What colours are used in Māori art?

And what do they mean?

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Maori art can be colorful

Color significance, like any custom or ritual, may differ locally or regionally, as different materials could make certain colors more common than others, but some key ideas are widely shared.

Moko (traditional tattoos) for example were traditionally blue-black or blue green, depending on the materials used for pigmentation, which varied. Resins like kauri gum and awheto (vegetable caterpillar) were burnt to obtain the required colour..

Southern tribes did use other colours obtained from clays (like aumoana, or blue clay), which often appear in kōwhaiwhai and on poupou and maihi (decorations on the rafters, walls and bargeboards of traditional meeting houses).
Other colors are

  • kura: scarlet, a bright red
  • kiwikiwi: grey
  • pukepoto: dark blue
  • kākāriki: green
  • karaka: orange
  • kikorangi: blue
  • kōwhai: yellow

Māori natural pigments never gave overly bright or garish colours, their designs reflected the colours of the earth.
Tāniko weaving introduced blues and greens as a modern developement after missionaries brought dyed wool.

Te Kara and Tino Rangatiratanga are two flags with meaning to the Māori people. While Te Kara is officially recognized, and was voted in 1834 as the official Māoriflag in a referendum, Tino Rangatiratanga appears in the Māori version of the Treaty of Waitangi of 1840, and it uses black, white, and red to represent unity in the creation (btw: the same colors were used for the TattooTribes logo. Read on to know why).

tino rangatiratanga national Maori flag


Black (pango, mangu)

It represents Te Korekore, the realm of Potential Being, the darkness and the shapeless Void from where all things emerged.
It symbolizes the male principle.


Red ochre (kōkōwai)

It represents Te Whei-Ao, the realm of Coming into being, and the female principle. It is an active principle, as opposed to black which is passive.
It is the color of the blood found in veins, and it is the color used to represent the land, the Earth Mother Papatūānuku (in Samoa this is highlighted by the words 'ele'ele and palapala, which indicate both blood and soil).


White (Mā)

It represents Te Ao-Marama, the realm of Being and light, providing the connecting force between red and black. The shape of the unfolding koru underlines this idea of new life coming into being.

The three colors together symbolize unity between the world of spirits, of people, and of nature, a concept that is widely spread in Polynesia (we see it in the Hawaiian lō kahi symbol for example, which will be explained in another article).

Whero (orange red), or kura (scarlet), were considered chiefly colors, associated with mana, tapu, spiritual restriction and rank.
Kahukura refers to a predominantly red cloak. There is also a kahukuri, a highly-valued cloak made from strips on the now-extinct kuri (Māori dog).
Te amokura (red-tailed tropic bird) was an occasional visitor to Aotearoa in historical times and its feathers were highly prized, along with those of the now extinct huia (blue black with white tips).
Red, and yellow, were also held in great consideration in Hawaii, where they had similar meaning and were used for the cloaks of the highest chiefs (consider that, to make the cloak that was gifted by the chief Kalani'opu'u to captain Cook, the feathers of about 20,000 birds were used).

'ahu'ula and kahukura cloaks

A Māori proverb says "Mā whero, mā pango, ka oti te mahi", which translates as "With red, with black, the work will be done", with red referring to a mixture of shark oil and red ochre that was smeared on the body of the chiefs, making commoners look black in comparison.
This means that both chiefs and commoners are equally important to achieve a goal.
An alternate explanation suggests red and black as being related to sacred and common, meaning that to complete a task in a proper way, both its spiritual and physical aspects have to be considered.


- USAGE SAMPLE -

This design was created by Dr Benjamin Pittman as a mural to improve southern access into the city of Whangārei:

Whangarei Tarewa Road Maori mural

Colours: pango (black) represents the male principle; kōkōwai (red ochre) represents the female principle. White and cream provide the connecting force between pango and kōkōwai.

Whangarei Maori mural - kukupa

The first design element represents two stylised kūkupa - the northern dialect word for the native wood pigeon called kereru elsewhere, and the name of a key tūpuna (ancestor) for Te Parawhau ki Tai. The native wood pigeon is now slowly returning after years of decimation, and it is symbolic of renewal and resilience.

Whangarei Maori mural - patiki

The next design element represents the pātiki (flounder), and is a symbol of abundance in food. It is also a reference to Te Atakura, from whose breasts flowed the symbolic waiū - the milk of plenty - and, further personified by the glowing red skies of dawn.

Whangarei Maori mural - linkages

The third and fourth design elements represent linkages between all things earthly and spiritual as a whakapapa (genealogy) of all things, animate and inanimate; a genealogy of inter-connectedness.

Whangarei Maori mural - taniwha teeth and poutama

The next elements are based on the key theme of people, integrating design elements of niho taniwha (teeth of taniwha) representing chiefly power, and poutama (the stairway to knowledge).

Whangarei Maori mural - patiki

The final design element is again pātiki, summarising all and pointing to continuation, betterment, effort and infinity, while the triangular design below it is maungatihi symbolising the ancestral mountains as Te Parawhau.

You can visit the website dedicated to the Māori chief Patuone to learn more about Māori history and culture.




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