Permanent

By SALLY CRAGIN  |  February 20, 2008

So Neleman returned to New Zealand for six weeks to find and photograph subjects for a book. “People said, ‘Travel there, and you’ll find them,’ and it became this Holy Grail kind of story,” he remembers. “Finally, at the end of all the travel, a week of crisscrossing the country north and south, we found two guys who agreed to have their picture taken and we set up a spur-of-the-moment studio in a hotel room, and then they said they changed their mind, and they needed to talk to tribal elders. They said, ‘We have a different opinion of photography than most other people. We have a history of having our photos abused.’ ”

The interested parties eventually convened at an all-night campfire session (hui, a meeting with the main members of the tribe). “Finally, at one o’clock in the morning, it was my turn to speak,” recalls Neleman. “It was very elaborate — this is a culture that pays very much attention to oral communication and singing. Everyone’s making their prayers and acknowledging everybody. Everyone said, ‘You’re outside our community — there’s no way we can trust you.’ ”

The Maori brought up their anger about the mokomokai, the tattooed souvenir heads that had been taken from the country decades prior. As Neleman explains, “In the old days, they’d have fights like soccer matches and the warriors would have full facial tattoos. One person would die and that person would become the trophy of the winning team, let’s say. When the explorers came and made their way around town and saw these heads, they started trading guns for them.”

By one New Zealand Web site’s count, mokomokai have been displayed in some 200 museums worldwide. “I wanted to dedicate the project to the return of the mokomokai,” says Neleman. “Now, people are making an effort that the heads come back, and this is something I am so proud of.”

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Synchronicity of form and style
The Peabody Essex Museum will exhibit a number of decorative and functional objects that share a stylistic connection with moko. Among them: two koruru (gable masks), one dated circa 1880, the other made in 1994. “The Maori believe that those who enter a wharenui (meeting house) are enveloped by tribal ancestors,” reads the exhibition label for the 19th-century gable mask. “The rafters represent the spirits’ ribs; the facades, the arms; and the gable mask — as in this example — at the apex where two gable ends meet, the face of an ancestor. The facial patterning of this gable mask is closely tied to moko: the surface decoration on its brows and upper jaws emphasize facial contours, while the spirals on the neck are typically placed on joints that move.”

Another artifact on display is a feather box. “The main design is this wonderful spiral that you see on other tattoos, so you start to see the relationship between wood carving and tattoo design,” says Kramer Russell. “The same expert artists work in both mediums.”

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Related: Thirteen ways of looking at ink, Skin deep, Flashbacks, February 3, 2006, More more >
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