inside, and from time to time would lean forward in realistic manner to see that all was progressing favourably on the outside. A Maori, he said, liked to work slowly and to enjoy it. "Pakeha like page break
Interior of Carved House at Whakarewarewa

Interior of Carved House at Whakarewarewa

page 115machine," and he cited the Maori girls who worked in the laundry in Rotorua, where all the work was done by machine. I explained that it was more economical that way, and needed less human effort, but that he spurned machine work was evident—a spark still left of the soul of the artist.

I was then taken to the church of which the old carver was a reader, and I was shown the lattice-work in the making of which he had assisted. It was done in imitation of old Maori work, but instead of being made over reeds, the lattice design was worked over thin slats of wood. As in the whares, it was placed between carved pillars, to which it formed a pleasant contrast. The old man went in search of some of the debris of the lattice-work, and demonstrated the procedure. He took pains to inform me that it should rest upon the ground with an operator on each side of it. I was conscious of the honour I had received in having all these things explained to me, and in every-way tried to show my appreciation. When I returned to my friends they would hardly credit my good fortune, and when I showed them my sketches and photographs they were even more astonished.

It is the art work of the Maoris more than all else that distinguishes them from other Polynesian races— an art of the Stone Age handed down to this present time, to perish by reason of the European influence on the race that conceived it. The same fate has befallen the Maoris as befell the Indians at the time of the colonisation of the States of North America. The white man brought them metal and tools, but he killed the spirit which alone can produce a work of art.

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Amongst the Maoris there existed a feeling of reverence for all creative work, and in their religion lay the keynote of their art. All such work was begun under the impulse of religious fervour. It was regarded as an offering to the gods, and it must respond to the highest human impulse. Before beginning a work of art, the spirit of man was chastened by meditation, and he was made tapu. He might not be touched, nor was he to touch anything but the materials of his craft. Even his food was conveyed to him by others. The conception of his work was usually in allegory, a common method of expression among primitive races.

Each step in an important task of construction was accompanied by a ritual. In fact, most religious observances seem to be associated with constructive work. The belief existed that into all handiwork passed something of the essence of the atua, or god, and this could not be unless the worker was for the time being made sacred or tapu. Kura, or red, was the sacred colour, and the method of rendering anything tapu was to paint it red. This, then, was done with the carvings on houses and canoes, and with the carvings set about the stockades of the pas. The element of time was of no consideration. If work was not finished by one generation it was carried on by the next. Especially was this the case in regard to greenstone ornaments and axes, where improvement of the polish was a matter which continuously required attention.

Districts, tribes, and even such small units as families, specialised in a particular from of art expression, and page break
A Pataka

A Pataka

page 117the knowledge was zealously guarded. It was supervised by the priests, and any deviation from type was a sacrilege, and might even be punished by death It is no wonder, therefore, that the character and type of the arts persisted. In these days, when an effort is being made by some of the "moderns" to find an expression in as simple a form as possible, it might be of interest to study the productions of this race, which of the widely scattered Pacific Islands family reached the highest stage of culture.

To Rauru, son of Toi-Kai-Rakau, who lived twenty-seven generations ago—for in this manner do the Maoris denote time—is attributed the invention of the Maori type of carving. As a generation is computed at thirty years, that would make it about eight hundred years ago. Such is the tradition of the Arawa and Ngati-Awa tribes. Others say that the first Maori carver was Nuku-Mai-Teko, who lived at Hawaiki, the original home of the Maori. He had only three fingers to each hand, and he perpetuated his deformity in the carvings. In the light of scientific knowledge, however, it is obvious that the method of carving has come down from a much more remote antiquity. The representation of the human hand with three fingers is found, for instance, in the relics of the Peruvian Incas and in Eastern antiques.

Great chiefs lived in surroundings which must have inspired reverence and awe. Ancestor worship was the controlling principle in the design and conception of his headquarters. To approach this overshadowing building was to feel its compelling force, and the deep shadows made by its porch added to the impression page 118that it was the seat of a great and mysterious power. The interior was decorated with carved slabs, colossal in conception, forceful and fearsome in appearance, and elaborate in detail, eminently attaining the object aimed at—the dignity and aggrandisement of the chief and the discipline of the tribe.

Most of these fully-carved houses have gone, along with the power once wielded by their owners, but a few are preserved One of the most beautiful is to be found on the grounds occupied by the Dominion Museum at Wellington, and this I do not remember as being open to the public. I had not been told of the surprise in store for me, for the acting director was himself an artist. He unlocked the door of its keeping-place and left me to go in alone.

It was as though I had entered an enchanted realm so beautiful in tone that the figures decorating it in a succession of pillars seemed no longer grotesque, but part of another world, a world peopled with supernatural beings. All was restful and calm, and the magic glow of a golden atmosphere enveloped the hall in its charm, and made it seem that it had been built of polished tortoise-shell. The crude colour was gone, the lattice-work was softened, and the carvings were the forceful adjunct of so much mellowness. The old-time architect knew that the smoke from the fire in a hall without a chimney would tone all his strong contrasts to a harmonious whole.

