Monday, May 03, 2010

Kowhaiwhai - Maori Rafter Patterns

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.

Further reading links:


pansypoo said...

sea like

The Dreamstress said...

Excellent! The 'curl' is called a koru, and each kowhaiwhai pattern represents something different, from good luck, to sharks or whale tails. You can see some of the meanings of some of the kowhaiwhai you have posted here:

OK, now I seem insufferably know-it-all :-P I promise to come back and comment on your next post, which I will more than likely know nothing about!

John hopper said...

Thanks for the information and link, I am sure it will be helpful to readers.

I have tried to expand The Textile Blog into areas of design and decoration that perhaps many are unfamiliar with, including myself, so it is good to know that I got this one largely right.

Greg said...

Great article John. We're sharing it around over here.

Absolutely stoked to find your blog. We've linked to you from our quilt gallery site,

Cheryl and Greg Comfort
Christchurch, New Zealand

John hopper said...

Thanks very much for your comment Greg. I want to be able to expand The Textile Blog in as many textile-related directions as I can. I'm hoping there will be more New Zealand related articles in the near future.

Talking of which, I had a look at your website and would be interested in featuring some of your textile artists, if both you and they are willing. Email me if you are interested.

Pāhauwera said...

Not a comment but a concern. At the top of the page it says 'donations here', it leaves me wondering where are these donations going?! To John Hopper?! These are patterns of my people of Aotearoa! I want to know where any donation money is going as I would like to think it is going to Māori of Aotearoa not a capitalist from the UK. We have already been exploited enough with land confiscations, land stealing, now it seems exploited more ......again.....

John Hopper said...

To be honest there is rarely ever a donation made. This site doesn't make a profit and it certainly doesn't make a profit from the Maori people, just as it doesn't from the many other different nationalities and regional groups that have been featured on this site.

I am sorry if it appears as if this site is exploitative, it was never my intention to make it seem so. It is just a site that heps to celebrate the history of human decoration and pattern in all its forms.

Anonymous said...

Kia Ora this is exactly what I was looking for. Not many people do this kind of thing oh the internet! :D LOVE THIS WEBSITE

John Hopper said...

Thanks very much and it's my pleasure. I hope you got what you needed from the post.

Dragon Aotearoa said...

"painted decorative patterns usually portrayed in traditional colours of red, white and black"

Sorry but it is only traditional due to the fact that originally the majority of historians believed that these were these primative colours were the only ones that Maori were capable of producing, also due to the fact that during the early years of European arrivals missionary's burned or destroyed most of the carvings, panels and marae in NZ few were left to say otherwise. Most Early rock art was also painted in these colours and the designs altered to be more 'traditional maori' as they saw fit. Most areas had specific colours that they were associated with.

John Hopper said...

Thanks for the update Dragon Aotearoa. This is one of the major reasons that I now rarely feature work from outside Europe, this particular post now being over four years old. I clearly don't know enough about the complexity of cultures outside of my own, and so I would rather leave descriptions to those who inhabit their own cultures.