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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 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'.
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).
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
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.