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5 / Cosmology and Belief

Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa)
Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa)
Artist / Origin Cliff Whiting (Maori, b. 1936)
Region: Oceania
Date 1969–76
Material Carved and painted wood
Medium: Sculpture
Location National Library of New Zealand, Wellington, NZ
Credit Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand and the artist

expert perspective

Anne D’AllevaAssociate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa)

» Cliff Whiting (Maori, b. 1936)

expert perspective

Anne D’Alleva Anne D’Alleva Associate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

If we talk about certain Polynesian cultures, there is a spirit world that is populated by the gods and by the ancestors. And they are also present in our world. They can come here, they can be with us, and they are made present and embodied here through artworks.

In Polynesian cultures, there’s a wonderful creation story that exists in different versions. I can tell you the basic outline of the story, which is that there is the earth mother, Papa, and the sky father, Rangi, and they are tightly locked in an embrace. And, in fact, their children are suffocating, they are caught between their parents, and they are trying to figure out a way to separate their parents. And one of them says, We should kill both of them. And they argue over this and they figure out that that’s not the right thing to do. And then, finally, Tane, who ultimately becomes a very important god, says that what he is going to do—and Tane is also the word for man and for human beings—Tane says, ‘No,’ he is going to separate his parents. So he takes all his strength and he gathers up all his strength and he pushes. And he pushes and pushes and pushes. And he finally pries them apart and he pushes Rangi, the sky father, up into the sky and then Papa is the earth mother. And the two of them are very upset that this has happened. And Rangi cries tears, which, of course, become the rain. He cries tears that this has happened. But it was necessary to separate the parents and to free the children. And the children then go on to become the gods and, ultimately, the ancestors of human beings.

In different island groups and different—even within New Zealand, for example, there are different versions of this story that exist—but it’s a story that is very important, it’s a very important religious story that you see portrayed again and again in various places. So Maori canoe prows, for example, are one place that you see this portrayed. And you can understand that because when warriors go forth on these large carved out war canoes of the tribe of the people, that’s their warriors going forth. That’s the tribe going forth. So this reminder of where they came from, their primordial origins, is very important.” 

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