Maori looking at preserving heads again, says academic

By Yvonne Tahana

Around 20 toi moko (preserved heads) from France will be welcomed to Te Papa tomorrow. File photo / Mark Mitchell
Around 20 toi moko (preserved heads) from France will be welcomed to Te Papa tomorrow. File photo / Mark Mitchell

The revival of preserving heads is being debated, according to a Waikato University professor.

Professor Pou Temara says artists have replicated the old methods by experimenting on piglets.

Professor Temara is the chairman of Karanga Aotearoa, Te Papa Museum's repatriation programme, which yesterday received 20 toi moko (preserved heads) from French institutions at a ceremony in Paris.

The heads will be welcomed to Te Papa tomorrow.

In the era before toi moko were traded with Pakeha, they were venerated and mourned. Kawe mate ceremonies, where Maori take photographs of deceased whanau members onto marae to mourn them after a tangi, echo the older practices associated with heads, according to Professor Temara.

He said the return of the 20 heads, the largest single repatriation, would increase informal "cup-of-tea" conversations already under way about mourning practices, and whether Maori should resurrect the practice.

"That's a real proposition. A couple of Maori artists have already gone through the process of tattooing little piglets and then rendering them dead. They've then preserved them by methods they think were used by our people to preserve the tattooed heads."

Iwi had held on to traditional mourning practices in other ways, he said. Bay of Plenty iwi Te Whanau a Apanui sometimes took tuupaapaku (dead bodies) to traditional bathing areas to wash them in the sea and preserve them for tangi lasting several days.

Returning to older ways was not an impossibility, Professor Temara said.

France has strong inalienability laws protecting its museum collections, and there was debate after the request to repatriate the heads about whether they amounted to art.

Iwi should ask themselves the same question, Professor Temara said.

"There's the whole question ... whether the human-remains question is strong enough to overturn the art thinking about toi moko, because even in Maoridom there's a debate about whether they constitute art.

"They constitute human remains, but should iwi be aware that if they inter them, they are interring art? That is for iwi."

- NZ Herald

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