The Tohunga-ta-moko at Work

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 distinguished people.

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.

Nigel Borell

(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, 2016.)

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