Painted Histories: Early Maori Figurative Painting

Painted Histories: Early Maori Figurative Painting

Painted Histories: Early Maori Figurative Painting

Painted Histories: Early Maori Figurative Painting


This richly illustrated book explores the flowering of figurative painting in the decoration of Maori meeting houses in the latter half of the nineteenth century. Not practiced in traditional Maori culture, figurative painting developed in response to missionary criticism of Maori church decoration. Neich analyzes the theory and practice of this art and describes the figurative painting on more than eighty meeting houses.


Maihi whare tu ki roto I te pa tuwatawata, he tohu rangatira. Maihi whare tu ki te paenga maara, he kai na te ahi

The carved and decorated meeting house is an expression of the identity of the people who own the house. This decoration is placed according to the cosmology of the meeting house. This cosmology has continued from the past into the present day. Through this cosmology, the fundamental theme of the identity of family, community and hapu is continually renewed. Thus the meeting house provides a focus for the group to express its identity and to relate to other groups.

Paint itself as a substance has powerful associations and meanings that reach back to the origin of the world when Rangi and Papa were joined closely together. They had been joined so long that parts of their bodies had grown together. When Tane separated Rangi and Papa, their parts were severed and their blood was spilt. It was the mixing of the two bloods from Rangi and Papa that produced red ochre or kokowai. Because this paint was created from the bloods of the first parents, it was a very powerful agent for creating new forms. This paint not only provided physical protection but also spiritual protection. Therefore, red ochre used on carvings gave them total protection. This spiritual significance of red paint carried through to the use of red paint in figurative painting.

A range of other colours was used by the Maori, and each of these had its own significance. the primary colours of red, white and black fit the pattern of the Maori cosmology. the knowledge of the meaning of these colours was sacred knowledge, not to be used without permission. As I learnt these meanings and started to use them in my work, I began to realise that paint has a very specific purpose and specific origins within the Maori world. As a result, I can understand the struggle that the artists faced on the Manutuke church when they began to experiment with new foreign, introduced paint. These carving experts were familiar with all the ritual that was needed for dealing with figures of ancestors carved in wood, but they did not fully understand the powers of this new substance. This explains why they left the head out of their new figurative compositions, as they were not prepared to commit the most important part of an ancestral being to the new medium.

A major difference between carving and painting figures is that, unlike painting, which produces no residue, a carved figure has a residue of chips that could be fitted back together to make a negative form of the ancestor. It is therefore imperative to know the karakia to deal with this residue. the fact that painting does not create a dangerous negative form gives painting a new freedom that leaves the artist free to experiment with new forms.

The impact of a new culture presented difficulties to the carvers. Many of them tried to resolve the difficulties by taking on new Christian ideas and . . .

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