Teaching Maori Art to Children

Auckland museum-patakaThere is a very old booklet, titled ‘Teaching Maori Art to Children’ (part of a series called ‘Primary Arts’ I think – I haven’t got an original!). It makes a number of art activity suggestions, but also has the following to say about Maori Art:

According to Rei Hendry:

The traditional visual arts of the Maori consisted of the following forms:
CARVING in wood, bone and stone
Carving in wood was the most significant of the visual arts and in spite of regional differences two basic approaches can be identified – stylisation and a more or less naturalistic representation. The human figure was usually the main subject.
The early Maori had two types of painting – that on rocks or cave walls and that on rafters of the more important houses. This is called kōwhaiwhai.
Patterns were varied but almost all used as a base for design the koru symbol.
The art of weaving was the business of women. There were three main types:
1. Taniko – using fine flax fibre
2. Coarse articles such as whariki (floor mats) and kete (baskets)
3. Tukutuku – the woven wall panels seen in superior houses.
Because weaving is based on straight lines of threads or strands the patterns could not follow the characteristic organic curves of carving and painting. Another form of weaving was the making of Korowai – the cloak. ….” (p.16, Rei Hendry ‘The Traditional Visual Arts of the Maori – a background’, p.16)

koru“The designs on buildings, canoes and cenotaphs are called KOWHAIWHAI. The traditional colours are red, black and white, the latter being the natural colour of the wood in pre-European times, but white paint is now used. The black paint was made from soot, and the red from red ochre (kōkōwai) mixed with shark oil. The Ngati-porou tribe are said to have also used a bluish paint made of a clay called tutae-whetu.” (p.24)

Activity suggestion

There are a number of activity suggestions in this booklet, but I quite like the first two, because it fits the explanations given about carving (see below):

Activity 1 (p.17): “Give children unusual shapes of paper…. ask the children to fill their shape with korus. Try and do the koru without lifting the pencil. Accept all variations in size/shape/combinations.”

Activity 2 (p.17): “Using square paper. Fill paper with koru – one large koru then small koru growing from the large. Challenge: Can you touch all four sides of the paper?”


Some Important Designs

“The koru pattern is the most recognisable shape in the Maori design.” (p.36″

“KIORI (turning back on self): This arrangement is the most popular and makes the design instantly recognisable as being Maori.”


“MANGOPARE (Hammerhead Shark): this pattern is a popular main beam pattern in a meeting house as it shows the strength of a tribe.” (p.38)


“NGUTU KAKA [NB C]: This pattern was probably an extension of the spiral pattern also. However the name suggests the beak of a kaka as its form. Another design Kowhai Ngutu kaka refers to the red kaka beak plant.” (p.38)


kowhai ngutu kakaWood Carving

John Bevan Ford explains: “In pre-European days carving was a human act that celebrated the Maori understanding of natural sense. By its siting, the pataka in the village centre, or on the Chief’s house, it highlighted the value for survival of grouping under a respected leader.
Its symmetrical style of design was a symbol of order. Not only human order but natural order also. Night to day, summer to winter, the growing and waning of the moon, the tide in and out, growing and dying, for everything that goes in one direction a counter direction seems to exist.
TamatekapuaFrom this general statement about humans and their environment the carving moves on to another level of communication. Just as within natures’ order wood is different from water each aspect of nature has its own particular set of rules, so is carving an expression of some specific qualities of man – especially his aggressive survival characteristics.
Each carved figure is a direct confrontation dominating the surface of the slab. The overwhelming majority of figurative carvings are emergent in style – in that they are semi relief. They come out from a slab, sit in front of a post or on or above the barge board of a house facing the viewer. The manaia figures which appear an exception to this rule are at least emergent from the timber they are carved from, often have frontal bodies with the placement of the arms and legs giving this frontal appearance to the body, and in any case are facing or supporting a major frontal full face figure.
Pattern work on carving is very much a part of the image even when the pattern is particularly rich. The pattern may follow the direction of a limb or make reference to its sculptural qualities. It will reinforce overall concepts of symmetry and deliberate changes to this symmetry often by creating further examples of the concept within an area of the carving, eg a leg which is symmetrical with another may have a symmetrical pattern on itself.
Of the many symbols that this emergent format may represent it does seem to suggest that the human leader (ancestor) depicted emerges, is thrust forward by or, perhaps is answerable to the society and/or natural world he comes from.
He is the leader of a group and challenges the viewer in his own right and on behalf of his group. The challenge, itself, is tempered through its carving style, suggesting a sensible reservoir of alternative attitudes that may be explored should goodwill prevail. The messages of the carving although abstract and generalised are a communication that invite further communication. That further communication may be in the form of haka (dance), waiata (song), and korero (speech). [-p.14]
During the time that one of these forms is being enacted the carving plays a non-verbal supporting role – an accompanist as it were to the melody now being offered. So just as the figure emerges from the body of the timber, so does the korero emerge from the body of the carving.” (emphases in blue bold mine: pp.13-14, John Bevan Ford, ‘Some Thoughts on Maori Carving’, pp.13-15 this booklet)

John Bevan Ford poses the following questions to approach Maori carving: “What is the figure about? Where is it placed? What has the placement of the figure got to do with its role in the story being told? What living events make use of the presence of these carvings? Who did them, are they the same as one another? Are they the same as other carvings in similar positions on similar buildings?” (p.5, John Bevan Ford ‘Teaching Maori Art to Children – An Introduction, pp.1-12 of this booklet)

Activity Idea: An activity suggested on p.28 also appeals: “Children given oblong lengths of cardboard. This sets a similar limitation to that of early carvers working within a defined shape. Use as constructively as possible [to create figure inside]. Challenge: Make a person fit inside oblong – outside area must be boundaries of head and body [i.e., touching].”

NB Sandy Adsett (The Use of Myths and Maori Art as a Basis for Art Work, pp.34+) recommends: “For an explanation of Tukutuku and Kowhaiwhai (with simple narrative and beautiful illustrations) THE HOUSE OF THE PEOPLE by R L Bacon and R F Jahnke.


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
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One Response to Teaching Maori Art to Children

  1. Water2714 says:

    This is really handy, thanks a lot u guys!!!!

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