Digging with the Ko

Preparing the land for kūmara planting started with the breaking of the soil with the kō, a digging stick with a footrest lashed to its base. Kūmara were traditionally planted in diagonal lines to allow the sun to reach between the rows. This was a physically demanding and skilled task, one that was crucial in securing a successful harvest. Early visitors to Aotearoa New Zealand were impressed by Māori cultivation, and entrepreneurial tribes grew crops both for local settlers and to export to Australia and California.

In Digging with the Ko, Lindauer portrays how the cultivation of food crops and horticulture, more generally, was a vital undertaking. Mahinga kai were important spaces that were fenced off within the pā site. In the painting the main meetinghouse structures are some distance away. The lush green bushline running along from the right is highlighted by a line of tī kōuka that puncture the skyline and suggest that the land is fertile and rich. The growing of kūmara was an especially sacred practice and for many tribes was dedicated to the deity Rongo-mā-Tāne, the atua of the kūmara. Stone effigies of Rongo-mā-Tāne or other tribal kaitiaki figures were placed in the gardens to guard the crops and ensure fertility. This ritual included incantations offered for a successful harvest.

Lindauer depicts the men involved in the physical task of tending and turning the soil in an array of the finest garments: for example, full-length dress cloaks such as the kaitaka on the central figure and a korowai worn by the man at the extreme right. Both cloaks have been folded and layered around the waist and held in place by plaited and woven tātua. Why would these men wear their most treasured garments when working in the field? They wouldn't, of course. Lindauer often utilised photographs as references and in this case he directly follows Augustus Hamilton's 1898 photograph, also titled Digging with the Ko, which is a compelling example of the practice of staging images of Māori at work and in other contexts.

Nigel Borell

(originally published in Gottfried Lindauer's New Zealand: The Māori Portraits, edited by Ngahiraka Mason and Zara Stanhope, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki and AUP, 2016.)

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