Volume 84 1975 > Volume 84, No. 4 > Moko and C. F. Goldie, by Michael King, p 431-440
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In monetary terms, Charles Frederick Goldie has been New Zealand's most successful artist. He died in 1947 at the age of 77, well known but neither famous nor wealthy. Today his reputation attracts wealth and fame in embarrassing proportions. In 1951, the Dunedin Art Gallery bought one of his Maori portraits for a then record price of 800 guineas. A similar painting fetched $16,000 in May 1975.

After training under L. J. Steele in Auckland and at L'Academie Julian in Paris in the 1890s, Goldie began to specialise in Maori portraiture from 1901. He completed his best-known works (some 120 paintings) in two periods between 1905 and 1916, and 1928 and 1940.

The source of his appeal during his lifetime and (even more markedly) since his death was said to be his devotion to “realism” and the value of his paintings as ethnological records of the Maori. Of the first quality, fellow painter, H. P. Sealy, wrote in 1901: “Mr. Goldie's method of working has no peculiarities; he paints faithfully what he sees and has stood the hard test of criticism. He indulges in no limelight effects and the vivid purples of the impressionist have, so far, been unknown to him.” And of the second, Brett's Christmas Annual of 1922 commented: “It is a subject for genuine regret that Goldie came on the scene only after all but a few of the tattooed heroes of the lawless and picturesque years of early European occupation had gone to join their ancestors.” 1

An examination of Goldie's work, however, casts considerable doubt on both attributes. A more reasonable assumption is that the paintings hold continuing appeal and monetary value because they strike a chord of distinct but complementary notes in the New Zealand imagination. Some of the more romantic, especially those that include native costume, imply noble savages. Others contain strong doses of sentimentality and jingoism in their suggestion of a formerly self-reliant race now confused (“Pipi Puzzled”), brooding over spiritual defeat (“Thoughts of a Tohunga”), and facing extinction (“One of the Old School”). There is also considerable condescension in the suggestions of an inability to master language (“Allee Same Te Pakeha”) and a people one step removed from heathenish practices (tattooing itself and titles like “Last of the Cannibals”).

The thing that can be said with most confidence about Goldie's work is that it preserves the European fantasies about Maori people held during - 432 the artist's lifetime. It is necessary to emphasise this in the face of the durable myth of “realism”. In fact, he showed the Maori as the urban Pakeha wanted to see him and remember him. The paintings show none of the contrasting extremes of sordidness and vigorous recovery that were more authentic characteristics of Maori life throughout Goldie's life. They were also, of course, more disturbing qualities, best forgotten in the interests of security and commercial appeal. (Ken Gorbey of Waikato Museum has written: “In an age of the Young Maori Party, in an age when Te Puea was in Kibbutz-like conditions of toil and hardship re-establishing the Kingmen's marae at Turangawaewae, Goldie chose to pick his subjects from among the old and often from among the dead, and further chose to present these subjects as stereotypes, relics, remnants.”) 2 Speaking in general terms, the paintings tell us more about the European than the Maori.

At worst, therefore, Goldie's portraits are culturally biased to the point of severe distortion. They reinforce feelings of European superiority and fill a role not unlike that of the tame black minstrel performers of the United States.

At best, they capture a fin-de-siècle sense of nostalgia and, with their near-photographic qualities and skin-like facial textures, they preserve a record of a formerly coherent system of Polynesian art. This ethnological feature of the paintings far exceeds their artistic merit. To understand it, it is helpful to sketch what is known and not known about moko or facial tattooing.

The practice of moko belonged as uniquely to the New Zealand Maori as the word itself (most other Polynesian groups used the expressions tatu or tatu.) It was one of two arresting features that impressed Europeans when they encountered Maori culture late in the eighteenth century: the sophisticated working of bone and stone; and patterns and techniques of tattooing more highly refined than anywhere else in the world (except, perhaps, in the Marquesas Islands).

Cook's botanist Joseph Banks remarked in 1769 on the “extreme elegance and justness” of Maori moko or tattoo. “The patterns are finished with a masterly taste and execution, for of a hundred which at first sight could be judged to be exactly the same, no two on close inspection proved alike,” he wrote. 3

Subsequent observation revealed that the extent of moko varied throughout the country. In some districts men were tattooed on the face, buttocks and thighs. Women's moko ranged from marks on the face to tattoo on the breasts and abdomen. In most places, however, female moko was limited to the lips and chin. 4

