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Te Poho o Ihu Karaiti - a thematic Alternative

Andrew Panoho M.F.A. dissertation

Elim School of Fine Arts,

Auckland University.




The purpose of this dissertation is:

Chapter One


To clarify the importance of the Christian message in relation to Maori religious history.

Chapter Two


To investigate past successes and failures in communicating the relevance of that Christian message in New Zealand history.

Chapter Three


To view the development of the meeting house as a statement of identity, to focus on the attempt by the adjustment cults of Christianity to reconcile Maori cultural expression with the new belief system of Christianity.

Chapter Four


To look at a possible thematic alternative in the artworks of the meeting house, applying this to today’s social/political conditions and then illustrating, by example this theme through the artworks of the exhibition, “Te Poho o Ihu Karaiti”.

These writings are a personal statement of identity, focusing and condensing the thoughts of long hours spent in preparing art works for an exhibition held in the A.S.A Gallery in August of 1990. It is hoped that through my individual discoveries that others of like backgrounds may similarity be encouraged to rediscover their own spiritual /cultural heritage.



The first visitors to these islands brought with them a lifestyle characteristic of other Eastern Polynesian societies in the Pacific. Over the next millennium these and other like migrants, aided by the geographical isolation of Aotearoa, gradually evolved a culture variant from that of their Polynesian forebears. The relative constancy of Maori society however soon ended, following the “rediscovery” of New Zealand by Lieutenant James Cook in 1769.

Since those very first contacts dramatic changes have taken place in the culture of the Maori people. The beliefs, the social structures, the arts, the oral traditions, the language and the social values have all been molded by the force of a new culture - the European. No longer are Maori the majority group with the economic and political power to control their social environment. They have been compelled to come to terms with this their survival as an identity in their own land. The visual arts have become but one record of that struggle. They show how Maori artists have responded to the needs of a changing community, and have taken an important role in the affirmation of their mana. Through the medium of the wharenui, the arts have aided the recording, the rebuilding and the redirection of the culture into the twentieth century.

As part of that new migrant culture the early missionaries played a significant role in the transformation of Maori society. Contrary to what some would believe, Christianity did not present a totally alien belief system which was at war with Maori religion but, like other ancient cultures around the world, taha wairua Maori contained vestigial knowledge of a supreme God on a par with the Jewish Elohim of the Bible. The clarification of the Christian message however presented problems, with its relevance sometimes being clouded by the social conditioning of its missionary advocates. At the same time as the missionaries preached the Gospel message the devastating impact of British colonization began to be felt on Maori society. Unfortunately in many eyes the two became synonymous, with the missionary being blamed for the later colonial injustices of the nineteenth century. However, Christianity and more particularly the Old Testament narrative did provide a necessary spiritual anchor for many Maori people as they adjusted to their changing environments The inspiration of Jewish history presented an accessible model for the redefining of Maori identity. This thematic model was displayed through the various art forms of the meeting house, as a viable alternative to the traditional cyclic view of history, providing purpose and hope for a better future.

Chapter One

Io the Supreme Being

Ecclesiastes Ch 3:22

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end”.

Romans 1:20-23

“Since the creation of the World God’s invisible qualities his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse” For although they knew God they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.... “

And so the Bible states:

“Knowledge of God is instinctively known to man” - “that God has set eternity in our hearts.”

Before the coming of the European missionary to N.Z. Maori already had considerable knowledge of this supreme God. Unfortunately such was the awe and fear that was attached to his being that Maori had evolved a society where all understanding concerning his nature, his dealings with man and the cosmos were delegated to a special class of priest.3

This supreme God’s name was Io, and so tapu was he that if a tohunga wanted to invoke his name through prayer he would first isolate himself, moving away from all buildings and people, into the secluded depths of the forest. 4 Thus the Maori population at large knew little of this Deity whom their high priests revered.

In his place evolved a myriad of lesser gods in the Maori pantheon filling the vacuum of his omnipotence.

The laws of tapu and the stratification of Maori society maintained this status quo until the coming of the missionaries and the presenting of the gospel message.

Most discussions on this subject of the supreme being evolved around the lectures of two learned priests: Te Matorohanga and Nepia Pohuhu, as transcribed by H.T. Whatahoro and Aporo te Kumeanu.

“In the late fifties of last century there was a large gathering of Maori in the Wairarapa’s District, East Coast of New Zealand, the object being to discuss some political affairs and on the conclusion of the business it was suggested by some people that the learned men there present should explain to the assembled tribes how and when New Zealand was first peopled by the Maori race. After three of the priests had consented to do so, one Matorohanga was appointed to lecture on the subject, the other two to assist by recalling matters that the lecturers might omit.

(Percy Smith, “Lore of the Whare Wananga,” Vol.1, p.1.)

These writings were first brought to public notice by the ethnologist, Percy Smith, and subsequently published by the Polynesian Society in his book, “The Lore of the Whare Wananga”. Much of its content had never before been recorded in such depth, and new light was now being shed on previous perceptions of Maori esoteric concepts and mythologies. However, because of its radical nature and its perceived borrowings from Genesis a book of the Bible, some scholars questioned the validity of its texts. 7

They could not accept these correlation’s as plausible and so dismissed them as anachronistic, post-dating the introduction of Christianity. Their inference was that Matorohanga himself had syncretized a new cult from both old and new, Maori and European cosmologies.

Percy Smith foreknew such criticisms. He wrote:

“It will be thought that the idea of Io as the one Supreme God creator of all things, is devised from the Christian teachers of the Maori people, and that it has been engrafted on to the Maori beliefs in modern times since Christianity was introduced. But I am assured not only by the positive statement by the scribe, but by internal evidence - more particularly perhaps by the prayers to Io which contain so many obsolete words and differ a good deal in form and composition for such an idea.

