Wood, paua shell
Gift of Curtis Galleries, Inc.
The ancestors of the Maori immigrated to New Zealand over 1000 years ago, when Polynesian sailors sailed southward from the Island of
Hawaii.1 The Maori are divided into about 50 tribes who trace their descent to individuals who arrived in the first canoes (called
the "founding canoes"). Over the generations these tribes developed into complex social groups known as waka,
which in many instances were named for the founding canoes. Tribal affiliation is more important than a sense of national identity.
In fact, Maori is not an ancient name, but came about as a result of their encounters with voyagers from the northern hemisphere from
the 18th century onwards. The word Maori means clear, fresh or natural; it also means usual or ordinary. The original
inhabitants described themselves as ordinary (maori), as belonging to a collective group clearly different from the new (and
The Maori's first sustained contact with Europeans happened on October 6, 1792 when the British Captain Cook and his crew landed in Poverty
Bay in New Zealand. As a result of this visit, the British decided to colonize New Zealand. The Maori resisted these colonization
efforts, and warfare with the British continued until 1865 when the British, having superior weapons, finally overcame them. Similar
to the course of events in North America, within a few decades the native people were forced to give up most of their land, and to see
their culture and language undermined by European influences. They also fell victims to the European diseases brought by the new
settlers, with the result that the Maori population decreased dramatically during the 19th century. Both Catholic and Protestant
missionaries were active in New Zealand early on, so that by 1840 almost all the Maori had become Christians.
In recent decades there has been a concerted effort on the part of both the government and the Maori people to revive their language,
traditions and art forms, and they now have representation in parliament. The native Maori population is also increasing.
Maori meeting house
The Meeting House
The most important building in any community was, and still is, the meeting house, the community's most powerful statement of
identity. The primary purpose of traditional Maori art is to make this house beautiful. The meeting house itself symbolically
represents a particular ancestor, whose spirit is enclosed by the building. The ridge-pole is likened to the ancestor's backbone,
and the rafters to the ancestor's ribs. All ceremonies and decisions concerning the community take place here.
This stately figure was the principal carving in a meeting house of the Hawkes Bay region on the eastern coast of New Zealand's
North Island. (This building no longer exists and was probably destroyed by fire.) Its Maori name is poutokamanawa, a term
given to the post incorporating an ancestral figure that supports the main ridge-beam of a carved house. Poutokamanawa have
the sacred ceremonial duty of welcoming the community and receiving guests as they enter the building. Consequently, all who enter
are enfolded by the ancestral spirit.
Another example of a meeting house carving.
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Roll over the image to see details of body and meaning found on the Maori Post Figure: Poutokomanawa
Another Maori figure which shows similar body characteristics
The Minneapolis Institute of Arts
Close-up of surface patina from the Maori Post Figure: Poutokomanawa
Body and Meaning
Like all sacred carvings, a poutokamanawa was made by highly skilled carver-priests, observing very specific rituals and
ceremonial restrictions. Poutokamanawa are not completely naturalistic because they represent ancestral spirits, whose role
is to comfort and watch over their living descendents.2 The head is disproportionately large because the Maori consider the head to
be the center of personal power. The large hands spread over the abdomen emphasize the center of the body, the navel, believed to be
the center of life force. It is marked on this statue by a raised disc. The navel (maori-ora) was considered to be the link
between the people still on earth and their ancestral spirits. Individualistic tattoo patterns incised on the face may replicate
those of a specific ancestor. The hair is bound up in a topknot, characteristic of a warrior chief, and the stern eyes are inlaid
with paua shell, which adds life and fire to the gaze of the statue. This figure escaped mutilation during the 19th century by zealous
missionaries, who regarded such carvings as creations of the devil.
A post figure is eagerly caressed and embraced by the Maori, who press their noses against its nose, showing deep respect and
affection. It is given a protective coat of varnish that produces its high gloss finish, and is further polished by generations of
This poutokomanawa was carved in the 1840s, and was later given to Archbishop William Williams (1800-1878) about the time
he retired to Hawkes Bay in the 1880s, as a tribute to the love and friendship he showed his parishioners.3 It is one
of the few post figures that remained privately owned until it was acquired by a museum (The Minneapolis Institute of Arts).
1 Starzecka, op.cit., 30.
2 For a complete description of poutokomanawa and the relative Maori terminology, see
the entry 162 in Sotheby's Auction Catalogue, Important African and Oceanic Art, New York, Nov. 22, 1999, pp. 25-28.
3 His grandson, Dr. A. H. Williams, brought the poutokomanawa to England sometime in the 1880s,
where it remained in the possession of successive family members.