Toi - Māori Arts

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Māori creative arts like weaving and carving celebrate the past and continue to evolve through fresh inspiration and new materials.

New Zealand
Raranga, New Zealand

By James Heremaia

The most widely used weaving material is harakeke - otherwise known as New Zealand flax.

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Raranga – the art of weaving

When Māori first arrived in Aotearoa, they encountered a climate that was extreme compared to their homelands in Polynesia. They adapted quickly by utilising their existing twining and weaving skills to produce korowai (cloaks) and other practical objects such as kete (baskets) and whāriki (mats). The most widely used weaving material was (and still is) harakeke - otherwise known as New Zealand flax.

Weaving women

Weaving is traditionally done by women and skilled weavers are prized within their tribes. 'Aitia te wahine o te pā harakeke' is a Māori proverb that translates to mean 'Marry the woman who is always at the flax bush, for she is an expert flax worker and an industrious person'.

New Zealand
Woven korowai, New Zealand

By James Heremaia

Highly-skilled Maori women painstakingly produce finely woven korowai (cloaks).

Cloaks of beauty

Traditionally, cloaks were woven by hand between two upright weaving pegs. Feathers and decorative threads were integrated into the fabric as the weaving progressed. Natural dyes were used to achieve a variety of colours; paru (swamp mud) was used to achieve a black tone and tanekaha (bark) produced brown.

The kahu kuri was the most prized of cloaks, incorporating strips of dog skin. The kuri (native Polynesian dog) came to New Zealand with the first Māori. Kahu kuri were only worn by rangatira (chiefs).

Northland & Bay of Islands
Waka at Waitangi, Northland & Bay of Islands

By Adventure Films

Waka at Waitangi

Whakairo – the art of carving

Rather than purely being decorative, whakairo (Māori carvings) each give a unique narrative. The stories passed down through generations explain cultural traditions and tribal history. Traditionally Māori carvers were men; their craft included precious adornments, weapons, tools, musical instruments, canoes and decorative panels and posts for the various buildings within the village.

A sign of prestige

Precious adornments were (and are still) worn as a sign of prestige; they included ear pendants, breast pendants and carved combs worn in the hair. These were made from pounamu (jade or greenstone), whale ivory and whale bone, although other materials, like albatross feathers and sharks teeth, were also incorporated. Pounamu from the South Island is highly prized for its beauty and strength, and is still used for making adornments today.

Symbols and patterns

Maori carvings are rich in symbolism and use common patterns, though styles differ between tribes. Symbols include the tiki, which represents the human figure, and the manaia, a creature with bird-like head and serpent-like body, associated with guardianship. Traditional patterns used in carving were often inspired by the natural environment, including spider webs (pungawerewere), fish scales (unaunahi) and the unfurling fronds of the fern (koru).

Take a look for yourself

Rotorua
A carver in action, Rotorua

By Chad Case

At Te Puia in Rotorua, you can watch Maori carvers at work.

Cultural centres and workshops

You can get a closer look at Māori art forms at cultural centres and studios throughout New Zealand. One such place is Te Puia in Rotorua, which allows visitors into its weaving and carving schools to watch the artists at work.

Galleries and museums

Many art galleries throughout the country sell work by prominent Māori artists, and both traditional and modern Māori art is sought by collectors worldwide. For a look at historic Maori art pieces, visit museums like Te Papa and the Auckland Museum.

However you choose to experience the Māori arts, you're sure to be intrigued and inspired. You may even find a special taonga (treasure) to take home.