a book about death

forbidden tunes in forbidden places

A historically logical starting point for studying art in Aotearoa New Zealand is the rock art of the South Island. Maori came to Aotearoa New Zealand sometime around 900 A.D (Keith, 2007) though the majority of rock drawings found is thought to date about 500 years ago (Thompson, 1989). The carved rock art of the North Island is thought to have been made at a latter date, and does not have the stylistic unity of the South Island drawings (Dunn, 1972). There were a few fanciful theories advanced for their origin, from human sacrifice rituals to shipwrecked Tamil sailors (Keith, 2007), but there is little doubt now that these drawings were done by Maori tribes. Though tempting, it has been pointed out that comparisons with the rock art of Australia, Africa and Europe are unhelpful, unless done within the context of each particular culture (McCulloch).

The rock drawings were originally done in charcoal or in red ochre that was brought to the site. According to the Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust, "the rock art paint was made from animal or bird fat mixed with vegetable gum and soot or kokowai i.e. red ochre to make black or red paint. The pigment created was known to be particularly long-lasting, and was referred to as, 'an ink that would stand forever'" (Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust, 2009). Over the years, they have been the target of vandals, some of whom were well meaning if foolish. Apart from vandals, though, not much attention was paid to these drawings, and they do not appear to have been considered ‘art’. While there were intermittent (and ‘unscientific’) records of these drawings, it was only in the 1940s that Theo Schoon first recorded and studied these paintings. Schoon, however, could not keep reproduction and intepretation apart, and it was only in the 1960s, with the work of Anthony Fomison, that there were accurate drawings made (McCulloch). While Schoon was probably one of the first persons to truly appreciate the artistic value of these drawings *, he was also guilty of vandalism, tracing over the existing drawings to make them clearer (Thompson, 1989).

Earlier intepreted as having ritualistic or religious origins, these paintings are currently interpreted as being the work of ‘hunter-gatherers’ of the pre-european moa hunter period. The objects drawn are primarilly animals, birds and humans, and range from scrawls to well executed figures (McCulloch).

While there have been few references to these drawings in ‘serious’ New Zealand art, Schoon’s contemporary, A.R.D. Fairburn used almost literal transcriptions onto furnishing fabric (Thompson, 1989) refering to this period as “my year long struggle on behalf of culture” (Randerson, 1995). Also in the 1950s Louise Tilsley used designs derived from the cave drawings for placemats (Randerson, 1995). The Taniwha image from the Opihi river has been used on a (now withdrawn) New Zealand stamp, though it appears to be interpreted in the more clear cut style image of latter Maori carving. While other historical Maori motifs are commonly in use by contemporary artists (and the tourist industry), I am yet to come across the use of any of these cave drawing motifs being recycled or intepreted in contemporary art. Many of these sites are left woefully unprotected, even though the tribes try their best with the limited resources they have. While tribes like the Ngai Tahu have trusts to take care of these treasures, they need more support, as blogger Marty Mars has pointed out.

And finally to the question I have been dying to ask. Is there, really, any difference between this rock 'art' and the much maligned graffiti today? While a lot of the graffiti we see seems to come from an adolescent desire to leave a mark, there is also a large body of work that employs artistic principles, if on a different canvas, with different tools. Banksy, arguably one of the most well known contemporary graffiti artists, has done brilliant and incisive work, using the streets of Bristol for his canvas. My favourite piece (pictured here) was secretly installed at the British Museum, and was undetected for 3 days! A large part of graffiti art has to do with Hip-hop culture, and many ‘taggers’ have now moved beyond the hastily scrawled four letter poem of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’, often speaking of “protest and marginalised identities (Zemke-White, 2007).” If art is for the purpose of our coming to terms with the world (Keith, 2007), the cave drawings and the graffiti of today seems to me art of the purest vision-art for its own sake, without thought for commercial potential.

Photographer Adrienne Rewi has documented Maori/Pacific inspired graffiti art on her blog, but this seems yet to widely catch on, and probably as she points out, for deeper cultural reasons. As Auckland street artist 2Tone laments, people do not “[attempt] to create something that is true to themselves and our local scene”(2Tone, 2007). Maybe an uniquely Aotearoa New Zealand style will emerge, just as an unique Maori art did. Maybe the ancient rock artists are spiritually connected to the taggers today. Too tenuous a link? Probably. But hey. Who knows?


*”Schoon [was] able to see [these drawings] as art because European modernists opened their eyes to what was then called by the Europeans the ‘Primitive’. Miro, Klee, Picasso and most other European artists who shaped 20th century art were able to make the art they made because in part their imagination had been freed by looking at the tribal art of Africa” (Keith, 2007).

