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Maori bone koru pendant.

Maori Pendant Necklaces

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Maori pendant necklaces are traditional, spiritual talismans from New Zealand. The Maori, the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, are well known for their expressive and unique art forms. Highly skilled Maori carvers have been …

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About Maori Culture, a Short Introduction to Maori Cultural Expressions

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Toi tu te kupu, toi tu te mana, toi tu te whenua
Hold fast to the language, hold fast to the spirit, hold fast to the land.

This Maori proverb reveals a lot about the native people of New Zealand. Theirs is a rich and deep culture, their identity rooted in the land and their ancestry, and these vital links shape the people’s identity and their art. From the formal rituals of the Marae, or meeting place, to the very carvings that adorn it, the Maori people’s foundation in their language, spirit and ancestral home is clear.

Maori meeting place (marae)

a Maori meeting place

The marea is the open space in front of the wharenui or meeting house (literally “large building”). However, the term marae is generally used to refer to the whole complex, including the buildings and the open space. (Wikipedia)

When visiting a Marae, guests will encounter the powhiri, or greeting ritual. This tradition can be enacted whenever one group hosts another, but the Marae is where the most formal expression occurs. There it often begins with a challenge. Up to three Maori warriors will advance on the visitors, demonstrating their martial prowess with traditional taiaha or fighting spears, before laying a symbolic gift at their feet. Such a display can be intimidating, with the warriors grimacing and giving shouts of battle, appearing ready to fight at the slightest provocation. By steadfastly facing the challenge and accepting the token, the guests prove their worth and their peaceful intentions.

Both parties then exchange karanga, sing-song calls of welcome from distinguished women in each group as the guests enter the Marae. Once there, speeches are exchanged. Oratory is very important in Maori culture, and several speeches could be shared back and forth to ensure all prominent guests are honoured. The powhiri will then conclude

Maori hongi with David Beckham

Maori hongi with David Beckham

with a waiata or song from each group, and the traditional hongi. This is the pressing of noses and the mixing of breath. Like a kiss on the cheek, it is an intimate and welcoming gesture that symbolizes the complete coming together of the two groups. Part of the reason for such a ritual is the importance that Maori place upon the Marae and meeting house.

Visitors to a Marae cannot help but notice the carvings that adorn most of the posts and lintels of the gates and buildings. These traditional works of art are more than decorations; they serve to tell the story of the Marae and its people, establishing the identity of those who call it their home. Maori call these artworks taonga whakairo or carved treasures, and every aspect of them is significant to the tangata whenua, the people of the land. Examples of such carvings are fish hook pendants and Maori twist pendants.

One of the central features of such carvings are depictions of faces or human figures. They are often grotesque in their proportions, depicting people with wide staring eyes and extended tongues. The eyes of many such Maori carvings are inlaid with paua (abalone) shells, which give an iridescent reflection and enhance their other-worldly visage. The almost mandatory protruding tongue represents determination or even defiance, and with the staring eyes are intended to represent a person’s wairua or inner spirit.
These faces and figures will usually stand for people of significance on the Marae; ancestors and founders of the Iwi – the tribe or people descended from them. Rarely a Marae will feature mythical figures such as the taniwha (sea monster) or one of the many Maori gods.

Maori wooden figure with paua eyes and facial tattoos

Maori wooden figure with paua eyes and facial tattoos

To Maori, heritage and ancestral lineage are a vital part of the people’s identity, and so the carvings in a meeting house will reflect that priority. One of the most significant figures will be a tekoteko or human figure at the pinnacle of the roof at the front of the meeting house. This will be a prominent ancestor, and usually gives the Whare its name. This figure also symbolically gives the building its mana or honour, offering protection and strength by his presence. As such, the tekoteko will be carved holding a taiaha or patu, a small war club, and defiantly facing any enemy who may dare approach. The maihi or diagonal beams that form the front frame of the Whare represent this ancestor’s arms, open in welcome, and these will also be intricately carved with further figures and faces of historical tribe members. Indeed, the rest of the building’s pillars and beams are all considered extensions of this ancestor, the entire Whare being his sheltering body for his descendants, with other ancestors being carved on the inner pillars and posts.

A recurring motif in Maori carvings like these is the spiral or koru. Drawn from nature it represents the uncurling fern frond, but symbolizes the entire cycle of life from birth to death. These patterns can be seen in the traditional moko or facial tattoo worn by Maori, and these are in turn replicated on the tekoteko (figures) or koruru (faces) depicted in most carvings.

Maori land posts, Pou Whenua

Maori land posts, Pou Whenua

A variation on the carvings seen on the Marae are the pou whenua, or land posts. These standalone pillars look very much like totem poles from other cultures, and serve a similar purpose. They can be found on Maori weapons and some Marae, or other cultural sites. The figures depicted on a pou whenua may be ancestral or mythical, and will tell a story of the place or an important event that occurred there. They may depict one of the Maori gods or even manaia, mysterious bird-like creatures of legend believed to ward off evil spirits. Still, the ever present protruding tongues, defiant expressions and swirling koru are easily recognized on them.

Maori hei tiki, tiki pendant

Maori hei tiki

Similarly, hei tiki are Maori amulets that also adhere to the traditional style of carving. These small Maori pendants depict a single figure with the ever present wide eyes and conspicuous tongue. Their exact meaning is somewhat of a mystery, but they serve as yet another connection to ancestors and heritage for the Maori. Usually carved from bone or pounamu (greenstone or jade), the tiki is traditionally believed to contain the mana or spiritual honor of the previous owners. This renders them taonga or treasures, passed down through generations and thus acquiring greater significance as they are handed on.

The Maori people’s connection to their land and their ancestry is a vital part of their identity and is very strongly represented in their art. Nowhere is this clearer than in the imagery of the Marae and the carvings there. From the swirling koru to the evocative tekoteko, Maori art richly captures the heart of this proud people.

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Art, Paintings »

Maori Owl (Ruru) Painting by John Bevan Ford

John-Bevan-Ford-Ruru-In-The-Pacific-Bush

“Ruru in the Pacific Bush” by John Bevan Ford

Beautiful painting by the late great contemporary Maori artist John Bevan Ford.

The eyes of the owl, European name (morepork), Māori name (ruru), have been the mythological inspiration for the practice of adding glaring eyes of figures carved in human forms. These eyes are often made from paua shell.

In Maori culture and mythology the owl is believed to originate from the underworld. Hence its strong link with the spirit world.

An example of such beliefs; when a ruru is seen keeping itself near or in a house it is though to foreshadow the death in the family.

This belief led some Taranaki Maori to eating Morepork, believing that it would extend their lives.

John Bevan Ford (1930-2005) was one of New Zealand’s best known Maori artists.

Lauded for his distinct style using colored inks and liquid acrylic his work was inspired by his own mixed heritage.

Apart from paintings Ford also made sculptures, weaved, and practiced traditional wood carving.

Best known for his paintings, the renowned artist was inspired by traditional carving patterns, especially by the form and structure of the hand-woven Maori flax cloak.

He viewed the cloak as an all-encompassing metaphor for landscape, migration and mythology.

As the son of a mother of Maori and Welsh descent and a father of English and German descent John was also interested in the wider connections between peoples and cultures.

This painting of an owl from 2007 is titled: Ruru in the Pacific Bush.


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