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Adorned | Whakarakei: The art of tatau and ta moko

Curators Matiu Baker and Sean Mallon discuss the history and practice of tatau and tā moko.


Rebecca Rice/Nina Tonga: Matiu and Sean, in Adorned we have included the tools of a tufuga tatatau (specialist in tatau) and tohunga tā moko (specialist in tā moko): ‘au and sausau (Samoan tattooing combs and mallet) as well as uhi tā moko (Māori tattooing instruments). How have the tools and process of receiving a tatau or tā moko changed over time?

Sean Mallon: Remarkably, the tools for making Samoan tatau remained largely unchanged from the 1800s through to the late 20th century. However, in recent decades new and synthetic materials such as nylon and acrylic have replaced the coconut fibre and turtle-shell used in their manufacture. Today, the leading tufuga are using plates of metal needles when they construct their tools. These changes in materials are shaped in part by the increased participation of tufuga in international tattooing conventions, and the servicing of customers in the Samoan diaspora. In both contexts, tufuga are subject to strict health and safety regulations requiring the sterilisation of their equipment. The use of synthetic materials to make durable tools that can be sterilised helps this process along.

The process of receiving a tatau has changed too. It can be quite formal and involve the exchange of indigenous valuables such as ‘ie toga (fine mats), or it can be informal and proceed more like a straightforward commercial transaction. It can be a very private event or very public. These days, people can receive their tatau in a fale (house) in Apia, a tattooing convention in Berlin, or a garage in Auckland. In my observations, and across these situations, there is usually some kind of protocol involved … but for the tataued person, there is also often a pause, a kind of taking stock of where you are, who is there, and what is happening. Receiving a tatau may not be always a grand-scale ceremonial event, but it is always a serious undertaking, a special occasion.

Matiu Baker: Tā moko has undergone significant changes since its practice was disrupted through colonisation and the adoption of Christianity in the mid-19th century. Missionaries, and Pākehā generally, perceived it as an abhorrent and heathen practice, even while being somewhat fascinated by it. This view particularly affected a young generation of Māori men specifically, and to a lesser extent women. But to be fair, this is a very simplistic statement and doesn’t unpack what were some very compelling and powerful social forces at work. There was, however, a brief revival of tā moko among men in the 1860s during the New Zealand Wars. The last men to be tattooed during this period died in the first quarter of the 20th century, during the 1920s. Women from various districts continued to be tattooed through to the 1920s.

The tattooing process itself changed early in the contact period, and certainly by the 1840s metals started to replace bone in the manufacture of uhi, tattooing chisels and combs. One especially interesting account of the use of metal uhi occurred with the tattooing of Iwikau Te Heuheu of Ngāti Tūwharetoa (Taupō district) in 1841. The operation was witnessed by Edward Jerningham Wakefield of the New Zealand Company, who commented:

The instruments used were not of bone, as they used formerly to be; but a graduated set of iron tools, fitted with handles like adzes … The man spoke to me with perfect nonchalance for quarter of an hour, although the operator continued to strike the little adzes into his flesh with a light wooden hammer the whole time, and his face was covered with blood. 1

Interestingly, the work in question was said to be the tattooing of the cheek spiral, which was crooked and poorly executed. Given the very high status of Iwikau, and the expectation that only a practitioner of superior ability would be permitted to perform the operation on a man of such high status, one has to wonder if perhaps there was some inherent quality or property in the metal that ultimately undermined the skill of the tohunga tā moko.

So while we understand the general process of tā moko as it was practised until the mid-19th century, there are some aspects of its actual application that continue to elude us, for the moment. This is specifically true with respect to tā moko as it was applied to the face. Where tattooing combs (uhi matarau) were used mainly for other parts of the body, in the very same manner as other Pacific peoples, much of the face was tattooed using fine chisels that were designed to cut the skin and flesh to receive the pigment. The overall effect of this operation was a unique form of body modification, with applied pigment that left deeply grooved channels in the face. To my knowledge this particular process is entirely unique to Māori. It’s this very fine and intricate carving of the human face that presents the greatest challenge, for those brave enough to attempt it. Practitioners need to completely relearn this art form through careful experimentation.