1. 2Tone. (2007). InForm: New Zealand Graffiti Artists Discuss Their Work. (E. O'Donnell, Interviewer)
2. Dunn, M. (1972). Mori Rock Art. A.H.&A.W.Reed.
3. Keith, H. (2007). The Big Picture: A history of New Zealand art from 1642. Godwit.
4. McCulloch, B. (n.d.). Maori Rock Drawings: A matter of Intepretation. Maori Rock Drawings-The Theo Schoon Intepretations . Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch City Council.
5. Randerson, J. (1995). When Rock Art met the Placemat. The Modern World Conference (p. 2). Wellington: UNITEC School of Design.
6. Thompson, P. (1989). Maori Rock Art-An Ink That Will Stand Forever. GP Books.
7. Zemke-White, D. K. (2007). Inform: New Aealand Graffiti Artists Discuss their Work. Reed.
8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taniwha
9. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Moa
10. http://www.teara.govt.nz/TheBush/UnderstandingTheNaturalWorld/Taniwha/en for the Taniwha picture
11. http://www.flickr.com/photos/pickard/14668113/ for the Banksy picture

12. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Opihi_rock_drawing2.jpeg for the Opihi rock drawing
13. http://www.ngaitahu.co.nz/RockArt/overview.htm
14. http://mars2earth.blogspot.com/2009/03/ngai-tahu-rock-art-needs-protection-now.html
15. http://maorilifestyles.blogspot.com/2009/07/cultural-graffiti.html

for lalgarh

die, hate.

i am tired of grieving
over lives i can do nothing for
but write another poem

die, anger.

i am sick of cursing
at vague smug faces
from website photographs-
with the wealth rolling up the chin
and pudgy little fingers
(looking remarkably like mine)
dealing out
judgments dipped
in blood
and gravy

die, hate
die, anger

and take the fingers
as you go,


Four months in Aotearoa New Zealand, and I am yet to see a kiwi. The feathered kind, I mean, not the beer-wine chugging kind. Not even at the local zoo, where we saw giraffes, bison, even a Sumatran tiger. But no kiwi! And it’s not as if they were missing birds either-we saw paradise shelducks, yellow-bibbed lorys, brolgas, even a cape barren goose or two. But no kiwi. What I have seen in plenty, though, is another fascinating bird that is also missing from the zoo list but seemed to quite make itself at home-the pukeko.

The pukeko is a gorgeous bird that is abundantly found in Aotearoa New Zealand and parts of the Pacific, and Australia where it is called a purple swamp hen. There seems to be some evidence for its spread far beyond, and some links to Roman and Egyptian civilizations
. East coast Maori believe the Pukeko was introduced to Aotearoa New Zealand by their ancestors on the Harouta canoe, while the west coast Maoris say it came with them on a canoe called Aotea. Pukeko seem to have been around for about a 1000 years, and either claim may well be correct.

The pukeko is a clumsy flier, and seems to prefer running from danger. In Maori myth, the pukeko used to live in the trees, but was cursed to live in swamps because it refused to get its feet wet when needed. Even today, the gait of a pukeko does remind one of a person daintily trying to step over and around puddles. In the same story, the kiwi was the ‘good guy’, and chose to lose its ability to fly. Ironic then, that the kiwi today is endangered while pukeko are plentiful enough to be considered pests by gardeners! The 'pest'status has been theirs for a while, though. Pukeko are associated in Maori myth with Punga, diety of all hateful and hideous things! For all this, they have been remarkably resilient, surviving the introduction of cats, dogs and other animals that so threaten the kiwi. These birds are possibly aided by their legendary cunning, acknowledged in Maori sayings.

The news is not all bad, though. While treated mostly with disdain, there does seem to be some honour for the pukeko-it appears on the crest of the Hamilton city council. I presume it is partly because this is dairy country-I cannot imagine a gardening town allowing that!

Pukeko are protected, but can be hunted with a license in duck hunting season. Sadly though, they are mostly left to rot, and rarely eaten. While I can understand hunting for food, I simply cannot understand hunting for sport. Pukeko meat is known to be tough, and I have found only two recipes for cooking it, one of which I reproduce here:

Step 1: Boil a large pot of water

Step 2: Add the pukeko and a medium sized rock

Step 3: Boil for several hours

Step 4: Remove pot from heat

Step 5: Remove the pukeko

Step 6: Eat the rock

Go here for the other. Maori seem to have eaten them by boiling them or roasting at the fire, though again, their meat was considered too stringy to be good. These handsome birds are quite entrenched in Aotearoa NZ culture, as can be seen from this kiwi (the beer-wine chugging kind) folksong, sung to the tune of ’12 days of Christmas’. Here is the tune (Indian version), if anybody needs it.

The kiwi has always been honoured in myth and custom, and its feathers are prized for beautiful Maori ceremonial cloaks. Even today, natives of this island are called ‘kiwis’. For all that, the kiwi that has so graciously given itself is endangered, and close to extinction. The pukeko, however, cursed in myth and sworn at now-still happily walks the countryside. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather have less honour and life, than more honour and extinction. I think. Maybe. I guess it depends, ey!


Thanks to cheetah100 for the picture of the pukeko, and Hamilton City Council for the crest.


1. http://www.hamiltonzoo.co.nz/page/pageid/2145833073/our_animals

2. http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/pukeko.html

3. http://www.imeem.com/groups/krtXRJht/blogs/2007/05/23/Q6Xt63r-/maori-myths-and-legends

4. http://www.foodlovers.co.nz/forum/read.php?16,86251,86707,quote=1

5. http://www.mtbruce.org.nz/kiwimore.htm

6. http://www.diggersvalley.co.nz/pages/birds.htm

7. http://folksong.org.nz/nzchristmas/pukeko.html

8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owK5tHjL0aE

9. M. Riley, 2001. Pukeko, in Maori Bird Lore. pp.155-159. Viking Sevenseas NZ Ltd.

10. M. Orbell, 2003. Pukeko, in Birds of Aotearoa, A Natural and Cultural History. pp.118-120. Reed.