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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Te Kuia Moko (The last Tatooed Maori Women) by Harry Sangl

Originally using images painted in oils, this book was first published in 1980 as The Blue Privilege to record the last kuia who were privileged to wear the tattoo on their chin. The painter Harry Sangl thought to capture the images because it appeared to be a dying art form. He aimed to produce a record not only of their appearance but also of their dignity and the authority they had achieved by taking on the moko.

Today it is increasingly obvious that young Maori women have embraced this practice as more and more examples appear. It is acceptable for anyone to receive this decoration.

However in 1980 the elderly women who had been honoured to have their faces decorated appeared to be declining in number. Sangl really wanted to record their images without thought of exploitation, although in some cases the subjects he approached declined to allow him to paint them. At times it was possible to gain permission with help from family members and by using correct protocol in requests for sittings.

Most of the 34 women depicted were born in the 19th century. When the book was first published Governor General Sir Paul Reeves removed the tapu for the launching in the presence of Dame Te Atairangikaahu, the Maori Queen.

Language difficulties happened because the kuia did not speak English and the painter definitely could not use Te Reo however this was not a barrier once work began. Sangl felt privileged to have the opportunity to meet the individuals and to portray their images for posterity in situations where they were most comfortable. Friendly co-operation was always a part of the work.

Care was taken to reproduce the moko illustrations perfectly and this is emphasised with the drawings and explanations accompanying each portrait. The confidence and poise of each character is clearly illustrated. The work is supported by essays from Merimeri Penfold and D.R Simmonds of the Auckland War Memorial Museum (at that time).

The moko kauae marked their generation but modern times bring change. Today there are increasing numbers of young women requesting this privilege, as there are young men with full face moko in a contemporary revival of this cultural art form.

The author Harry Sangl was influenced by the work of Goldie and Lindauer. He arrived from his native Prague in 1969 to be captivated by these images. Because he believed the kuia were from a bygone era, Sangl recorded as many as he could. He was a professional artist in Europe and his work is still being exhibited. Harry Sangl is in his nineties, living in Auckland.

This will always remain a valuable book depicting times past.

Reviewer: Sonia Edwards

Oratia Books, RRP $65


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