But perhaps the biggest shift in practice was the adoption of needle tattooing during the late 19th century and early 20th century. The use of grouped needles became the most common form of tattooing throughout the world during this period, and it was the form most commonly applied to pūkauae, the female chin tattoo, in the early 20th century. It’s still the most ubiquitous form practised in the world today.

It was this ever-decreasing generation of kuia moko (tattooed female/women elders) who inspired a young group of artists and carvers following the protest movement of the 1970s to reclaim moko as a unique expression of Māori identity. Combined with the interest of academics like Michael King and the continued popularity of the published works of Gottfried Lindauer and Charles Frederick Goldie, and colonial artists like George French Angas, it helped reawaken the interest of a new generation in this venerable and unique art form.

The 1980s saw the rebirth of moko, but it wasn’t until the ’90s that it really started to gain any real currency as an authentic artistic form and contemporary cultural practice. But it really hit its stride in the 2000s. In the course of a single generation, a dedicated group of determined and courageous tohunga tā moko and tattoo practitioners reclaimed and revitalised the cultural practice of tā moko. A continuously growing demand from young Māori and not-so-young Māori has ensured that moko is now an increasingly seen and accepted part of mainstream New Zealand.

I think it’s important to note here that it’s impossible to discuss moko in contemporary New Zealand society without mentioning the hugely significant role that our Samoan whanaunga, our Pacific cousins, have played in revitalising tā moko, especially pūhoro (thigh tattoos), in generously sharing their knowledge and mentoring Māori in the practice of customary tā tatau. And in a very large measure I think you have to acknowledge [Samoan-born master tattooist] Su‘a Sulu‘ape Paulo II for that.

Moko has arguably become one of the singularly most powerful and identifiable emblems of Māori identity, and set the foundations for what has become an important cultural art renaissance movement. Today, moko and [Pacific] tatau are also foundational to the popular international tribal art tattoo movement, which is a huge worldwide phenomenon.

Rebecca: Matiu, can you comment on the differences between the Māori chief’s facial moko in the engraving after Sydney Parkinson’s drawing from Cook’s first voyage, and later representations? Are you aware of such differences in female tā moko?

Matiu: Sydney Parkinson’s sketch of a ‘tattooed Māori’ is in my mind especially interesting because it suggests a dynamic and diverse art practice, perhaps before it became more standardised during the 19th century. The form is essentially the same as the pūhoro pattern that is more normally applied to the thighs. This form appears to have been practised alongside the better-known format popularised by artists like George French Angas and other earlier colonial artists during the mid-19th century, and later Gottfried Lindauer and Charles Goldie. Early documentary records also discuss how various other parts of the body were also tattooed. And this applies to both women as well as men. Indeed, a careful review of historical works of Māori women from 19th century, together with photography from the same period, reveals that there was more than one single stylistic form of moko applied to women up to the New Zealand Wars period, even if only infrequently. In fact, the increasing availability of high-resolution digital photographic reproductions is transforming our understanding of moko. We are seeing more now than we have ever seen before!

Nina: Sean, the studio portrait Tattooed Samoan by Thomas Andrew depicts a naked man with his back to the camera so the back of his pe‘a (customary male tattoo) is visible. Were women with malu (customary female tattoo) also documented in this way? If not, what are some the earliest photographic representations of women with malu?

Sean: I am not aware of any portraits by Thomas Andrew of Samoan women with the malu. It is only recently that I came across two photographs of tattooed Samoan women taken by American photographer Isaiah West Taber in 1894. They are the earliest images I have found so far, and are not very clear. As in Andrew’s portrait, one of them depicts a woman with her back to the camera. I assume this is to highlight the dense area of tattooing behind her knees. Similarly, Andrew’s portrait of a male draws attention to markings on the man’s thighs and buttock, and signals an ethnographic intent that is sometimes present in his wider body of work. Is he photographing the person or the adornment? Is he documenting the landscape, or the houses and canoes?

