FAQ's around Māori tiki

For the upcoming Art Ache event at Golden Dawn, our artists were asked to produce a work about what tiki ment to them.

Art Ache is an event that is structured in a way to communicate to a wide and new audience, in order to catch the attention of those people who like art, but don’t know much about it and shy away from galleries, we organize a headlining artist who is well known, this helps us to catch their attention.

For this event we managed to get Dick Frizzell involved. Dick has an advertising background and as an artist paints things he see around him. This style of painting is often categorized as Pop Art. It could also be said, that due to his body of work, he has visually documented a moment in time with such vast subject, that as an artist he is by far one of New Zealands most defining in terms of cultural identity. A lot of people resonate with his work because the subject matter is already familiar to them.

By placing other artists beside Dick Frizzell, some of the attention that he attracts, spills over to the other artists. We believe this is a good way to help people who are familiar with one type of art, to become familiar with a different type of art, and begin to explore and enjoy art more readily, feeling confident with some understanding.

Dick Frizzell offered us some artwork to sell on his behalf at a low price, for people who want to purchase art but can’t afford to. That artwork was of a screen printed stamp of a Māori tiki. It also happens to be 25 years since Dick had an exhibition of many tiki’s, which began a long and ongoing conversation around what is acceptable use of a sacred Māori icon, and who should be allowed to use it.

We thought as it was a quarter of a century later, it would be interesting to revisit this conversation, and see how things have changed, if at all.


If we are allowed to write the word tiki and talk about it, why do some people get offended with us visually representing it?
Some people see the tiki as being a sacred form, one which should not be altered or changed. The reasons for this include conservatism, responses to appropriation and also general misunderstandings around what tiki are and mean. While we respect these views and those people that hold it, we see ourselves as being part of a wider conversation by and between Māori and Pākehā around tiki, Māori imagery and identity in Aotearoa New Zealand.

In acknowledging the meaning inherent in hei tiki, we also understand that meaning changes with time and context. A plastic tiki key ring, or a souvenir, sits within a particular context related to tourism and national identity. Here it is used as more a general symbol relating to Māori and New Zealand culture.

While some might criticize this, especially the appearance of tiki in tourism, it is important to note that Māori carvers were at the forefront of developing tourist ready tiki and other forms. Again, the point here is that we believe meaning related to tiki, art and culture is not static.

If some tangata see tiki as being a tapu (sacred or profane) form. Is having tiki forms in artworks exploitation and should it be allowed within a pub/bar environment?
We see this question as being one of intent. If an artist wishes to use tiki in an intelligent, re-spectful and engaging way, then we believe its use is not exploitative. Also, ideas around tiki are complicated by the different mediums in which it appears. Hei tiki, greenstone pendants can have a lot of meaning because they are often gifted between people, are passed on through families, and are made from natural materials such as stone which have a certain mauri (energy). This is very different to an ‘image’ of a tiki, which might be printed in a workshop onto paper.

To the question of a pub/bar environment we firstly looked to what happens at art gallery openings, including those with Māori artists, in Aotearoa. Here, alcohol is normally present. Going a step further, people who wear hei tiki pendants or those with tattoo featuring tiki do not self-censor when going into pubs or bars. As such, we do not see why imagery with tiki should not appear in a pub setting. Looking to the wider history of the building also it has not always been a pub.

What parts of Māori culture are ok to engage with?
We believe it is ok to engage with any part of Māori culture as long as it is done in a meaningful and respectful way. However, we also think / suggest that for those wanting to explore how Māori culture relates to their identity, they must accept it fully without reservation or judgment. It is not ok to say, yes we’ll like ‘the haka’ and koru designs, but we’re not interested in the rest. Engagement must be genuine and meaningful.

I have grown up in New Zealand and feel that some parts of Māori culture have been absorbed as part of my own life story and identity. Does that mean it’s my culture too?
We believe that Māori culture is a part of everyone’s identity if they are from New Zealand. The sooner people realise this, the sooner we can realise an Aotearoa dreamed of when our ancestors first came together under Te Tiriti.

A final note:
At the IBBY Congress 2016, Witi Ihimaera sounded a call to action, when he said, ‘If we stop telling our stories we foreclose on our future.’ Culture is not static; it is part of a continuum, in the same way that whakapapa is.

Mā te rongo ka mohio (Through perception comes awareness)
Mā te mohio ka marama (Through awareness comes understanding)
Mā te marama ka matau (Through understanding comes knowledge)
Mā te matau ka ora (Through knowledge comes well-being).

Written by Johnson Witehira and Aimée Ralfini.
For Art Ache, November 23, 2017