The Maori shared the practice of tattooing with fellow Polynesians, particularly those in the Samoan, Tahitian and Marquesas Islands. Chisels excavated from archaic sites by Owen Wilkes at the Wairau Bar and Wilfred Shawcross at Houhora indicate that the custom dated from the - 433 earliest days of settlement in New Zealand. It almost certainly originated from a common Polynesian dispersal point. These serrated comb-like instruments, up to one-and-a-quarter inches wide, are almost identical to those found in Samoa and the Marquesas. 5

After several centuries of Maori settlement, however, the process of moko diverged from other Polynesian tattooing. Instruments narrowed, allowing more detailed patterns. The teeth on the blade became shorter and in parts of the North Island disappeared altogether leaving a straight blade that cut an incision in the skin deeper than any form of body marking known in other parts of the world. This development led some anthropologists like Henry Ling Roth to distinguish between “tatu” (which left a coloured pattern under the skin) and “moko” (which broke the skin and left a grooved scar). 6 In twentieth century Maori idiom, however, the terms have been used synonomously. The Maori also developed distinctive motifs in tattooing and carving, particularly spiral patterns, which further served to separate their work from that of other Polynesians.

Moko techniques are well documented. 7 From the time of European contact until the 1840s, Maori men and women were tattooed with small bone chisels on hafted handles. Dyes were made from combinations of soot, burnt vegetable caterpillars or dog excrement, and animal or shark fat. The tohunga (artist) would trace out a pattern on the face with charcoal, dip the chisel into a bowl of pigment, then tap it into the skin with a light mallet. Sometimes the incision would be made first and the dye rubbed in with soft material. Under the red tissue of the skin, it left a blue or greenish coloration. From the 1830s artists supplemented their kits with metal chisels. The process was painful and slow and involved loss of blood and a high risk of infection.

Male face tattooing ceased with the close of armed hostilities between Maori and Pakeha in the 1860s. James Cowan, interviewing a handful of surviving men with moko in 1921, was unable to find one tattooed later than 1865. 8 Facial tattooing of women, however, continued into the 1950s and elderly women with moko can still be seen (indeed, in what could herald a revival of the custom, one young Maori woman was tattooed on the chin in 1975). The major change of technique in the last phase was the widespread adoption of the Japanese practice of needle tattooing from the time of the First World War, and the addition of synthetics like Indian ink into pigment mixtures. 9

Moko involved marking the face and shedding blood. Hence it was highly tapu in Maori terms. It was performed in places set apart from other activities and waste materials such as swabs were burned. The process also involved extensive ritual and regulations to protect the artist and the subject from the consequences of breaking tapu: there were chants to prepare the place and the patient and to relieve pain, and prohibitions on sexual

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Drawing from Elsdon Best Scrapbook Number Two (courtesy Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, N.Z.)
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relations, eating, washing and (in later years) looking in mirrors. The concept of tapu was not solely a religious one, however. The conventions also served to reduce the likelihood of infection and shock.

The complex moko patterns were built up from simple components that fitted together like elaborate jigsaw puzzles. The key to the system is the koru or frond pattern. It is the major unit of male and female moko and its dimensions are bounded by an imaginary triangle (Fig. la).

The structure of a pattern could be built up by facing two koru in opposite directions. This gives the fundamental design seen in Figure 1b.

The addition of a third large koru forms a double spiral on top and defines the outside of the pattern (Fig. lc).

Three triangular spaces inside this allow the inclusion of further koru for a more elaborate pattern (Fig. 1d).

The other koru could face several directions (Fig. 1e).

The final pattern makes up one half of a chin moko. The other would reflect it symmetrically on the right-hand side (Fig. 1f).

The process can be illustrated further by analysing a real moko, that of Pare Watene of Thames (again, the drawing shows only the left-hand side). 10 (Fig. 1g).

The components here are a double spiral at the top and a larger koru at the bottom (Fig. 1h).

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Had the artist wanted to elaborate the pattern, he could have followed the rules to the conclusion seen in Figure li.

Perhaps the finest female chin moko recorded, and one that exemplifies careful, prescribed use of the koru system, is the one from the Hammond photographic collection in Thames, 11 illustrated in Figure lj.

It is apparent from these and all good examples of nineteenth century moko that the positive and negative aspects are equally important and elegantly drawn, and that they are balanced against each other. The viewer must look not only at a moko, but also into it. The other basic convention was that the face was divided in half by a central line and the patterns worked outward from that line. Both these features are seen in records of nineteenth century Marquesan tattooing.

A sketch by Robley (Fig. 2) shows the standard male face patterns and their generally accepted names (there were regional variations in nomenclature). The major features are koru-based designs on the forehead, above and nose; and sweeping lines from nostrils to chin and from eyebrows to hair line.