Bronwyn Ellsmore in her book, “Mana from Heaven”, has shown that Maori syncretized movements of the nineteenth century reflected the availability of portions of scriptures. It should be noted then that the accounts of the Old Testament narratives, including the later chapters of Genesis, were not made available until after the new Testament translations had first been produced. It seems more likely then that New Testament theology would play some part in any new syncretic teaching. Yet this is not the case. In the Matorohanga texts no mention of Christ, his life, his teachings, or any teaching of the apostles, are even suggested. All those narratives which seem to intersect with biblical teaching appear very ancient in conception and suggest other possible scenarios which the following examples may elucidate.

A possible case against Matorohanga could be made if his school stood alone in its teachings. However, support for the God Io comes from many different sources, and his teachings are not unique to Ngati Kahungunu. Other tribes who have recorded a supreme God in their pantheon include an upper river tribe of the Whanganui, the Ngati Maru of the Hauraki plains, and the Nga-i-tahu of the South Island.

There are references from early European contacts which tell of a Supreme God known by the Maori. Who created the world, of his name Io and of the tapu fear in which he was held.’ All this gives credence to Whatahoro’s explanation to Percy Smith of Io’s secrecy:

“It may be explained just here that the larger past of the teaching of the Whare wananga (or college, house of learning) was never known to the people, it was too sacred especially was the name and all connected with the Supreme God Io particularly sacred.” 13

(Percy Smith, “Lore of the Whare Wananga,” Vol.1.)

Those points which do correlate between Matorohanga’s teaching and the Bible involve the Creation of the Cosmos, the Creation of Mankind, the Great Deluge and the Dispersal of People Across the Face of the Earth. These events as biblical narrative were recorded in the first 2 chapters of the book of Genesis. Beyond “The Dispersal” no similarities exist. It should be noted also that Genesis was an oral tradition in the same form as the Matorohanga text before it was written down by the Ancient Hebrews.

Such obvious correlations between these two traditions have to be accounted for. There appear to be three possibilities:

Firstly, that Matorohanga, with many other confidants around the country in close communication with each other, sought to uniformly syncretize a new religious system to ward off the onslaught of Christianity. Such a huge undertaking to conceive in secret that I think it unlikely.

Secondly, that any similarities are mere coincidence - highly improbable.

Thirdly, that the sharing of histories indicate a common origin at some point in history. The latter possibility would imply that not only do Maori and Jewish religions share a common ancestry but so too do all cultures with Supreme Deities. This point needs to be viewed in the context of similar global cultures.

During the nineteenth century the evangelical branches of the Christian church experienced a revival of missionary endeavor and zeal. They were simply obeying Christ’s great commission to “Go into all the world and preach the good news, making disciples of all nations”. Part of the motivation was to fulfil the church’s role in heralding Christ’s second coming: “You will not fulfil going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man come 5.17

These missionaries, mostly unprepared and having little cultural foresight, set out from Mother England to settle and work amongst the “heathen”. As the century progressed reports from mission stations around the world began to filter back to parent bodies, describing an enlightened state of many “pagan” cultures in which they were working. These reports spoke of tribal groups from various part of the globe having a knowledge of the Supreme God. It has been considered that 90% of those nations reached had some such knowledge. Such phenomena were variously received by both the churches and those communities of the world of scientific expertise. Theologians tended to down play its importance thinking it would detract from the relevance of missions and religious scientists dismissed the reports because they contradicted their theories on the origins of religion. Many spoke of a supreme God who had created the world in similar stages to those recorded of the God of the Bible. 21 These supreme deities became known as “Sky God Phenomena” and a full account of their existence has been compiled in a treatise by the German scholar Wilhelm Schmidt earlier on this century (see his book, “Origin of Religion”)

Some reports spoke of uncanny similarities to the Genesis accounts. These oral traditions not only intersected at vague points of allusion but, placed alongside the Bible, read more like a paraphrase. One such sample primitive group is given below by Don Richardson in his book, “Eternity in their Hearts.”

The Keren are a Tribal people about 800 000 strong occupying hill country in Burma. They were first reached with the gospel in the 1820s. The following two passages are taken from their ancient oral traditions and were recorded at a camp side fire by a missionary in the nineteenth century.

A Keren prophet/priest stepped forward beginning his teaching session with a song explaining the spiritual state of man.... 25

“Y-wa formed the world originally, He appointed food and drink. He gave detailed orders. Mu-kaw-lee deceived two persons. He caused them to eat the fruit of the tree of trial. They obeyed not they believed not Y-wa. When they ate the fruit of trial. They became subject to sickness, aging and death.”

The second passage in prose form continues.

When Y-wa made Tha-nai and Ee-u, he placed them in a garden.... saying, “In the garden I have made for you seven different kinds of trees, becoming seven different kinds of fruit. Among the seven, one tree is not good to eat...If you eat, you will become old, you will sicken, you will die... Eat and drink with care. Once in seven days I will visit you... .26

The closeness in Keren narrative to Genesis Ch 2. is obvious and the recitation goes on to mention Mu-kaw-lee / Satan, the temptation, the fall and the resulting separation from God. Don Richardson, responding to a hypothetical criticism of Post Christian syncretism has commented: (note the relevance to the N.Z. model of Io)

“Likewise if Keren traditions trace back to, for example Nestorian Christian influence of the eighth century or a later Roman Catholic missionary contacts of the sixteenth, seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, one would expect some invention of an incarnation or a saviour dying for man’s sin and rising from the dead.”

