Chapter 1, Part 2 - NA TE HINENGARO

Abstract & Conceptual Designs

Please enjoy the waiata 'E Hine' by whirimako black & Richard Nunns WHILe READING CHAPTER 1, Part 2

 
 

In seeking to understand more about the works I could access through books and museums, I was fortunate to be given guidance from a number of kaumātua (elders) who kindly either gave me information or steered me to others who could help. I slowly learned how precious this knowledge was to them and how I must take each piece and fit it into their complex philosophy of life and art. When I moved to Whakatū (Nelson) I used to discuss myths and local history with local kuia Pare Hauraki Selwyn of Ngāti Koata, known as Aunty Polly. As I gained her confidence she suggested that I borrow her book King Pōtatau, which is an account of Pōtatau Te Wherowhero, the first Māori King. From the text I learned that the fundamental concept of Māori cosmology begins in Te Kore, the void that preceded creation, where Hani (the seeker) came together with Puna (the wellspring) at Te Ahurewa (the sacred altar). This created the twin life forces of Ira Atua (the spiritual) and Ira Tangata (the physical). This union of complementary opposites is the essence of all things, and is evidenced in the union of the primal parents Ranginui e tū iho nei (the sky father, a descendant of Hani) and Papa tū ā nuku (the earth mother, a descendant of Puna). It became noticeable as I looked at traditional painted kōwhaiwhai designs that the concept of balancing ira is the dominant feature, with the white spirit line balancing the darker black and red areas. The black areas also balance the red areas as a subliminal reminder to seek balance in all spheres of life. The shapes formed by the spirit lines and the darker areas are aesthetically pleasing in themselves, while the whole pattern represents a story.

 
 A fern frond uncurling in a koru shape

A fern frond uncurling in a koru shape

 A section from a contemporary kówhaiwhai design depicting the seaweeds and shellfish in the world of the sea god Tangaroa

A section from a contemporary kówhaiwhai design depicting the seaweeds and shellfish in the world of the sea god Tangaroa

 

I came to realise that Māori art is primarily conceptual, so that conveying an idea is more important than visual accuracy, though if the story is known a likeness can usually be perceived. The koru, a stylised representation of a new fern frond unfurling, is the most common element in painted kōwhaiwhai designs. It is also one of the most common patterns in Máori art: cut into flesh in the tattooed moko, woven into fabric, and carved in wood, stone and bone. The koru design symbolises the many positive concepts in life that parallel the vigour with which the fern frond unrolls and grows into maturity. Its use also reminds us that its life force is dependent on the parent fronds that support it. These principles excited my imagination as I explored the possibility of incorporating them into my bone carvings. An early design of mine (below) was simply intended to depict a double koru, but with later understanding I realised that it was satisfying because the bone represents the physical aspect (Ira Tangata) of the design and the cut-out shapes the spirit (Ira Atua). My eyes were pleased by the piece of bone and my spirit was pleased by the aesthetic spaces. When I saw it being worn a further dimension to the designs became apparent, for the viewer sees through the cut outs to the wearer behind, who becomes an integral part of the spirit of the carving. This understanding became the focus underpinning my design process.

 A double koru bone carving

A double koru bone carving

While looking at a close-up picture of the very centre of a double spiral in a wood carving by Cliff Whiting, it became clear that the concept of duality extended to other media as well, as the double spiral is a prominent feature in wood carving. This focus on balanced forms can create a variety of powerful designs, which means that, as we are all individuals seeking our own spirituality, we can find a design that is just right for us at that time, and which fits our own personality.

 In this double spiral carving, the two ira are expressed as the plain and the textured elements

In this double spiral carving, the two ira are expressed as the plain and the textured elements

I became fascinated with looking at carvings that attracted me even though I did not know their stories, and I would spend time trying to understand why I was drawn to them. One aspect I noticed was that the juxtaposition of plain and textured surfaces enhanced the formed shapes. I have used both cut outs and texturing in my own work to represent the search for balance in multiple spheres of life, including spiritual and physical, male and female, light and dark, and keeping time for special activities apart from the routine of daily life. When I was asked by a friend to make a matching pair of carvings which she could share with her husband I settled on expressing the concept of ira. Though basically the same designs, the two are opposites, and it is the balancing of complementary opposites which creates the harmony that I was striving for with these carvings. The spirit of the design is represented by the cut-out spaces which are pleasing shapes in themselves. When the pendants are worn the wearer is seen through these spaces and thus becomes part of the spirit of the design. In this double spiral carving, the two ira are expressed as the plain and the textured elements. One of the pieces is male and the other female, creating another balance. Part of each is smooth and is balanced by a textured area, and while the front of each is different from the back they can be worn either way around. These subtle differences are a reminder that balance must be sought in all areas of living.

