Art Through Time: A Global View
Cosmology and Belief Art: Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa)
Cliff Whiting’s Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa) represents a key event in the Maori story of creation.
According to the myth, of which variants exist across the Pacific Islands, the universe began as a great void of nothingness (Te Kore), from which the darkness (Te Po) came into being. Out of this darkness, two primordial figures—Rangi and Papa—were born. Rangi and Papa procreated, but their children were trapped in the darkness of their tight embrace. Seeking to escape this suffocating darkness, the six sons of Rangi and Papa debated whether to kill their parents, but in the end, settled on separating the two. After all of his brothers tried unsuccessfully to pry the two apart, Tane took his turn. Pushing in both directions he finally succeeded in breaking the embrace. He pushed Rangi up above, where he became the Sky and Father. Papa went down below, where she became the Earth Mother and the World of Light (Te Ao Mārama) came into being. The six brothers populated the world with all manner of beings and became the gods.
Whiting’s mural focuses on the gods, each of whom is depicted with raised arms in his attempt to separate Rangi and Papa. Tane, surrounded by a bright, sun-like aura, is the largest of the group as befits his central role in the separation and later as the creator of human beings. Tane has further significance here as well. As the god of the forest, he is intimately linked to the work of art itself, which is not a painting as it might first appear, but a carving in wood to which paint has been applied.
In the past, images of the creation often appeared in the decoration of Maori community houses and war canoe prows. In both places, representations of the myth would serve to remind Maori viewers of their common origin, descended by way of local ancestors from the gods. Whiting’s work was also created for a public, communal space—the reading room at the National Library at Wellington in New Zealand. By applying a modern aesthetic to a traditional Maori form (carved and painted wood), Whiting, an artist and educator, updates the creation myth in a way that is relevant to a contemporary audience.
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.”
D’Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.
Davidson, Janet M., et al. Maori: Art and Culture, 2nd ed. London: British Museum Press, 1998.
MacLagan, David. Creation Myths: Man’s Introduction to the World (Art & Imagination). London: Thames & Hudson, 1977.
Mead, Sidney, et al. TE MAORI. Maori Art from New Zealand Collections. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the American Federation of Arts, 1984.
Skinner, Damien. The Carver and the Artist: Maori Art in the Twentieth Century. Auckland: University of Auckland Press, 2008.