“Again I have found no such concepts reported by student of Keren tradition and if we theorize that Jewish and/or Christian influence touched the Keren but so fleetingly that only the basic concepts of God, creation, and the fall of man registered with them, then we face a difficult question. How could so fleetingly an influence leave such a deep and lasting impression on an entire people especially when Buddhism and their own tribal spiritism so strongly opposed their influence over so long a period of time?27

The Keren are but one example, others could be cited: The Kachin of North

Burma, the Lahu of China/ Burma, the Shang and Palang of South East Asia, the Kui of Thailand, the Lisu of China, the Naja of India, the Santal of India, the Gedeo of Ethiopia. (For further reading on these peoples refer to Don Richardson, “Eternity in their Hearts” and Wilhelm Schmidts, “Primitive Religion”)

From the evidence of the above peoples similarities have been noted and correlations in their cultures and their oral traditions are below compared with the N.Z. model.


Knowledge of a monotheistic God in highly stratified societies is usually restricted to the educated elite or to the higher political, economic and social levels.28

It may be explained just here that the larger part of the teaching of the Whare wananga (or college of learning) was never known to the common people, it was too sacred. Especially was the name and all connected with the supreme God Io particularly sacred.”


The oral traditions relating creation stories containing Sky god phenomena appears to be the most ancient. Often containing wording that has lost relevance in their changing cultures.

“But I am assured, not only by the positive statement of the scribe but by internal evidence more particularly perhaps by the prayers to Io which contain many obsolete words, and differ a great deal in form and composition from ordinary Karakia -that there is no foundation for such an idea. The doctrine of Io is evidently a bonafide relic of very ancient times handed down with scrupulous care generation after generation, as the centre and core of esoteric teaching of the Whare wananga”.


Those creation stories with “Sky God Phenomena” have a like pattern when dealing with the sequential making of the cosmos.

“The sequence of events bears an interesting similarity to the cosmogony described in the first chapter of Genesis. Compare the first line of the Maori version with verse 2 of Genesis. “And the earth was with out form and void : and the darkness upon the face of the waters and the spirit of God moved across the face of the water God commanded light to appear and divided the light from the darkness. He commanded a firmament to appear and it was so, then he commanded dry land to appear and called it earth.” Genesis CH 1: V2.

“Io dwelt in space, the world was dark and there was water everywhere. Io spoke for the first time and said, “Darkness become a darkness possessing light”. Light appeared. Then Io reversed his words by saying light become a light possessing darkness..., he separated darkness from light so that each function... In the greater light Io observed the waters encompassing him and commanded the waters to separate, sky to grow and become suspended and land to be born.”


Most narratives following the biblical pattern of creation, allude, in varying degree and combination, to such topics as: the Garden of Eden, the creation of man, the tree of knowledge, the serpent, the fall, the expulsion from the garden, the curse on creation, the flood, the tower of Babel and the dispersion of mankind. Beyond the dispersion narratives co-relations between biblical pattern and other oral traditions stop.

“The Deluge

The account given by our Sage of this event is very brief and only used by him as an illustration but in other legends it is described much more fully and is therefore closely akin to the biblical and Babylonian stories of the deluge. Whether the Polynesian accounts are devised from the Babylonian (or vice versa) is open to discussions; but in both there is the same idea of a great catastrophe followed by mankind being distributed to the four quarters of the earth”.

Since such a high proportion of the world’s cosmologies have some comprehension of the Supreme Being, and since many geographically isolated cultures share sympatric oral traditions it is therefore possible to suggest a common source of origin at some point in history from a common dispersal point. Such a scenario is not new and has been propounded before:

“Probably the identities or similarities in belief are immensely ancient, and carry us back to a period when one original cult was the common possession of the primitive race from which the Polynesian sprang subsequently modified and added to according to the environment in which each branch found itself .32

Moreover, since these sympatrically isolated cultures contain similarities within variation from the Genesis models and furthermore, since these early history correlations end with a dispersal point after a great Deluge, then the Genesis account could be viewed as the earliest reliable written account and perhaps the best preserved of the ancient world.

Its explanation of the dispersal of the mankind follows directly after the flood:

“Now the whole world had one language and one common speech. As men moved eastwards they found a plain in Shinar and settled there. They said to each other, “Come let us make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone and bitumen instead of mortar. Then they said. “Come let us build ourselves a city with a tower that reaches to the heavens, so that we may make a home for ourselves and not be scattered across the face of the earth.”

“But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower that the men were building. The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this then nothing they plan to do later will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language so that they have begun to do this then nothing they plan to do later will be impossible for them. Come let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”

“So the Lord scattered them from there, over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. That is why it is called Babel -because there the Lord confused the language of the world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth”.

(Genesis 11.1-9.)

and so began the migrations of the ancient world.

Coming back to New Zealand we pick up the pieces from the various branches of modern day science, tracing the movements of mankind eastwards from South East Asia, Indonesia, the islands of Micronesia into to the central Pacific region where distinct Polynesian culture and ethnic characteristics developed. Here the final migrations of uncharted areas of the world stopped and the Maori moved to the farthest corners of the Polynesian triangle.33

Oral traditions, for all their limitations, have retained information regarding these early migrations. Also retained are oral cosmologies with vestigial jigsaw pieces of an ancient belief system of early man. The Matorohanga texts and other like recordings speak of an ancient God, a Supreme Being on a par with the God of the later Christians but a God known only to an elite few. In this context the missionaries’ message was not at war with Maori religion and belief system, rather, the Christian message can be seen as clarification (to those so educated) of that which was already known to them and (to those of the uneducated classes) a rediscovery of their own religious history. Thus, Jehovah of the Bible is not merely a God of the Europeans, he was not only God of the Jews, but he too was the God of the Maori people under the name of Io.

