We should celebrate the moko rather than fear it, reports Kate Mead.
The inky forms trace through the skin, leaving behind an indelible trail both on the face and through New Zealand's history. Moko is a cherished part of Maori identity and archaeological evidence suggests it has been practised since the beginning of Maori settlement in this country. Yet moko appear to be widely misjudged and misunderstood.
"Even in October 2011, many people are alarmed or anxious by the appearance of a tattooed face in the lift or the supermarket or standing next to them on the elevator at a mall, and I actually believe that the fear comes from within them," says Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, professor at Waikato University, the author of a book on the subject and proud wearer of a moko kauae (chin moko). "We should celebrate moko as one of the most enduring and unique taonga that Aotearoa can share with the world."
People should not be afraid of those who wear facial tattoos, she says. "It is not about threat... Even though I'm a professional, I'm of a particular generation and I dress reasonably well, I still have adverse reactions and that can be interesting. I'm not offended; I'm intrigued that non-Maori New Zealanders would respond in that way. Through all that, though, I must admit that the majority are supportive and fascinated and want to know."
Wearing a moko does not come without controversy. For some people, moko incite fear. Seeing a person with a facial tattoo is confronting for some, regardless of what the tattoo signifies. Recently a furore occurred after a customer with a moko was asked to leave a bar in Christchurch because of their policy banning patrons with facial tattoos.
These reactions perhaps have long echoes from history. Applying paint before going into battle has been a tradition of people from Native American and Pictish tribes in early Britain to fans of "warring" teams at the Rugby World Cup. Permanently inking the face can be seen as a further extension. Here lies the association of the moko with warriors from our early history. In Mau Moko, Te Awekotuku writes: "Moko was a mark of mana in New Zealand... their strength as fighters, their virility, their reputation as men of mana, would precede them; to be fine-looking enhanced their public image considerably."
Moko's origins come from both mythical and archaeological concepts. One legend centres around Mataora, an abusive husband who, guilt-ridden, went on a quest for his wife Niwareka's forgiveness. He painted his face for the journey to her underworld home, and upon reaching his destination, was ridiculed because the paint had smeared.
Moko as a custom has been sustained for Maori women longer than it has for men and there are varying theories about why this is. "[Moko] is an incredibly beautifying adornment. It's a way of enhancing one's looks and much of the earlier compulsion in the nineteenth and twentieth century was as much about vanity as it was about identity," says Te Awekotuku. "I think that for Maori women, there has always been a need to be visible and responsible to the people, to the descendants, to the mokopuna and also to the ancestors, and it's worn with pride and it's worn with a real sense of remembering."
Tattooing chisels have been found in archaeological sites around New Zealand and Polynesia. With the introduction of technology, needle tattooing was a technique established in the 19th century.
While its practice diminished in the 1950s, moko continues to be worn by women, and men, to this day. "There are hundreds of women walking around the streets of Aotearoa with tattooed faces," says Te Awekotuku. "In recent years, like in the last 15 years, there has been a huge resurgence. It's important to say, though, that there has never been a time when the moko face has not been seen."
Moko designs reflect ancestry but it is also important that the design suits its wearer. "Every human face is different [and] to a sophisticated and expert practitioner, artist, the face itself would reveal the design, I really believe that. The human face has got its own conformation and each one is unique, which means that every moko is unique and there are designs that you wouldn't put on a woman with a very small chin and a heart-shaped face. There are designs that you wouldn't put on a male with an enormous broad face and large nose," says Te Awekotuku. "It's no different from, I suppose, artful application of cosmetics, you know, there's some makeup you wouldn't use."
In his forthcoming documentary, Allan Baldwin: In Frame, director Te Arepa Kahi investigates amateur photographer Baldwin's journey in the 1960s to find kuia with moko. Despite being told all these women had passed away, Baldwin embarked on a personal search and was successful in finding some of the women and photographing them.
In the documentary there's a reunion with Baldwin, who turns 90 next month, and Hokimoana Te Rika Hekerangi, whom Baldwin photographed when she was 27. "She's probably now in her early 70s and she remembers the day, the photo session and everything that happened with her time with Allan, so when we said `Look, I know 40 years plus has passed but this man is still alive', she jumped at the opportunity of reuniting with him," says Kahi.
Baldwin's work has proved invaluable. His work inspired Michael King's book Moko, which pairs the historian's writing with photography by Marti Friedlander. "I think it's exquisite, really, really quite remarkable," says Te Awekotuku of Baldwin's work. "It is a true legacy to the nation what he's done."
Education is the key to understanding New Zealand's specific historical and cultural elements, she says. "It's the tattooed face of particular Maori personalities that demonstrate aggression, that demonstrate potential violence, that demonstrate confrontation. And this is a manipulation of a noble face by the media and it's feeding into all those prejudices and anxieties, and that really is wrong. It makes me sad, it's that which we need to resolve and it's at that point that we need to extend the conversation and celebrate it rather than fear it."
Allan Baldwin: In Frame, Maori Television, Saturday, 8.30pm.
Mau Moko by Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, Penguin, $50.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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