The Incredible Detail of Maori Carvings

Waitangi Maori CarvingPhoto: James ShookDetail of wood carving from the ceremonial Māori war canoe Nagātokimatawhaorua

The Maori people are the indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand. The word means “natural” or “ordinary” in their language, to distinguish between themselves and deities, but there is absolutely nothing ordinary about their incredible carvings and art.

Wahine TanePhoto: kahuroa Wahine Tane Maori carving depicting a woman and a man embracing

This beautiful carving is one of the few this author has seen showing an embrace between a couple. One thing that is important to remember, however, is that most Maori carvings are secular in origin, not carvings of gods. They will honor a tribal chief of an area or a warrior and incorporate things about him into the design (as well as the entire land area).

TeAuoteWhenuaPhoto: KahuroaTeAuoteWhenua

Above is a contemporary era (19th C) carving of TeAuoteWhenua, a chief of the Kawerau-a-Maki tribe and great grandson of Maki who was the founder.

Maori Totem FacePhoto: KiwiNZAn incredible blue totem pole with stylized faces carved into it along with decorative designs.

Maori carving has three functions: recording history and events, practical construction (house posts, etc.) and decoration. These are often combined in one piece as well.

Maori MaskPhoto: A ArunintaWoman’s face mask

KahungunuPhoto: KahuroaKahungunu

Kahungunu was the ancestor of the Māori tribe Ngāti Kahungunu, and is seen here holding a hoe and a canoe paddle. This shows his abilities as a navigator. The carving is part of the canoe house on Treaty grounds, Waitangi. Incorporating an ancestor into the dwelling is a common architectural feature of the canoe and meeting houses.

maori art - te papa museumPhoto: side guacamole

The extra large protruding tongue in many of the carvings is symbolic. It means defiance, determination or strength, depending on where it is placed – be it in a house or on a war canoe prow.

Maori carved house post from Tanenuiarangi meeting housePhoto: Kahuora
Another example of a house post carving, this shows the Maori mythological figure of Kupe fighting two sea creatures and includes both spirals and bits of shell often included in carvings.

Maori Carving in the forestPhoto: mbousquetMaori carving in forest

This is perhaps this author’s favorite piece. It was found by the photographer when hiking in the New Zealand forests and one can only think of someone lovingly carving it to represent their ancestor and placing it in the woods he oversaw. A simple but powerful piece.

From the meetinghouse Rangitihi, built 1867-1871Photo: KahuroaRangithi carved house post

tattoo and mere clubPhoto: creative fireClose up of Maori Tamoko tribal tattoo and carved wooden mere club

Tribal tattoos called Moko were worn by most members of high rank. The tradition then died out, but there has been an upswing with modern Maoris going back to the traditional tattoos. The mere is a war club that is swung horizontally right into an opponent’s face or neck.

pendant on paua shellPhoto: creative fire Close up of carved Maori nephrite jade / greenstone pendant on paua shell

The fish hook symbol in Maori carving is very traditional. It meant safety when navigating the seas as well as power and authority. Because of its close relationship to the sea, it also exhibits the themes of abundance, fertility and respect for the sea. Used as fishing hooks, they were often decorated, while more stylized forms were for ornamentation and symbolic use.

Maori WakaPhoto: Grutness Maori Waka

poumatuaPhoto: Kauroha Poumatua carving

This stunning carving is an example of the decorative carving inside a dwelling, here the Maori meeting house of Hotenui in the 19th century. The panels next to it are tukutuku wall panels and show the beautiful weaving that was done at the time as well.

Carving representing Marupo, ancestor of the Māori tribe Ngāti Rāhiri of Northland,Photo: KahuroaCarving representing Marupo

The ancestor Marupo is also represented here on the canoe house of the Treaty grounds. He is holding a taiaha, a weapon used in hand-to-hand combat, signifying the owner’s prowess and exploits as a warrior.

Carved figurehead of the waka taua (war canoe) NgatokimatawhaoruaPhoto: Kahuroa Waka-Waitangi

Above is a carved figurehead of the waka taua (war canoe) Ngatokimatawhaorua, ‘launched each February 6 at the celebrations of the Treaty of Waitangi, and on other special occasions’.

Maori carving is spectacular, diverse and deeply symbolic and reverent of the people’s ancestors. The tradition had been dying out but both the tribes and the New Zealand government have worked together to bring it back and are teaching the new generations the old carving artistry. The new generation is more involved now, not just in carving but the traditions of weaving and haka (dance) and we can hope to see more for years to come.

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6