Nina: Thomas Andrew is well known for his studio portraits, but he also ventured well beyond the controlled environment of his studio. Some commentators claim that Andrew’s work is more sympathetic of his subjects and less exploitative than other photographers in the Pacific. Do you think this is true of his photographic representation of tatau?

Sean: Thomas Andrew’s long residency in Sāmoa and his involvement in businesses other than photography are evidence of his engagement with Samoan society. However, I am not sure how much we can read into the two or three images of tattooed people attributed to him. One is in a studio and the other two in situ, but like the studio portrait, they too are posed or set up. There is an ethnographic feel to them. They are rare images in a portfolio that, as you say, shows that he ventured well beyond the controlled environment. He photographed landscapes, historical events, plants, people, and things. We have to remember that Andrew was a photographer who was running a business. Originally, I think most of his photographic choices reflected a desire to produce commercial product, whether it was illustrations for publications or as postcards. Overall, his studio portraits reflect an interest and connection to the Samoan social elite (who could probably afford to access his photography) and less interest in people from other walks of life – children, Europeans, or Chinese settlers, for example. This is not to say that we can’t appreciate them today for their ethnographic value, their historical value, or in some cases their artistic value. As to whether Andrew was more sympathetic of his subjects and less exploitative, I think that is an open question. I say this because we have in Te Papa an album of nudes that may cast a different light on Thomas’s relationship with his subjects, and maybe point to other, less visible contexts or markets for his work … but that is perhaps the subject of another conversation.

Rebecca: Matiu, there is an incredibly rich range of representations of tā moko, both in this exhibition, as well as in Te Papa’s collections. How do these help us understand the evolution of tā moko over time? Have they informed the 20th-century revival of tā moko at all?

Matiu: I think it’s important to recognise that contemporary tā moko artists have reclaimed moko for themselves. It’s informed by an earlier customary art practice, but its application today is entirely contemporary. In fact, many of today’s practitioners endured considerable criticism in the early days of their practice, because we had become disassociated from moko as it was practiced in the 19th and early 20th century, and in particular with its safe cultural practice. So many of our elders were very uncomfortable with young people doing something that was considered tapu, culturally restricted, because of the shedding of blood. But many (other elders) supported it, recognising that either we reclaim it for ourselves and on our own terms or reconcile ourselves to it remaining a ‘lost art’. I would say we owe a huge debt of gratitude to everyone who pushed through and supported it.

The future evolution of moko? Increasingly, researchers, academics, and practitioners will unlock more of the secrets of moko as they are revealed through research and observation of our tūpuna, our ancestors. We can now see possible stylistic relationships where previously we were making blind assumptions. We’re still guessing, but they’re now better-informed guesses. There is still much to learn and discover. The art practice of the tohunga tā moko will continue to evolve as we learn more about how our tūpuna practised moko in the past and adapt it to meet our own needs today. Our artists are leading the way and evolving their own practice.


Endnotes

  1. Edward Jerningham Wakefield. Adventure in New Zealand from 1839 to 1844. Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Wellington, 1908, p.425.

 

 

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Thomas Andrew, Tattooing, Samoa, 1890-1910, black and white photograph, albumen silver print,
Gift of Alison Beckett and Robert McPherson, 1996.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Unknown, Uhi Tä Moko (tattooing instruments), 1800-1900
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Robert Bénard, after Sydney Parkinson, Head of a New Zealand warrior (Tete d'un guerrier de la Nouvelle Zelande), circa 1780, engraving
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Thomas Andrew, Tattooed Samoan, 1890-1910, black and white photograph, albumen silver print
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Charles F Goldie, Pipi puzzled [Pipi Haerehuka (Te Ärani), Ngäti Whakaue], 1919, oil on panel,
Purchased 1949.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Mark Adams, 7.10.78 Triangle Rd, Massey, West Auckland., 07 October 1978, colour photograph, Cibachrome print,
Purchased 1988 with Ellen Eames Collection funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz