Recent korero about Maori Design

Over the last few months I've given a number of interviews on Maori design, my philosophy as a designer and my goal to bring Maori design into the lives not just of Maori but of all New Zealanders. Here are a few links to some of these interviews.

Dudley Benson and Johnson Witehira in conversation
Originally aired on Radio NZ National Music, Saturday 5 July 2014

Talking about The Land of Tara on Te Ahi Kaa
Originally aired on Te Ahi Kaa, Sunday 13 April 2014

Johnson Witehira on Visual Culture - Sunday Morning Wallace Chapman
Originally aired on Sunday Morning, Sunday 6 April 2014

Where’s the Respect? - Why design has little cultural value to Maori

For Maori, the painted arts have always been held in lesser regard than both whakairo (carving) and ta moko (tattoo). Auckland University Professor of Anthropology, Roger Neich, describes this best in his work on Maori figurative painting, Painted Histories (1993).

Like the painted arts, Maori design seems to suffer from the same ‘low cultural evaluation,’ as Neich puts it. The disconnection between customary modes of practice and contemporary Maori design is also part of the problem. According to Jahnke and Jahnke-Tomlins (2003) the lack of whakapapa (genealogical connection) to matauranga Maori (traditional knowledge), highlighted by the genesis of design in Europe, has made it difficult for contemporary Maori design to gain traction within Maori-dom.

However, with Maori design becoming an ever-present part of our daily lives, I wonder – why has it struggled to gain traction as a worthy form of cultural expression, and is it possible to move Maori design up the ladder? Can Maori design have the same mana (prestige) as the carved and tattooed arts?

First, let’s look at why painting has traditionally had less mana than whakairo and ta moko.

One of the main reasons stems back to the origin of the art forms. In the Ngati Porou histories, Rua-te-pupuke is said to have brought carving back from the realm of Tangaroa. Stories about the origins of ta moko talk of the ancestor Mataora first receiving the knowledge of moko from Uetonga, who resided in Rarohenga (the underworld). While these arts had other-worldly connections, painting was an art of our world, Te Ao Marama. Free from tapu(restrictions), with no spiritual initiation, the painted arts could be practiced by untrained people.

Ruatepupuke taking carvings from Hau-te-ana-nui o Tangaroa (the sacred home of Tangaroa) – image by Gus Hunter.

Ruatepupuke taking carvings from Hau-te-ana-nui o Tangaroa (the sacred home of Tangaroa) – image by Gus Hunter.

While both whakairo and ta moko were seen to be permanent, painting was considered ephemeral. This critical difference is highlighted in the origin story of ta moko. In this tale, Uetonga tells Mataora that his painted tattoo (whakairo tuhi, hopara makaurangi) is worthless because it can be destroyed. In contrast to this, ta moko cannot be removed.

Other differences between the painted and carved art forms included; how artists were trained, whether or not the arts were 2-dimensional or 3-dimensional, the mediums used, and how designs were applied. Neich’s table of differences is presented below. In the third column, I have added Maori graphic design as a category. In my opinion, Maori design aligns very closely with Maori painted arts.

The defining aspects of Maori design are the same as painting. It does not require spiritual initiation or strict, expert training, and it has earthly origins. Maori design has mixed permanence – it can be multi-dimensional and digital, and it can be applied to varying surfaces. But, while customary art was practiced only by Maori, Maori  design is created by Maori, non-Maori and those of mixed heritage. Because design can be and is commodified, its spiritual value is further cheapened. So, adding all this together, it’s not difficult to see why Maori design sits at the bottom of the pile. But design has so much importance in our everyday lives. It is everywhere. So, how might we give Maori design more substance and more mana?

Looking at the above table some things are certain. We cannot give Maori design otherworldly origins, nor can we change the ‘ephemeral’ nature of design. However, we can align Maori design with whakairo and ta moko in a number of ways.

We can make ‘strict’ training a part of how Maori designers are taught. Strict training means that a certain level of excellence is the norm. Mediocrity isn’t accepted in the carved and tattooed arts, so why should it be in Maori design. For me, this means Maori designers have a solid foundation in both the customary Maori arts and traditional design.

We can bring ritual initiation and notions about tapu and noa into design practice. To do this we must look at thetikanga (protocol) behind whakairo and ta moko and ask what is relevant to Maori today. In a time where sustainability is an ever-pressing issue, carving sets a precedent for Maori designers by acknowledging the intimate relationship between the materials we use and the natural world. While ta moko provides a guideline for Maori designers working in fields where the human body is concerned. This includes fashion, jewellery and textiles design (including bedding and linen).

By re-aligning Maori design with carving and tattoo practices we might be able to raise its cultural value. We might even be able to give it more mana. But most importantly , we might be able to put the meaning back into the everyday objects around us.

This post by me originally featured on design assembly

Between Two Worlds: What is a Māori designer?

I’m a designer. While I was trained in graphic design, I just say ‘designer’ because over the years I’ve worked on a diverse range of projects – from fashion and exhibition design, to web, video, sound and more. However, sometimes I’m also a Māori designer. So, why the different label? What’s the difference between a Māori designer and non-Māori designer?  In this post I’ll try to answer these pātai (questions), and give my account of what I think a Māori designer is.

In general, people probably think a Māori designer is either a designer with Māori ancestry, a designer who works with customary Māori imagery, or both. However, what I think is unique about Māori designers is the Māori world view – a view which shapes the design process.

For example, when I work on a Māori fashion project it’s not just aesthetics, or the design problem I need to think about. I consider Māori notions about te tinana (the human body), which parts of te tinana are more important than others, and what that means. From there I make decisions about which patterns are appropriate, what narratives I might draw inspiration from and what materials support the kaupapa (idea/theme). Take the creation of my Māori typeface, Whakarare. While the usual design constraints around usability and legibility still applied, there were a number of Māori-centric considerations including:

1. How might notions of tapu (sacredness) effect not only the design of the typeface but also the guidelines for its use?

2. Can a typeface have whakapapa (genealogy)?

3. Where might a typeface be used and applied?

A Māori world-view results in a Māori design process.  I think that this process is the critical difference between a Māori and non-Māori designer. It’s not something forced, though. It comes from having a grounding in tikanga (protocol) and te reo Māori, from being familiar with important cultural narratives, and from studying the patterns, forms, symbolism and meaning of customary Māori art. It is a combination of skill and knowledge, culture and craft, that makes a Māori designer.

And it is not enough to be proficient in just one area. I’m openly critical of Māori who use Māori motifs in design yet lack any understanding of the symbolic meaning. And I cringe every time I see poorly executed koru, a basic yet important component in most kōwhaiwhai-type patterns. Familiarity with te reo Māori and tikanga Māori doesn’t qualify anyone to give advice on Māori design either – knowing about a language or culture does not necessarily translate to understanding its customary art.

This account of the Māori designer might be seen as dogmatic, prescriptive, or even a little traditionalist. However, meaningful Māori design can only come from the meaningful application of pattern, form and imagery.

So do you need to be Māori to be a Māori designer, or to create Māori design? I say, no. Not if you employ a Māori design process and have the skills and mātauranga (knowledge) to support your mahi (work). Being Māori doesn’t make a Māori designer. Practicing in a mode of Māori thought does. And this mode of thought is available to anyone willing to enter into the Māori world.

This post by me originally featured on design assembly