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