Chin and nose patterns appear to have been standardised with only minor differences. But in male tattoos there were an infinite number of variations in those at the top of the forehead and in front of the ears (many of the last men tattooed did not have these patterns). These were the marks that distinguished one man from another. They were a label of identity, like handwriting. (“European man write with pen his name,” the South Island chief Te Pehi Kupe used to tell people on a visit to England in 1826. “Te Pehi's name is here”. And he would point to his forehead). 12 Patterns before the ears were usually asymmetrical, like those of Te Pehi's face, shown in Figure 3 as drawn by himself.

The individuality of these personal designs and the extent to which a man identified with them were expressed by Netana Whakaari of Tuhoe to James Cowan:

“You may lose your most valuable property through misfortune in various ways. You may lose your house, your patupounamu, your wife and other treasures. You may be robbed of all your most prized possessions. But of your moko you cannot be deprived except by death. It will be your ornament and your companion until your last day.” 13

This identification is also the reason so many chiefs signed the Treaty of Waitangi and land documents with a moko sign in place of a name. It was not that they were illiterate — many could write. It was just that they regarded their moko patterns as a repository for their mauri, their life force, and therefore a more sacred way of sealing a contract. 14

There is ample nineteenth century evidence that chiefs could be identified - 438 by moko patterns alone, as Te Pehi suggested. Elsdon Best records that a widow sent a messenger to a chief and asked him to avenge the death of her husband. The messenger carried a kumara with part of the moko of the condemned man drawn on it. This served to identify the man and to insult him by placing a representation of his mauri on an item of food — an obscene gesture in Maori terms. 15

An understanding of the design structure of moko is possible from a study of surviving records. Provided pictures were drawn accurately, the system speaks for itself. But the rationale for compiling the patterns — the symbolism that governed an artist's choices in composition — has been lost. Painters like Horatio Gordon Robley (working in New Zealand between 1864 and 1866), Gottfried Lindauer (in the country from 1873 to 1926) and Goldie were interested in patterns and, in Robley's case, techniques. But they seem to have sought no information about meaning at a time when such information was probably still available.

Later authorities have speculated, however. Piri Poutapu, master carver at Turangawaewae Marae in Ngaruawahia, believed there was a definite relationship between moko and kowhaiwhai (rafter patterns inside meeting houses). 16 These rafters are regarded still as symbols of descent lines from tribal ancestors, as metaphorical “ribs” of the tribe. It is possible that in earlier times they were composed with reference to the moko patterns of ancestors; or that descendants could obtain their own patterns through a combination of kowhaiwhai or ancestral designs, thus wearing their moko as a badge of their whakapapa or genealogy. This explanation complements the role of moko as an expression of identity. Pine Taiapa, the late Ngati Porou carver, was brought up to believe the different patterns in front of each ear represented descent from the male and female sides of a man's family respectively. 17 This, too, is consistent with the kowhaiwhai hypothesis.

Immediate reasons for tattooing (distinct from the reasons for the arrangement of particular patterns) are documented: 18 there was the role of expression of identity already mentioned; a belief that moko designated membership of a particular tribe and the individual's standing within it; visible evidence of accomplishments (particularly in battle) and masculinity (there were strong overtones of initiation in moko ritual). The association of moko with fighting was intimate and, as we have noted, male tattooing finished with the wars of the 1860s.

The close of organised hostilities was probably the major step in the debasement of male moko. Other factors included the tattooing of slaves for the smoked head trade in the 1820s and 1830s; the rejection of tattooing by missionaries as a “heathenish practice”; 19 the fact that a full moko was more obtrusively Maori and less easily reconciled with the pervasive process of Europeanisation and newly acquired aesthetic tastes (Robley - 439 noted the increasing popularity of moustaches and beards in place of moko); 20 and the extreme pain suffered during the execution of extensive tattooing.

Women, however, were less vulnerable to these pressures and female tattooing continued for another century. There was no association of their moko with fighting. Female moko had connotations of beauty, sex appeal and marriageability, and they became very much an assertion of minority group identity. The revivals of carving towards the end of the nineteenth century and during the late 1920s and early 1930s coincided with revivals of female tattooing. The custom also persisted longest in areas where Maori religions like Pai Marire and Ringatu were strong — Waikato, Taranaki, the Bay of Plenty, the Ureweras and the East Coast.

The photographic record of twentieth century moko is one of a sad degeneration of a cultural and artistic tradition. The conventions and disciplines so apparent in paintings and photographs of nineteenth century patterns became distorted, misrepresented, and obviously misunderstood. Innovation disappears and patterns become poor copies. The range of moko designs shrinks to a handful of stereotypes. A creative process becomes a reproductive one.