 A carving showing the use of cut-out shapes with plain and textured surfaces to portray balance in multiple aspects

A carving showing the use of cut-out shapes with plain and textured surfaces to portray balance in multiple aspects

 This ira design uses plain koru on its reverse side to depict the exuberant growth that springs from the balance depicted by the cut outs in the centre and on the sides

This ira design uses plain koru on its reverse side to depict the exuberant growth that springs from the balance depicted by the cut outs in the centre and on the sides

Whales have always fascinated me and they have an important place in āori tradition. I was once fortunate enough to have an encounter with a whale, and I experienced an overwhelming sense of peace as I looked into its eye. The simplified stylisation of a whale’s eye (below) came from that meeting, and I was inspired by the detail in a traditional carving I once admired. I see the central dual elements as two koru overlapping, and I named it Matapihi Manawa, Window to the Heart. It reminds us that just as we see out, others can see in through our eyes to our inner being, which should reflect the peacefulness of the inspiration of this design.

 Matapihi Manawa, a stylised carving of a whale’s eye   

Matapihi Manawa, a stylised carving of a whale’s eye

 

The same principles of balance have been applied to the more contemporary carving shown below, which I called Te Puna (the wellspring). Such carvings are a reminder of those special places we can visit to recharge, relax and be renewed. They depict the special water welling up from Papa t ū ā nuku, known as wai ora, or the water of life. By wearing this symbol we carry a facilitator to mentally ‘transport’ us when we need to unwind or renew our spirit.

 Te Puna, the wellspring

Te Puna, the wellspring

Other items I looked at in museums included traditional rākau whakapapa, or genealogy sticks, which made me realise the importance of having memory placeholders in a culture with no written language. I marvelled at the long line of ancestors, as well as the stories associated with them, that an owner could recall using this device. The carving I called Memory Stick (below) was inspired by these. The koru shapes included in the design can be assigned personal meanings by the owner of the carving, who can use it to remember a special person, place or event which they wish to keep close. As the surface carving is different on each side, there are six koru cut into the stick, which I think gives it a good six megabytes of capacity, as well as those personal memories which evoke more associations than anything recorded by the marvels of technology. From my reading I recall an observation that, as in the art of the native people of the Canadian west coast, Māori art predominantly stylised things that were being portrayed; stylisations were often done as profiles, focusing on the most important elements. These stylised elements were then reassembled to fit a design shape and, to achieve thepurpose of keeping the object within that design shape, some elements which were not essential to the story being portrayed could be omitted.

 Memory Stick

Memory Stick

These observations enable one to more readily understand the carving of ika, a fish, shown below. It includes all the essential elements of a fish, even down to the gill cover. Its two profiles are shown in the carving, with the fins curling to the front as stylised hands. The tail doubles back into the central cut-out shape so that the whole fits into a basic design area with just the dorsal fins being omitted. The cutout sections are carefully shaped as essential spiritual elements of the design. Realising that the Māori art form is conceptual in style, with the idea portrayed being of paramount importance to visual recognition, was a pivotal understanding for me. This clarified what I was being told about kōwhaiwhai paintings, and how the stories they tell are recognisable when viewed with that knowledge. It also fits with the use of art as a mnemonic reminder for a storyteller in an oral culture. The kōwhaiwhai on the right hand pages of this chapter combines elements taken from each of the following chapters, because the concepts introduced here are elaborated on in subsequent chapters (fix this). The top half of this design depicts a hue, or gourd, with music and wisdom emanating from it. The visual image is easily comprehensible, especially with the knowledge that special hue were traditionally used to store incantations which could be released for particular purposes. Ancestor portrayal is a predominant feature in wood carving, but I found a lack of knowledge existed about the detail in older panels that had been removed.