The Doctrine of Io can best be seen as the Old Testament base from which the New Testament Gospel can be presented. Its correlations to Old Testament narratives are not merely coincidence, nor are they as many suppose, anachronistic syncretism. Rather they reveal a frame work of spiritual identity inherent in Maori culture that awaited the revelation of Jesus Christ and the time of the missionaries.

Unfortunately the classroom of History reveals the problems that this message confronted. Early attempts by many missionaries to present this gospel were often clouded by cultural misconceptions and so their teachings were not perceived as relevant by many Maori. Even after huge social and cultural upheaval bringing with it acceptance of a superior, more powerful God, the God of missionaries was still not embraced as a Maori God.

Thus many Maori adjustment cults sprang up to attempt a reconciliation between this new introduced belief system and Maori cultural identity.

In New Zealand much of the Maori pantheon has been designated as superstition by European denominations of the church and with that criticism has been thrown away the basis for a complementary Maori spiritual identity. There exists today a real need amongst the Pakeha denominations to recognize and value this Maori spiritual heritage. Such spiritual recognition would provide equal footing for a meeting place of differing cultures.

Chapter Two


The revelation of Jesus Christ finally reached the shores of New Zealand on Christmas day 1814. Samuel Marsden preached from the gospel of Luke saying “behold I bring you glad tidings of great joy....’. A message given in deep sincerity, but which was received with puzzled consternation by his new congregation. Over the next decades the missionaries brought with their message new technologies in farming horticulture & industry to practically improve the material standing of the Maori. They approached the task of teaching and educating their new students with such a zeal and earnestness that within three short decades a ‘revival’ had begun, such as had not been seen many times in church history. By the 1840s the major proportion of the indigenous population had been converted , with over fifty per cent being baptized into the church. Despite these early successes some problem seeds of cultural misconception were sown and years later, began to evidence themselves, hindering the effectiveness of the missionaries’ message.

“When I am with Jews I seem as one of them so that they will listen to the Gospel and I can win them to Christ. When I am with Gentiles who follow Jewish customs and traditions I don’t argue, even though I don’t agree because I want to win them as much as I can, except of course that I must do what is right as a Christian. And so, by agreeing, I can win their confidence and help them too... To the weak I become weak to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.

(1 Corinthians Ch.9:20)

In retrospect one of the greatest problems confronting the Christian church today is its own cultural ethnocentricity. Whilst this is perhaps a reflection of Pakeha society as a whole it does however within the church, have its first roots in the events of the past involving the early missionaries. Unfortunately for the Maori, these presenters of the gospel brought with them their cultural baggage, and their civilizing social conditioning from Mother England, converting the Maori not only to the Christian principles of a new belief system, but also to a cultural morality of a Victorian time. The more subtle aspects of Maori cultural expression and esoteric perceptions were too often thought of as extraneous and unnecessary. Thus the comparative cross-cultural references needed to effectively communicate the gospel were not fully investigated, nor their relevance appreciated.

Many new doctrines which Christianity stood for were ill presented and thought irrelevant by Maori audiences. “My people perish through lack of knowledge”. Due to this lack in cultural empathy teachers would often struggle to find existing correlating ideas on which to build new spiritual concepts.

Angered by apparent indifference and combined with other perceived and real inconsistencies in missionary actions many Maori left their congregations, taking part in current millennial movements:

“Through the forties and fifties Maori had kept their faith in the bible but following the land wars of the sixties and seventies had lost their faith in those who had introduced it.... The scripture spoke as they always had and the Maori conceived that there must be a message and an inspiration for him too”.

The religious movements continued through till the early twentieth century providing hope of a new world and giving to their participants a sense of corporate belonging.

In the years that followed the pendulum swing moving against the Christian church balanced itself as Maori understanding of Christian doctrine grew. Many Maori began to return to the mainstream denominations and those movements that were reactionary to missionary teaching gradually incorporated previously unaccepted doctrine. Thus came about the setting up of the Maori Christian churches.

The effect which Christianity has had upon Maori society can be broadly divided into three main time periods:

Firstly, its acceptance following the years of the land wars from about the 1820s through to the end of the baptism periods in the 1850s.

Secondly, the renouncing of the mission teaching and the reinterpretation of their scriptures from 1850 to 1900 and the arising of new adjustment cults in an attempt to bridge the gap between their own cultural identity and a new belief system.

Thirdly, from 1900 to the present the last period, during which time Maori people expressed a conciliatory tone in accepting the denominations of the churches. It can be seen throughout these years that one of the greatest social needs facing Maori in their changing environment were practical tangible methods of sustaining their mana and thus their identity. It seems also that the greatest failing of the early church was their lack of cultural empathy in both discerning those needs and providing adequate and positive direction to fulfil them.

From the fifties onwards these various nationalistic religious movements were Maori attempt to take control of their own future, to regain their lost mana and to rebuild their own identity.

At the turn of the century stability was once again restored to society providing an improvement in their social and economic conditions. This was largely due to new style political leaders who encouraged the bicultural rebuilding of mana Maori and identity.... This allowed the reconciliatory process to begin between Maori congregations and their previous church denominations. However the failings of these years continue to be a source of grief for Maori people and following this if cross-cultural harmony is to be restored in the church these problems need to be examined openly and addressed to the satisfactions of both parties.

The art forms of Maori people likewise relate to the above time periods. They prevent a visual record of Maori history and have taken an active part in the rebuilding of mana and taha Maori.

