Maoris Plaiting Flax Baskets

A group of young women seated in front of the whare whakairo are busily weaving kono out of harakeke. These kono were generally produced for large events such as hākari, or the harvesting and distributing of seasonal food crops, which required communal effort. The young women would have been given the task of making these elementary food baskets as a form of apprenticeship: simple kono are one of the first items young aspiring weavers would be expected to master.

The young woman at the centre of the group is distinct as she has a huia feather in her hair and a korowai draped diagonally across the chest, hallmarks of chiefly lineage and position. She appears to be slightly older than the other weavers and is finishing the plaited rim of a large kete used for harvesting crops of rīwai and kūmara. Another chiefly woman with moko kauwae and draped in korowai sits in the mahau slightly removed from the others. It is interesting to think what the message might be here. Is she supervising the group? Or perhaps she is set apart because of her rank and status. Lindauer constructs shifts in tone and mood in the one image.

An analysis of the maihi and amo carvings of the meetinghouse tells us that they are of Ngāti Kahungunu tribal origin and were likely borrowed from photographs taken by Samuel Carnell. Lindauer spent time in Pākōwhai, Hastings, hosted by Peti Karaitiana in 1885 and painted several portraits, including that of Airini Donnelly and family.1 In his painting the carvings are presented with traditional kōkōwai staining. The angle of the maihi cuts into the blue sky, inserting a dynamic form into the picture plane. The activities of the weavers in the foreground are in contrast to a sleeping kurī in the bottom right corner of the painting complete with a fish skeleton at its feet.

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.)

  1. Patrick Parsons, Gottfried Lindauer: Te Renitawa — The Shadow Maker, Hastings: Hawke’s Bay Cultural Trust, 2005.
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