It seems to have been the custom to erect these tribal houses at the time of some great victory or other event, and they partook of the nature of a monument. Even at the present time each pa has a large central page break
Interior of Carved House

Interior of Carved House

page 119house, which is used as the headquarters of the chief and the public meeting-place. In the general architectural form these modern buildings follow the old lines, though they are often made of planks, but the ornamentation inside has degenerated. A certain amount of carving, however, is generally to be found. The old carved houses varied in size. A small one would be about twenty-six feet in length and sixteen in breadth, but some very much larger ones were erected after the middle of last century. In 1890 the Ureweras built one in the Ruatahuna Valley measuring over eighty feet in length. Te Tokanga-Nui-A-Noho, at Te Kuiti, in the King Country, built in 1878, measures seventy-five feet in length by thirty-two feet in width, with a height to ridge pole of twenty feet. Mata-Atua, which was completed in 1874 by the tribes and sub-tribes of the east coast, is seventy-nine feet six inches in length, forty-one feet in breadth, and twenty-two feet in height. This is the house that was presented to the British Government in 1881, lay in sections for over forty years in the basement of a London museum, but was handed back to the New Zealand Government in 1923, and erected in the grounds of the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley.

In early times the erection of a whare-whakairo was presided over by the tohunga, who was architect and controller of works. First the trees had to be chosen, felled, and prepared. Vines and plants were selected and dried, and at all stages appropriate religious ceremonies were performed and karakias or chants recited to invoke the gods. When the materials were ready the land was measured out, and the trunk page 120of a tall tree was shaped for a ridge pole, which ran the full length of the house, including the verandah. This was supported by posts, the front and the rear one being elaborately carved. One or two other pillars were erected for additional support, and at the foot of the pillar nearer to the front of the house was the fireplace, consisting of a hollow made by the arrangement of four large stones. The ridge pole sloped slightly from the rear to front, and in this way the smoke was conducted to a hole at the rear end of the roof. The base of the front pillar was carved as a half life-size human figure, and was a representation of the ancestral spirit. Rough timber was used for the framework of the house, and the whole of the roof and sides was thatched. On the inside of the framework were pillars of wood about three feet wide and several inches thick. These varied from three to twelve feet in height, according to the type of house. Rafters fitted on to the top of the pillars and extended upwards to the ridge pole. The pillars, which extended round the four walls, were most elaborately carved, and always represented the figure of an ancestor or a god. Between the pillars and about the same width as the pillars were panels of lattice-work, known as tukutuku, and at the base of the panels and pillars ran a skirting, which was also carved. Painted designs were on the smooth semicircular rafters, and between these were panels of woven flax.

Looking from the inside of the house, the door was on the right, and varied in size from about four feet upward. It was elaborately carved on the outside, and painted on the inside in a design similar to the de- page break
Carved Door-Posts

Carved Door-Posts

page 121signs
on the rafters. It was a sliding panel, and could be fastened on the inside with a peg of strong wood, and on the outside by a thong of flax knotted in such a peculiar or personal way that it might not be touched without the knowledge of the one who fastened it. The window, like the door, was a sliding panel, the former sliding to the left, looking from inside, and the latter to the right. Like the door, the window was elaborately carved on the outside and painted on the inside. Round and about the doorway and the window the front wall was covered with reeds, which were ornamented with a design in stippling made by smoking or searing. Walls enclosed each side of the verandah, and these were decorated with pillars and panels similar to those inside the house.

Skirting boards were so placed as to form a pathway down the middle of the house, and at either side of these was the space for sleeping. At communal gatherings dances and games were played, the girls ranged on one side and the boys on the other. Practically the only furniture was the sleeping mats, and a few of these laid one on top of the other made a comfortable bed. No covering was needed, for it is said that the heat was intense, and with door and window tightly closed the atmosphere for Europeans was unbearable. To keep out the draughts and the damp, earth was piled high against the sides of the house. There was smoke from the fire, but the people were not supposed to enter until the fuel burned clear.

In the building of a large ceremonial house a slave was often sacrificed. His heart was removed, and the body was buried in one of the excavations made to hold page 122a corner post. When at last the house was complete in every detail, further ceremony followed. "When the people had assembled," says Mr. Elsdon Best, in describing the proceedings, "the priest affixes to the Pou-Tauronga a piece of petaka, or some other sacred plant, which is called a maro. The object is to draw warmth to the house and bind it there. The pillar is then named rua. On the completion, the priest issues forth from the house and commences to recite the kawa. After this he strikes the corner post of the house with his wand…. The priest then ascends to the roof of the house and recites an invocation to free it from tapu. All join in the response, which is heard far away. After this the people may sleep in it."