Chapter Three

The Maori Meeting House

The concept of the Maori meeting house, with its creative arts and associated cultural patterns emerged during the decade of the 1840s It evolved from a combination of differing sources: the chiefs house, the communal guest house, and the European church. Essentially though, the meeting house proper inherited its function from the Whare Runanga of the chief, the major difference being the shift in ownership to the corporate hapu group. In pre-European times there were two types of dwellings: one smaller and plain and another type of house which was larger and more highly carved. The larger houses were traditionally owned by the chief, defining his social level in the community. His shifting from the Whare Runanga marked an early indication in the breakdown of Maori social structures.

During these early decades and following the decimating tribal wars of the 1820s, growing crowds came to hear the gospel message. With the increase in visitors came the need for greater size buildings for their accommodation: this, tied in with the introduction of new technology and steel tools, allowed the construction of larger buildings. Meetinghouses progressively grew in size .~

As the Wharenui became communal property it now qualified as a focal point on which to concentrate hapu pride and prestige.4 Increasingly hapu competed with each other to build the best decorated and largest meeting houses. The meeting house became what has been termed by Simmons a tribal “Item of Mana”. (‘mana’ as defined by Williams dictionary involves ‘authority, control, influence, power, prestige’ and I might add pride).s Corporate mana is a charismatic quality which is inherited, descending directly from the achievements of ones ancestors and which can be built upon by the accomplishments of the existing community.6 The building of the meeting house proper as a communal property involved both such aspects of mana. Prior to this time that role had resided with the Waka Taua and, to a lesser degree, the Patakaa. How ever following new developments in Maori settlements patterns, religion and technology, the Waka and Pataka lost their relevance to Maori need and it was in the Whare Whakairo that things pertaining to Maoridom - tribal mana and identity - were sustained and developed.

With the acceptance of Christianity by a growing proportion of Maori, its principles, and the teachings of missionaries had a marked effect on their culture:

“Therefore it was from this period onwards that the influence of the missionaries and their teaching began to be felt and followed.., so the Maori gave up practices which did not equate with Christianity. Such as polygamy, hauhanga rites, the suicides of wives and deceased chiefs the slaves at burial and cannibalism”.

Many questions now faced the artists commissioned by these new converts. How does one express a monotheistic faith in the arts of a pantheistic tradition? To the Maori this presented no real problem and he continued using Maori iconography to explain biblical concepts, stories and personages.

One such work, “The Madonna”, carved by Patoromuu Tamatea is a beautiful example of this early period.

The lady as a full moko as that of a man. She is sexless but holds a child and therefore must be the Virgin Mary”. The child Jesus has moko too by which in Maori symbolism it is understood that he is a God.

This caving typified the early response of Maori artists to the new religion. However this practice of convention was frowned upon by its patron missionaries who saw it as pagan mysticism. It was in this spirit that this work and others like it were rejected, and Patoromu’s work was never installed in its intended church interior.

To early missionary eyes no essential difference existed between the content of the traditional Maori belief system and the associated symbolic art forms which illustrated those beliefs. A policy of active dissuasion towards congregational artists meant the loss of art forms such as Ta Moko 10 (because of its associations warfare) and traditional figurative carving (seen as idolatrous).

Increasingly the missionary encouraged arts became more decorative and devoid of thematic content, for example, in the church which Reverend William Williams oversaw in Manutuke in 1849. The carvers under Raharuhi Rukupo were halted from their work because of Williams objection to the content of ancestral figures in the carvings. Instead of providing alternative themes associated with a house of God he opted for a decorative format of non figurative manaia, thus missing out on the opportunity of spiritual and cultural integration.

Mana, as has been mentioned derives from the achievements of one’s ancestors (a concept not necessarily alien to biblical principle). For Maori to associate themselves to any new art forms this spiritual content needed to be addressed unfortunately no positive thematic alternatives were provided. Thus an early synthesis of Christian belief system and Maori aesthetic was never achieved. Only later as Maori took control of their own spiritual direction did a cultural/spiritual synthesis occur and this only to the detriment of the missionaries.

The two decades leading up to the late 1850s have been termed the ‘baptism period’,13 during which time the greater portion of Maori believers were added to the mainstream denominations of the church building also at this time was at its height with a great deal of community energy being focused on their construction. However progressively through the 1850s this enthusiasm waned, in relation to the changes in Maori attitude to European society as a whole. This, Richard Taylor noted in his journal 9th May 1863, that “the people of Raorika had put more care into building a great Ruunanga house for the King Movement than they had put into their church”.14 The Baptism Period ended with the growing distrust of the Pakeha by the Maori.

Now, the Old Testament which had only just recently been translated by the missionaries was available in full. The Jewish culture held many similarities to the Maori.

Maori began to find succor in and ready empathy with the warlike “Old Testament”. Many nationalistic movements of the 1860s through to the turn of the century grew out to the fertile soil of these scriptures. Its teachings and stories encouraged new leaders to step forward and direct a rapidly demoralized people. The Bible became inspirational in the ongoing process in recovering and reassessing of Maori tribal and ethnic identity.’ The art forms of these religious leaders recorded their struggles. With each successive movement came a rise in hope and a whole new influx of symbols. The resulting art works joined a growing tradition of combining spiritual, social and artistic perceptions into a new identity, the merging of two worlds, the bicultural arts of New Zealand.

