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Art Through Time: A Global View

The Body Art: Life Mask of Chief Tapua Te Whanoa

» Maori artist, New Zealand

Life Mask of Chief Tapua Te Whanoa

Life Mask of Chief Tapua Te Whanoa
Artist / Origin: Maori artist, New Zealand
Region: Oceania
Date: 1854
Period: 1800 CE – 1900 CE
Material: Tinted cast incised with small bone adze dipped in liquid charcoal
Medium: Other
Location: National Museum of New Zealand, Wellington, NZ
Credit: Courtesy of Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

The body is central to the art of many Pacific Island cultures both in terms of their representations and their self-presentation.

Body arts are highly valued in these cultures, often more than plastic arts such as painting or sculpture.

According to ancient Polynesian myths, the art of tattooing was taught to humans by the sons of the god of creation. Considered a sacred art form, or tapu, by many Pacific Islanders, tattoos both adorned the body and protected it. They also inscribed the body, literally, with the wearer’s social identity. Through tattoo, one’s status and genealogy could be made immediately apparent.

The patterns and placement of tattoos varied across regions and among different groups of people. The Maori of New Zealand are known especially for their striking facial tattoos, called moko. The life mask of Maori chief Tapua Te Whanoa seen here is incised with a full facial moko, presumably copied from the chief’s actual tattoos. Full facial moko were usually reserved for the most elite Maori men. On occasion, a woman who was the highest ranking member of her lineage would also wear a full facial tattoo. Usually, however, women of status wore partial moko on the bottom half of the face.

The history of tattooing in the Pacific is bound up with the history of colonialism. As missionaries and colonizers arrived in the Pacific Islands, they disrupted many of the cultural traditions of indigenous populations. Tattoo, in particular, was affected as Christian European values spread. In places, such as Tahiti, tattoo was literally outlawed. Elsewhere the practice waned over time. In recent decades, many Pacific Islanders have revived the art of tattooing as practiced by their ancestors. For these individuals, the association of tattoo with social status has been replaced by an interest in communicating cultural and political identity.

Additional Resources

D’Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Gröning, K. Body Decoration: A World Survey of Body Art. New York: Vendome Press, 1998.

Kaeppler, Adrienne L. The Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Nicholas, Thomas, Anna Cole, and Bronwen Douglas, eds. Tattoo: Bodies, Art, and Exchange in the Pacific and the West. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005.

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