Toi Māori – Traditional Māori art

Hundreds of years of passing on traditions, skills, arts and crafts has resulted in the rich Māori culture that is a fundamental part of New Zealand life today. This page has resources about traditional Māori arts such as whakairo (carving) and raranga (weaving).

The evidence of this craftsmanship is everywhere in the beautiful whare whakairo (carved meeting houses) and the skillfully designed Māori crafts.

With no written language of their own, pre-European Māori passed on knowledge orally through story, waiata (song) and whakapapa (genealogy).  Māori also transferred and preserved knowledge through their art, in carvings and weaving using natural resources such as harakeke (NZ Flax), wood, bone, shell and pounamu (NZ Jade).

These artefacts were handed down through generations of tribal elders and became taonga (sacred objects or treasures).

Carving - Whakairo

There are three main forms of Māori carving using either wood, bone or pounamu.

Intricate wood carvings can be found on meeting houses and marae throughout the country, created by (tohunga whakairo) master carvers. The carvings tell each tribe’s story and tales of important historical ancestors and events. Wood carving is also used to create waka (canoes), certain weapons and musical instruments.

Bone carving (traditionally from whale bone, but nowadays from beef bone) is another important art form. Bone carvings are mainly used for jewellery and specific shapes are used to symbolise certain things and many of the same shapes are used in the carving of pounamu (New Zealand jade).

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Catalogue record for Kura Koiwi: Bone treasuresCatalogue record for Māori carvingCatalogue record for Pounamu treasures


Catalogue record for Painted historiesKōwhaiwhai are traditional Māori painted scroll patterns. Kōwhaiwhai are mainly used for decorative purposes, so you often see kōwhaiwhai designs adorning the ridgepole and rafters of wharenui – meeing houses. When used in this way kōwhaiwhai depict tribal lineage, capture memories, and tell stories.

There are different stories about the origins of kōwhaiwhai across the different iwi and hapū of Aotearoa. Some attribute the origins of kōwhaiwhai to rock art, others place the origins with whakairo – carving and other information tells us oldest known examples of kōwhaiwhai patterns are on hoe – paddles held in different museum collections around the world.

Kōwhaiwhai designs involve a fair amount of mathematical precision, they use symmetry, rotation and reflection. The most basic design element in kōwhaiwhai is the koru or pītau, and the kape - crescent. The design process elaborates on these motifs to produce the scroll patterns.

Colours used in kōwhaiwhai are traditonally red, black and white. These were made using natural pigments like iron-rich powdered stone for red, charcoal for black, and white clay for white, mixed with shark oil to produce the paint. Kōwhaiwhai in contemporary art makes use of many other colours and materials. 

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Tattoo - Tā moko

Catalogue record for Mau moko: The world of Māori tattooTā moko is the name for Māori tattooing and its associated tikanga/practices. Traditional tā moko used uhi – a traditional bone chisel with a mixture of natural dye. Over time, the bone uhi was replaced with a needle uhi and finally a tattoo gun and ink. In recent times some Kaitā (tā moko practitioners) have revived the use of the bone uhi. 

Kirituhi is another form of tā moko. It is a Māori style tattoo either made by a non-Māori tattooer, or made for a non-Māori wearer. Kirituhi has mana/authority and/or prestige of its own and is a design telling the unique story of the wearer in the visual language of Māori art and design. Kiri means ‘skin’, and tuhi means ‘to write, draw, record, adorn or decorate with painting’.

The origins of moko comes from the story of Niwareka and Mataora who travelled into the underworld bringing back weaving which is associated with Niwareka and tā moko which is associated with Mataora.

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Weaving - Raranga

Catalogue record for Māori weavingMāori also used raranga (weaving) to pass on stories and history. The first Polynesians brought the art of weaving and plaiting to New Zealand. Weaving techniques were adapted to suit the climate. The main weaving resource used was Harakeke - New Zealand flax (phormium tenax).  Harakeke is still used to make baskets, floor mats, piupiu (a form of skirt), cloaks, and ropes. There are more than fifty different varieties of Harakeke - New Zealand flax, and Māori know the advantages of each type of flax for its respective use.

Manaaki Whenua (Land Care research) are curators of the Te Kohinga Harakeke o Aotearoa the National New Zealand Flax Collection which consists of 50 varieties of harakeke.

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Catalogue record for Weaving a kakahuCatalogue record for The art of Māori weavingCatalogue record for Pūawaitanga o te ringa


  • Harakeke - Explores the history and tikanga of harakeke, and how it is harvested and woven.
  • Tī Kōuka — the cabbage tree - Tī kōuka is strong, durable, and doesn’t shrink in water. It proved a useful source of fibre for early Māori and was used for making a range of items.

How to weave

More weaving resources and information

  • Weaving for kids - Find out the names for different forms of weaving and the steps to creating a piece of weaving.
  • A Whāriki for Parklands Library - Christchurch City Libraries celebrated Matariki 2005 by weaving a whāriki using harakeke.
  • Te Manu Tukutuku — the Māori kite - Manu is the word for bird and kite, and tukutuku refers to the winding out of the line as the kite climbs.
  • Pūawaitanga o te Ringa — Fruits of our busy hands - About the series of tukutuku panels that were specially woven as a community project for the Ngā Pounamu Māori Centre in 2001. Includes information about tukutuku weaving, the specific designs used and their meanings.
  • Weaving art and lives together - An interview with Paula Rigby, skilled harakeke weaver.
  • Cloaks display - Paula Rigby is a weaver and fibre artist. In this brief piece she describes three of the garments on display at libraries during Matariki 2011.
  • Janet Stewart Reserve - The Janet Stewart Reserve is a place in Otautahi Christchurch where weavers can gather harakeke for weaving. Our page includes recorded interviews with Ranui Ngarimu, chair of the national weavers collective Te Rōpū Raranga Whatu O Aotearoa at that time (June 2005), and Christine Heremaia who has been extensively involved in the establishment of the reserve.

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