Te Kooti Rikirangi was perhaps the most influential single exponent amongst these religious movements. Born in 1832 from a rather aristocratic lineage he had been educated at a mission school and so had received a good knowledge of both the Old and New Testaments. His theme was one of release from oppression and bondage to a foreign power. The theme is consistent with the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the Bible. This demonstrated the affinity which Maori people felt to the children of Israel and their struggles with bondage to Egypt (European government), and eventually their release through a saviour Moses, (Te Kooti).17 The Jewish Theo centric viewing of history gave a new base for Maori group identity. This interpretation explained their present predicaments, offering hope and providing spiritual solutions for the future:

Te Kooti’s new project of historical interpretation was stimulated by Maori knowledge of the biblical search for a meaning to history, charging history with a religious significance. Hence the progress of colonial history could be read as a clue to the design and direction of God’s will as it applied to Maori people’s

By the 1840s the meeting house had become a focal point of Maori aesthetic. Functionally, each local hapu used it to validate their identity and position in society. The traditional method of relating identity was done through Whakapapa, tracing ancestry to famous personages on board migratory waka from Hawaiiki: “I am here because I am the son of... the son of... etc...”

However in the climate beyond the 1860s, with massive alienation of lands, a new ideology developed. The specific history of a sub tribe became both important and necessary as each group had differing experiences in their social intercourse with the European. The art works inside meeting houses could new be viewed at perhaps three or more levels:

Firstly the religious theme of history - with regards to God’s purpose for each local group,

Secondly the traditional theme of Genealogy and

Thirdly a new theme based upon day to day observations of natural and man made phenomena including interaction with the European.

The meeting houses built by and for Te Kooti variously investigated these three thematic levels for example:

“Te Tokanganui” in Te Kuiti (1873) the first meeting house overseen in its construction by Te Kooti. It was built as a koha (gift) in gratitude for the protection that King Tawhiao had given him, following his years spent eluding government troops.

In its original scheme naturalistic paintings were represented on the back wall of the house and portraits on the upper panels of its doors. These figures are dressed in European clothes and evidence a “recording of current events” and cultural interaction with the European.

The presence of stars and marakihau (taniwha) figures in the porch paintings, refer to the cosmogony of the new Tariao faith promulgated by Tawhiao at this time. In Tariao certain stars were designated as deities and local taniwha as marakihau were guardian spirits. Thus these examples can be seen as an expression of “localized religious identity”.

The overall reconciliatory theme of the meeting house arose from the need to tie together those peoples from diverse tribes politically drawn to the king movement and now living in Te Kuiti. Ancestors had been selected from each tribal group to symbolize their unity. The carvings within the house are stylistically affiliated to each tribal ancestor and denotational symbols are used to identify their likeness. To make sure there is no doubt in the interpretation the ancestors’ names have been carved on the front of their bodies. Such was the situation of local politics that Te Kooti has achieved an unknown theme “combining differing genealogies” and so emphasizing tribal solidarity under the political umbrella of the King movement.

In hand with new thematic innovations came a willingness to experiment with new media. Those artists often employed in Te Kooti’s decorative schemes lacked any training in traditional schools of the Whare Wananga, consequently the old laws of tapu, which previously governed whakairo rakau (wood carving) no longer applied. Within such an environment, media like painting, experienced an explosion of new visual language. Rongopai in Waituhi is an example. It was built largely by artists who had been untrained and the whole structure is completely covered with paintings. Traditional colours have been abandoned and the full colour range of available European paints explored. Rongopai’s imagery is diverse including fruit and flowers, shrubs and trees, plants in pots, hunting scenes, ancestors, serpentine monsters, geometric patterns and mission taught Roman script. However such is the nature of these highly personalized works that their symbolic relevance has to a degree been lost. With the greater freedom to innovate the artist became in scope similar to the western concept like the artist of today with art being more individualistic in expression. Such foreign concepts did not necessarily find a ready home amongst communities and Rongopai, according to tradition was placed immediately under tapu by its community elders.

Rongopai in its innovations was greatly influenced by Te Tokanganui in Te Kuiti and in like manner it too became inspirational in the aesthetic and thematic developments of later meeting houses. Succeeding generations of artists, working on wharenui into the early twentieth century, continued innovating and swapping successful ideas in varying combinations and experimenting with new materials and images. However the artistic innovations which characterized the time period of the later half of the nineteenth century began to fade into the early twentieth century. Increasingly the meeting house and its art forms became more or less standardized in format. This was directly related to the centering influence of Rotorua School of Maori Arts and Crafts and the industrious efforts of Apirana Ngata in promoting the construction of new meeting houses. The effective renaissance of the traditional arts and crafts marked a turning point in political, economic and social positioning of the Maori people. The driving need to redefine corporate identity was now lessened and a certain degree of stability returned once again to Maori society.2


Chapter Four

Te Poho o Ihu Karaiti

Since earliest contact times comparisons have been made between the cul-ture of the Maori people and culture of the Old Testament Jews. Early mis-sionaries themselves first promulgated this idea of Maori being the de-scending remnants of the lost tribes of Israel.1 Later on these cultural similarities provided the basis for the rejection of the English God and the growing empathy towards the Jewish culture of the Old Testament.

As with any learning process new abstract concepts, must first be pre-sented on available culturally understood reference points.2 The culture of any society can thus provide the formulation upon which new theological doctrine can be built. So for Maori people it is not surprising then that the Old Testament (which presented an empathetic culture) should have been the most easily understood and readily received. Similarly just as an Old Testament scripture provided the comprehension needed for the Jews acceptance of a New Testament Christ, so too did those involved with adjustment cults after accepting Old Testament history being to compre-hend the value of New Testament theology.3 The evidence for this can be seen at the beginning of this century with the return of Maori congregations to the mainstream denominations of the Christian church.