Upon the patakas or storage houses the carvers also lavished much time and skill. These were also erected in the marae, or main court of the village, and shielded as far as possible from the attack of an enemy, for they were precious works of art. They had the same general architectural characteristics as the ceremonial houses, but they were smaller, and all the ornamentation was on the outside. To protect them from easy access by children, dogs, and pigs they were set on piles and raised several feet from the ground. The carvings represented deified ancestors, and the figure on the door, between whose outstretched legs one had to crawl in order to enter the store-house, was the principal ancestor under whose protection were the contents of the building. It was usual to elaborate the carvings with insertions of shell, and at the joinings of the panels there were small tufts of coloured page break
A Carved Figure at Ohinemutu

A Carved Figure at Ohinemutu

page 123feathers. Although there are fine specimens of patakas in the museums, most of those I saw in the pas bore a resemblance to a modern bathing house, this being suggested by their being raised from the ground. One at Putiki Pa, near Wanganui, however, gave a fair idea of the real old-time pataka. It was weather-worn, and the red ochre paint had in this case faded to a faint pinky-grey, most pleasing in tone.

There were other small store-houses perched like dovecots on the forked trunks of bare trees. In these were deposited the personal property of the priests, while in the larger patakas food and other belongings of the chiefs and tribal treasures were stored.

Far different were the houses of the people. They were just large enough to accommodate the number of people who slept in them. Early travellers have compared them to dog kennels, but though they were small they had a solid framework on which a good thickness of thatch was fastened with flax cording. The average house of to-day is a poor affair of boarding, a mere shack, though those who are better off possess well-ventilated frame houses furnished in European style, while the Maori who has developed along the lines of modern civilisation lives just as anyone else of a similar station.

As with the ceremonial houses, so with the canoes. If anything, the carving on canoes was of a finer execution, and the designs well fitted to the space. The spiral, inspired, it is said, by the unfolding frond of the tree ferns, was the unit of the designs. According to Mr. E. Tregear, "the spirals are the emblems page 124of Winiwiri, the god of cobwebs"—a pretty fancy which no one would care to brush aside as readily as the cobweb itself, for some of the carvings are as dainty as a cobweb, and as beautiful as the curve of an unfolding frond. By some carvers, it is said, the pattern is derived from the markings seen on the human thumb.

The canoe was a vehicle of service and necessity, but only that of the chief was elaborately ornamented. This, indeed, was a handsome craft. Bows, side boards, and stern post were all beautifully carved. From the bows there protruded antennæ of white feathers. Where the cordage lashed the side boards to the hull were ornaments of shells and feathers, and from the stern post, which was six feet and more in height, there floated in the wind a boa of feathers, which seemed to accent the movement of the craft. Usually these war canoes were painted red, the sacred colour, though in some districts the carvings were painted black. In the course of time the red ochre became a very soft pinky-grey. When the canoe was manned with as many as forty warriors, the movement was directed by one who stood in the middle of the craft and led the chant to which the paddlers kept time.

Although the spiral work, or pitau, was the most prominent unit in the design of the prow and stern post, human figures were also deftly inserted. They were said to be the guardians of the craft. Four of these figures were usually found on the prow. One was placed at the front and formed a figurehead, one at each side, and one at the back looked into the canoe. The stern post had a figure near the top and one at the page break
A Maori War Canoe, Eighty-Four Feet Long

A Maori War Canoe, Eighty-Four Feet Long

page 125base looking into the canoe. Paddles and balers were also carved.

Some of the canoes were as much as eighty feet in length, and were made from the giant kauri trees which grow in the northern part of the North Island, or from logs which floated from the shores of the American continent, and which were thought to be the gifts of the gods. Both the prow and the stern post were lashed on to the canoe, the former being shaped from a log about four feet in diameter and from four to six feet long, while the latter was made from a single log at least fifteen inches in diameter and from six to twelve feet in length.

When it is remembered that the felling of the tree, the shaping, and the carving had to be done with stone axes, supplemented by fire, some slight idea of the work involved may be gained. Then followed the smoothing down with sand and other polishes. Wood was sometimes soaked in the oil of a special kind of shark, after which it was rubbed with nephrite in order to produce a fine smooth surface, and in the final stages many varieties of leaves were used as polishers. Nephrite was secured by barter, as it was found only within a comparatively small area on the west coast of the South Island. Nephrite or greenstone has been assigned a mythical origin by the Maoris. There is a tradition that the migrations of the Maoris from their homeland were to seek for the personified form of greenstone which had been expelled from Hawaiki. When the greenstone arrived at the Bay of Plenty, it found the shores occupied by obsidian or flint, so it made its way to the west coast of the North Island, page 126which it found to be also occupied. From there it made its way to the South Island, and finally, after many attempts to find a new home, established itself on the west coast, and apparently made some short journeys up the adjacent rivers.

Tools made from greenstone often had individual names assigned to them, and that good work might be done with them, karakias or incantations were recited while they were being sharpened or made ready for use. Work on the tools had to be done in prescribed times in prescribed places, and no women were permitted to approach the workers. It was essentially a man's work, and had a certain amount of tapu attached to its observance. Greenstone weapons were regarded as priceless treasures by their owners, and many were believed to possess magical powers, even rendering their wielders invisible.