 Bone carving representing ika, the fish

Bone carving representing ika, the fish

from their original sites to museums. Only occasionally was an ancestral figure identifiable through items that were historically associated with a particular person. This knowledge has been lost because any gap in the storytelling (for example, as a result of colonisation, ensuing epidemics and the removal of the carvings) makes retrieval of these details very difficult, since stylised art relies on a continuous narrative for recognition. I discussed this point with some carvers in Te Awamutu, who pointed out that a changing environment can also affect knowledge. They explained that the shape

 A bone carving which is simply a decoration, unless the details of its constituent parts are explained to reveal the story it represents

A bone carving which is simply a decoration, unless the details of its constituent parts are explained to reveal the story it represents


of a star, like that shown below, represented a toheroa in a carving at Kāwhia. Toheroa no longer exist on their local beaches, but I knew from my younger days at Te Waewae that the star shape was how the breathing tube appeared when it poked through the sand and into the sea. Because populations of toheroa are now depleted, few people are able to observe this, and so the association of a star shape with shellfish could become incomprehensible and easily lost. Even when carvers pointed out such stylised shapes on wood carvings I found it difficult to comprehend them, especially as they were often combined with or overlapped other elements. Being unfamiliar with the details of the story portrayed made it extremely difficult even to isolate them, let alone interpret their significance. Smaller bone carvings however, afford a wonderful opportunity to isolate and appreciate these amazing and meaningful stylisations.

 A star-shaped whale tooth carving representing a toheroa

A star-shaped whale tooth carving representing a toheroa

 A carving of a figure with a face and many fingers, the essential elements of Pātangaroa, the starfish. While few would pick this as a starfish at first, the logic of its stylisation makes it easy to remember once it is identified

A carving of a figure with a face and many fingers, the essential elements of Pātangaroa, the starfish. While few would pick this as a starfish at first, the logic of its stylisation makes it easy to remember once it is identified

The carving of a pāua, shown from both sides below, features large hands, since anybody who has tried to wrest a pāua from a rock will acknowledge the strength of its grip. The iridescent colours of its shell are represented by spirals carved on the inside. In mythology, the pāua’s colours are attributed to being a special gift from Tangaroa, the sea god, who allows pāua to remain shy and secretive while spending their lives creating masterpieces of colour. This endears them to people of a similar nature, and the vibrant colour of objects created from pāua shells makes them special to many others.

 Two sides of a carving of a pāua

Two sides of a carving of a pāua

Māori mythology personifies both the animate and inanimate, and even with my limited understanding, the imagery contained in it is remarkable. The detail conveyed and the stories implicit in its abstract forms create complex images that are nevertheless easily remembered. The creation myths of the South Island were recorded by Herries Beattie from accounts based on information gathered from the southern wānanga (schools of learning). The story gives a physical picture or map of the island that seems impossible for a people who could only see it by walking or from canoe excursions around the coast. The myth tells how Aoraki and his siblings came down from their home in the heavens to meet their stepmother Papa and her family. While exploring in their great waka, the canoe of Aoraki, a storm arose and the waka struck an undersea reef. As the waka listed to one side the crew climbed onto the side above the waves and Aoraki intoned a karakia. That incantation would have transported them to safety but in the turmoil it was not done correctly and so the waka and its crew were turned to stone with Aoraki and his brothers being the tallest peaks. The stern post became Bluff Hill, and the punga, or anchor stone, became Rakiura (Stewart Island). The cargo spilled out to form the mountains of Otago, and
Aoraki

 Aoraki stands above all on this section of a whalebone carving

Aoraki stands above all on this section of a whalebone carving

the ornate carvings of the tauihu, or prow, fell over and shattered to create the Marlborough Sounds. Modifications were later undertaken by a grandson of Aoraki named Tū te Raki whanoa, assisted by other gods, in order to make the waka a suitable place for humans to live on. In the carving below I used traditional stylisations to depict a part of that imagery. The front figure depicts the tauihu, with the fiords and islands of the Marlborough Sounds being the double spiral and kaokao strengtheners. The two sides of the waka with the Southern Alps between them flow out behind the tauihu. The kaokao in the spiral also represent the traditional tribes of this area, while those of the Alps depict those groups of people who have since made this their home.

 A carving depicting aspects of the South Island Māori creation myth

A carving depicting aspects of the South Island Māori creation myth

Clea Pettit