The huge upheaval that Maoridom underwent in the nineteenth century confronted the leaders of that society with the bewildering task of redefining their own community identity and ensuring their communities’ survival into the twentieth century. Bold steps had to be taken as the best of the introduced western culture was accepted and absorbed, whilst at the same time some irrelevant traditional practices were discarded. The rural marae with its wharenui and associated cultural patterns has emerged from those changing years as anessential formula sustaining Maori self -ex-pression.

However, since the nineteen fifties this has been a progressive movement of Maori people shifting from the cultural sanctum of the rural marae and moving to the larger towns and major industrial cities.4

Within the urban environment the old hapu and tribal boundaries which had traditionally defined corporate Maori identity are under pressure and continue to be eroded. And so the ongoing task of refocusing Maori corporate distinctiveness and existence continues into the twenty first century.

The Exhibition “Te Poho o Ihu Karaiti” is a personal statement, investigat-ing the thematic possibilities involved with reconciling Maori cultural identity and the Christian faith.

As a variation from prior themes given by adjustment cults “the Body of Christ” emerges as a possible unifying statement for: firstly those diverse tribal groups living within the urban landscape, and secondly the main-stream denominations of the church- providing the spiritual basis for the bringing together of two culturally different congregations.

Such a statement allows common ground and equal footing for complementary Maori/European, spiritual/cultural relations.

“The meeting house (whare whakairo) is conceptualised metaphorically as a human body representing the eponymous ancestor of a tribe at the apex of the gable; attached to the tahuhu or ridgepole is the koruru (head). The maihi (barge boards) are the arms, outsretched to welcome guest. The tahuhu is the backbone and the heke (rafters) are the ribs. People in the house are protected in the bosom of their ancestors: thus we have names like Te Poho o Rawhiri (The Bosom of David) and Te Poho o Hinepare (The Bosom of Hinepare.) The porch is termed the roro (brain.) The kuwaha (mouth) or door is the symbolic entry where the physical and the spiritual realms come together. The window becomes the eye (matapihi) and the interior the womb (koopu.)

The poupou (carved posts) which depict notable descendants from the eponymous ancestor ... reinforces the spiritual unity with human forbears right back to the beginning ... this visualization of the house as the body of an ancestor (male or female) brings together its individual members into a united organism sharing a life and heritage.”

(Tane-Nui-A-Rangi Paki Harrison)5

In this exhibition various symbolic structural elements from the Whare Whakairo are alluded to (although much simplified because of the prac-ticalities involved with the gallery setting). Inside there are four symbolic walls as in a meeting house. A veil has been set up creating a fourth wall and this has allowed the inclusion of a doorway through its centre.


symbolizing the creation of the world and the involvement of the Godhead.6 Two monumental canvases on either side of the doorway attempt to capture the scale and mystical atmosphere of the birthing of the primeval forests. Each image is broken into six segments representing the six days of creation. Such a shattered image is also a visual metaphor for the hidden Creator seen through his creation. “The six days in Creation” paintings where inspired by a trip to the Waipoua Kaauri forests. It is as you stand in front of these huge trees that the awe of God’s presence is felt... I can see him through his creation. It’s like viewing a person through fractionated glass - I know that somebody is there but the image is not complete nor wholly comprehensible.

The tri-une Godhead is suggested as three triangles merging and fading, hovering within the branches of the trees.

(B) THE WALL OF DEATH - (The wall opposite the veil)

Five paintings sequentially narrate the ascendancy of a figure through the waters of death. In Maori mythology when y the spirits of the dead reach Te Reeinga where the ancient Pohutukawa tree overhangs the waters, the underworld of Rarohenga. How ver this figure is no mortal man” he is God incarnate, and the Christ who conquered death by his resurrection, now arises, leading the way to liberation from Rarohenga.

Death has been swallowed up in victory “Where o death is your victory? Where, o death, is you sting?” The sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the law, But thanks be to God. He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians cha15:55-56)

The central painting dividing these figures in the sequence contains wording held against a silhouetted poutama pattern. The words read: “Mai te Po kt te Ao” (From the darkness to the light)/ The composition is down, it relfects on the central axis and emerges into the world of Te Ao with its blazing light. The change in poutama a pattern on this central axis emphasizes Christ’s change of our spiritual direction. (poutama is the tukutuku pattern symbolizing the heavenly journey: usually it is associated with the wall of death.).


The tahuhu represents the genealogical line of the ancestor unbroken to the present generation. It connects the wall of the life and creation to the wall of death and conclusion.9 Corresponding to this concept is the Alpha and the Omega. Christ described himself as the total omnipresent incarnate God, who both existed before the creation of the world and who also will exist following its destruction. He was in the first generation and he will exist in the last generation. He is the inheritor of the title - “The Great I Am.”

“I am the Alpha and the Omega says the Lord God who was and who is and who is come, the Almighty.” (Revelation CH1:8)

“...Do not be afraid. I am the First and the Last I am the Living One; I was dead and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” ( Revelation CHI:[7,18)

The two triangles, Alpha and Omega, face one another at opposite ends of the meeting house. An unbroken gaze linked by two connecting verses suggests the continuity of the tahuhu. Both symbols are divided into heavenly triangles, these, combined with the outer triangular frame, are a double reference, emphasizing the divinity of Christ.

(D) THE TWO SIDE WALLS (or Poupou)

The Poupou on the side walls of the meeting house traditionally represent those descendents of historical notoriety from whom the tribe could draw mana. Their lives were explained through the language of mnemonics in the carving forms and surface patterns using connotational and denotational symbolism.

There are four groupings of paintings on the two side walls. Thematically connected, they explain the life and the purpose of Jesus Christ. Early church symbols are used to accentuate and illustrate correlating scripture references.