Throughout this period, women's moko took on more identifiably tribal characteristics. It became possible to recognise people from a particular area because their pattern was a uniform one for that place or for the artist who applied it. 21 In the final years of the practice, moko lost its connotations of rangatira status and femininity and became more a diploma of accomplishment for women skilled in the arts of karanga, powhiri and waiata. In some instances, women were even tattooed to grace the front line of Action Song groups. 22

While the general practice of moko may well have ceased because there were no artists available to do it after the 1940s, this was a symptom rather than the cause of its demise. The urban drift that thickened after the Second World War brought further fragmentation of Maori communities. And concepts of beauty changed, even in rural areas: powder and lipstick took the place of tattooing. In the end, moko declined because it had ceased to fulfil its social functions.

The role of C. F. Goldie as a recorder of some of the last examples of the purist tradition of moko and some of the first of its debasement has been a considerable (some 120 portraits plus additional drawings) and to date unexploited one. Travelling extensively in parts of New Zealand not often visited then by Europeans, he preserved many patterns that would otherwise have vanished with the deaths of the wearers.

The consistent arrangement of moko components in his portraits suggests that he understood the intricate and prescribed system of design far better than his predecessors (except Robley) and contemporaries. The best of these portraits display three-dimensional qualities that do not - 440 misrepresent patterns the way the paintings of Lindauer and others have done. When working from other pictures, however (and he drew from the Hammond collection of glass plates as well as compiling his own), he too seems to have succumbed to some of the inevitable distortions of the photographic process. These works are, one suspects, slightly less reliable as records of moko patterns than those he did from life.

Goldie's contribution to ethnology, therefore, is important, but probably not to the extent that his most loyal admirers have claimed: he seems to have lapsed when he used photographs as a substitute rather than an aid for memory and observation; the later portraits appear to subordinate qualities of realism to more mechanical considerations in the interests of an academically artistic finish; 23 and he made no attempt to record information about the symbolism determining the structure of moko patterns. He must have had opportunities to fill this latter gap but, as far as we know, he chose not to, regarding his function more as that of artist than ethnologist.

His most valuable ethnological achievement is that, in the company of smoked head collectors, Horatio Gordon Robley and a handful of nineteenth century photographers, he built up a substantial body of material that will enable a scholar of the future to study a lost art form in depth and detail. His work is part of an invitation to a fertile area of cultural and artistic analysis. That invitation has yet to be accepted.

  • BEST, Elsdon, 1924. The Maori, Vol. 2. Wellington, Polynesian Society.
  • BROWN, Gordon, 1974. “Charles Frederick Goldie: The Artist and His Age.” AGMANZ News, 5(2): 39-40.
  • BUCK, Peter, 1949. The Coming of the Maori. Wellington, Maori Purposes Fund Board.
  • COWAN, James, 1921. “Maori Tattooing Survivals.” Journal of the Polynesian Society, 30(120): 240-5.
  • DUNN, Michael, 1975. Some Aspects of Maori Portraiture. Dunedin, Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
  • GORBEY, Ken, 1974. “Charles Frederick Goldie”, AGMANZ News, 5(2): 35-6.
  • KING, Michael, 1972. Moko: Maori Tattooing in the Twentieth Century. Wellington, Alister Taylor.
  • ROBLEY, Horatio Gordon, 1896. Moko or Maori Tattooing. London, Chapman and Hall.
  • ROTH, Henry Ling, 1901. “Maori Tatu and Moko”. Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, 33:29-64.
1   Both quotations are from Brown 1974: 39, 40.
2   Gorbey 1974: 36.
3   Roth 1901: 31.
4   For fuller details on extent and variation, see Robley 1896: 20-47; 64-97.
5   The Wairau chisels are held at Canterbury Museum, the Houhora ones at Auckland Museum.
6   Roth 1901: 32.
7   Robley 1896: 48-63; Buck 1949: 322-5; Best 1924: 166-72.
8   Cowan 1921: 244.
9   King 1972: section on needle tattooing.
10   Lindauer portrait, Auckland City Art Gallery.
11   Copied by Theo Schoon.
12   Robley 1896: 15.
13   Cowan 1921: 242.
14   Piri Poutapu, personal communication.
15   Theo. Schoon, personal communication.
16   Piri Poutapu, personal communication.
17   Pine Taiapa, personal communication.
18   King 1972.
19   See Charles Darwin in Roth 1901: 34.
20   Robley 1896: 123.
21   King 1972.
22   At Parihaka, for example, for Tohu Kakahi's poi team; and at Rotorua for the Royal Visit of the Duke and Duchess of York, 1927.
23   Dunn 1975.