Kowhaiwhai is a form of Maori decoration that takes the form of abstract curved pattern work. These painted decorative patterns usually portrayed in traditional colours of red, white and black, are often placed within Maori meeting houses. The rafters of these houses are covered in Kowhaiwhai work. However, this form of decoration was never limited in the past to meeting houses as the pattern work could be found on a number of objects from water carriers to canoes.
It is interesting to note that this form of decoration is very closely allied in some respects at least, to both woodcarving and tattoo work, which it does resemble in many ways. However, this form of painted decoration, by its very nature, does not have the same permanence as woodcarving or tattooing and is often seen as purposely transitory.
Much of the pattern work was produced on an amateur basis with no previous experience being strictly necessary. This does not mean however that Kowhaiwhai is a random sequence of curled and wavy lines produced haphazardly by the amateur. The pattern work does follow traditional parameters and can be seen as a complex and systematic geometrical matrix, which has in its remit a number of endless permutations.
The main purpose of Kowhaiwhai and the significance of its use in meeting houses is its association with lineage and ancestry. The story of succeeding generations can be told through the subtle permutations of line and curve. Some even suggest that these rafter patterns were some form of early Maori writing, though it seems that the pattern work could well be in the form of memory markers where pattern work causes memory triggers of past events and individuals, rather than that of a formal written language.
The pattern work has a standard recurring 'curl' as its main motif. This curl is put through a range of transformations and modifications. The curl motif is said to represent the young curled leaf of a fern plant. This would make logical sense as this motif is meant to represent, at least in one form, the growth or continuation of life. What could be more fitting for pattern work that was meant to represent the continuation of the story of generations, than that of the perpetuation of life through those generations.
The Kowhaiwhai is still very much a vibrant and continuing tradition in modern New Zealand and Maori culture. It is reused and reinterpreted by contemporary artists and designers and the curl motif can be seen on any number of items including personal jewellery, throughout New Zealand.
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