Most paintings are fractionated into either horizontal or vertical bands, corresponding to this are their heavenly and earthly themes. Cubist theory is investigated however in these paintings its focus is not on physical form but rather on the differing angles and perspectives which symbols provide transcending the physical world and entering into the spiritual realm.

In the sign of the cross heaven and earth are combined harmoniously. It is a symbol and universally understood through ancient cultures even prior to Christianity. Through Christ, the saviour of the world (as the vertical component) fallen man (as the horizontal component) was brought into communion with a Holy God. That Jesus of Nazareth should die on such a potent symbol is very apt. The cross speaks not only of Christ’s death but also of his incarnation - being truly God and yet truly man.

‘But the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only begotten son of the heavenly father.” (John CHI:14)

The heavenly triangle suspended at the top of the composition inverts and translates to the earthly pyramidal triangle at the base of the composition. This is an allusion to the taking on of flesh and is reciprocated in the two arms of the cross with the diamond shape being composed of two separate triangles. The suggested weaving process between the two vertical and horizontal elements emphasizes the theme of Christ’s combined humanity and divinity.

Te Rongopai - the good news

These are a series of works arranged in the compositional format of a kowhaiwhai (rafter) pattern design. Three active lines link five works together developing the narrative of Christ’s earthly journey. The text chosen is the Gospel message of John CH3: 16.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only son that whosoever believes him will not perish but will have eternal life.”

Each symbol illustrates an apportioned segment of the text. Beginning on the left.

The first symbol is the heart of lo Matua. It reveals the first person of the trinity, God the Father, yearning to bring mankind back to himself. The third person of the trinity, Jesus Christ, the son is given to take the pen-alty for mankind’s disobedience to God. This heart symbolizes the loving gift of his incarnation.

“Who being in very nature God did not consider equality with God something to be grasped but made himself nothing taking the very nature of a servant being made in human likeness.” (Philippians CH2:6,7)

The second panel - the Alpha, speaks of his uniqueness, the only son of God

- truly God yet truly man resting in human form. The only person able through his life to be a perfect offering and so pay the price for mans sin.

The central panel - focuses in the crucifixion emphasizing its importance as the purpose of Christ’s journey. Following his incarnation, Christ, is placed high on a cross not only as a spectacle to man but also to all the spiritual powers of the heavenly realms.

“And having disarmed the powers and authorities he made a public spectacle of them triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians CH2:15)

The fourth symbol is the shape of a diamond referring to the four corners of the earth, the World and Christ’s tomb for three days. It is the downward journey, a journey of humility

“And being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself and became obedient into death even death on the cross.” (Philippians CH2:8)

The final panel is the omega - the possessor of eternal life, the journeys end, the task completed. Christ has triumphed over death and he holds the hope of eternal life.

“Do not be afraid, I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead and behold, I am alive forever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (RevelationCHl:17,18)

This final part of Christ’s journey demonstrates his resurrection and his ex-altation in heaven where he now reigns because of his obedience to lo Matua.

“That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated at Gods right hand in the heavenly realms. Far above all rule and authority power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in this present age but in things to come.” ( Ephesians CHl:20)


The doorway in a meeting house was a transition point where the tapu of an individual was removed as he entered into the body of the ancestor. Usually above the doorway the creation story would portrayed in the carvings of the pare (door lintel). Sometimes the figure illustrated would be female. In which case her exposed genitalia would nullify any dangerous tapu upon entry.

This, in the exhibition correlates to the role of Christ as purifier, mediators and intercessor between Io Matua and man. The text used is taken from Christ’s own words in Johns gospel Ch 10:9


‘I tell you the truth I am gate whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out and find safe pasture.”

Christ is the one who takes the sin of the believer allowing entry through faith into the presence of a Holy God.

The pattern used in the image derives from weather board patterns often associated with the outer entry walls of old meeting houses.

Jewish/Maori Comparisons

Here are some co-relating ideas explored in these paintings between the culture of the Maori people and the culture of the Jewish people.

Firstly. the power of the spoken word. Before the coming of the European, Maori had oral traditions and histories in which important information was committed to memory. All that was retained by rote was to be treated with careful accuracy and handed on to the next generation. Whare wananga for example, emphasized the exactness of Karakia. Words had power, mana, ihi, wehi, a spiritual dimension that could be used for blessing or for cursing.

In a similar way Jewish culture understood the power of the spoken word: They believed that God had spoken the cosmos into existence by the simple power of his command.

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He created everything, nothing exists that he didn’t make.” (John Ch 1:1)

(Note the parallels of the above scriptures to the Matorohanga texts of the first chapter)

The Indian ink paintings in the ”Te Rongopai” series attempt to capture this same power of the spoken word. Letters and words in Roman script glow with bursts of light against the dark backgrounds of broken symbols.

“His life is the light that shines through the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it.” (John ch 1:3)

Secondly: the concept of the body of Christ and the meeting house.

“Our bodies have many parts, but the many parts make up only one body when they are all put tooether. So it is with the “body” of Christ. Each of us is a part of one body of Christ. Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles some of us are slaves and some are free. But the Holy Spirit has fitted us all together into one body. We have all been baptized into Christ’s body by the one Spirit, and all have been given that same Holy Spirit.” (1 Corinthians ch 12:12,13)

The metaphorical embodiment of the ancestor in the meeting house provides ample room for possible correlations with the above passage. Perhaps the most important ideological function supplied by ‘Te Poho of Ihu Karaiti” is in its pan/inter-tribal, pan/inter-ethnic application. Today in the larger industrial cities with most Maori living on foreign soil, this then provides a positive alternative to existing themes from marae based on local and genealogical histories of tangata whenua.

This is the Masters dissertation