Tā moko is the most distinguished of all Māori personal
adornment practices. As captured in many of Gottfried Lindauer's
Māori portraits, the rangi paruhi and the moko kauwae are some of
the most striking features that we register when first viewing
these paintings. They are important reminders of a unique tattooing
knowledge that signified nobility and authority in chiefs and
The Tohunga-ta-moko at Work is a large painted scene
that offers a glimpse into the process and rituals associated with
tā moko. Tohunga tā moko were esteemed by chiefs and leaders, set
apart by their sheer talent but also for their ability to maintain
the integrity of the art form.
In the porch of a chief's sleeping quarters, a tohunga tā moko
is sitting above an anxious young chief whose head is resting on
the tohunga's lap as he receives his rangi paruhi. His hands are
clenched and he is in obvious discomfort as he works through the
pain and anticipates the next strike. The rhythmic tapping of the
māhoe (striking tool) upon the uhi, bone chisel, punctures the skin
just enough to allow pigment to penetrate the surface, leaving
lasting designs and symbolic patterns. These arrangements on the
skin articulate a visual narrative that tells of the recipient's
lineage and status, personal accomplishments and social standing -
information that crucially identifies the person's place among
others in society. Each area of the face -from the chin to the
lower cheeks, from the forehead to the nose - carried a particular
statement about that person.
The young chief is receiving the pāwaha, which are the long
vertical lines that start at the top of the nostril and run along
the cheeks to curve tightly under the top of the chin. He is
halfway through the rangi paruhi process: we can see the full
facial tattoo starting to take shape. He lies on a whāriki, a
finely woven mat set aside especially for people of high rank.
Scattered throughout the porch area are numerous outer shells of
the raupō that was the favoured material for lining and cladding
house structures. On the left is another tohunga holding a taiaha.
This is Ngāti Maniapoto tohunga Winitana Tūpōtahi, residing over
the ritual, offering incantations and chants for the safe and
successful completion of the work.
(originally published in Gottfried Lindauer's New
Zealand: The Māori Portraits, edited by Ngahiraka Mason and
Zara Stanhope, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and AUP,
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