Tag Archives: toi moko

Lester Hall Obsessed?

If you read my last post, you’ll have seen that I’ve got a bit of a crush…on New Zealand artist Lester Hall.  It was inevitable I would find more in his collection that tickled my fancy.

The great thing about Hall’s prints is that they’re relatively inexpensive, and that makes them accessible to collectors like me who are just starting out without a huge budget.  Of course what makes them more accessible is when your Dad helps you further your art collection by buying two for you…to celebrate graduation.

All three of the ones I’ve chosen draw on my interest in Toi Moko and Māori ancestral remains, born of the time spent interning at Te Papa.  And each is as controversial and thought provoking as the next; people who visit our house seem to either love or hate them.

On his website, Hall has a section at the bottom of all the prints called “Devil’s Advocate”.  Funnily enough, that’s where my two more recent acquisitions – Ake! Ake! Ake! and Hoki Mai – are displayed.

Ake! Ake! Ake! depicts a red-haired All Black, wearing a piupiu (a traditional Māori skirt made of woven flax) who is midway through passing a severed and tattooed head in place of a rugby ball.  Hall talks about this work as celebrating male “toughness”, and the idea that competition is part of what binds New Zealand society.  1.   Safe to say that would be true, especially when it comes to our (only?) national sport!  He also says that the Toi Moko represents the way Māori  culture has been “moved around” through history 2.

Ake Ake
“Ake! Ake! Ake!”, Lester Hall

Hoki Mai references the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ tradition, where the spirits of departed ancestors are celebrated with beautiful decorations, particularly flowers, bright colours,  and skull figurines.  Here’s a pretty picture I found on Flickr that shows quite nicely what I have in mind when I think ‘Day of the Dead’ (you can click on the image to see that a man who isn’t me went to Disneyland and took it).

10093379744_9213d6a8e8_b
“Day of Dead, Disneyland”

Hall says that this work is about “forgiveness for those who made the heads and sold them and those who bought or stole them and forgiveness also for the despised slaves and enemies the heads originally belonged to” 3.  Sadly, Hall is mistaken in his reference to despised slaves, though the misconception that many of the traded Toi Moko came from slaves killed specifically for their heads is not uncommon.  In fact, correction of that misconception is one of the very important things I learnt at Te Papa.  Hall is also critical of a social tendency to conceal that part of New Zealand’s history in which the remains were traded.

Hoki Mai
“Hoki Mai”, Lester Hall

I have to say that I agree with Hall in that I think history should be acknowledged, whether good or bad.  I believe that’s one of the key roles of the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme (I mentioned them in my last post), because they bring this history to our attention and force us to confront it.  The result is that whether Māori  or not we have a shared interest in (and maybe even responsibility for) making sure the ancestors can come home and finally be at rest.

Despite having had a little bit of exposure to this world of repatriating Māori  ancestral remains, I know I don’t come at it from the right cultural viewpoint to really understand the distress caused even to this day.   So I hang highly controversial art on my wall, and it undoubtedly offends some people.  But when they challenge it, I can at least engage in a bit of critical discussion to justify my contentious art choices…


  1.  http://www.lesterhall.com/kiwiana/grant-going.htm 
  2.  http://www.lesterhall.com/kiwiana/grant-going.htm 
  3.  http://www.lesterhall.com/kiwiana/hoki-mai.htm 
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Lester Hall – “Kia Ora Cook”

While preparing for my final year of university study, I spent nine months working as an intern at Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum.  My role was in the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, a group whose dedicated purpose is to locate and return Maori and Moriori ancestral remains to New Zealand.  Amazingly, these remains lie scattered around the world, having been traded and sought after in the 19th century.  If you want to know more, check out the Programme’s website here, because I could spend hours just talking about the Programme’s work and never even get to the point.

The internship was an incredible experience, not least because I was there to help them with translations into Italian so that they could make their case to Italian art and museum institutions.  I knew so little about any of the Programme’s work, but was quickly immersed in the moving, contentious and at times sordid history of the 18th/19th century trade in human remains.

I often think of how much I enjoyed spending a little time in that amazing world, making a tiny bit of difference in my own way.  And one of the ways I do that is through an extraordinary print by the New Zealand artist Lester Hall.  I spotted “Kia Ora Cook” in the window of a little art gallery in Taupo.  It’s not hard to see what caught my eye; the work is jam-packed with symbolism, historical references, and a bit of contention.

Kia Ora Cook
“Kia Ora Cook”, Lester Hall.

“Kia Ora Cook” depicts Capt. James Cook, who of course needs no introduction.  He is recognisable in naval uniform, and his hair is adorned with a plume of three feathers.  Traditionally, such decorations were worn by “high-born people” e.g. tribal chiefs 1.  I suspect they’re meant to be the feathers of a huia bird, long since extinct but considered extremely tapu (sacred) by Maori.  Capt. Cook’s face is inscribed with a swirling moko pattern on the cheeks, nose and forehead, which moves into a barcode pattern along his chin.

Charles Heaphy, 1840.
“Te Rangihaeata”, Charles Heaphy, 1840.

Now for a bit of context, it was during Cook’s first voyage on the Endeavour in 1770 that a tattooed Maori head (a toi moko) was first discovered and traded (for a pair of white drawers I believe).  From this first exchange the trade in toi moko developed, and it is this commercialisation of Maori culture that Lester Hall is clearly referencing.  Even the name of the print pokes a little bit of fun!

So it comes as a surprise that Lester Hall is in fact Pakeha, not of Maori decent at all.  On his website (www.lesterhall.com) he describes himself as proudly Pakeha, and offers some explanation for the sort of works he produces – many of which are critiqued for their controversial themes and representations (more about that in another blog perhaps…).  In describing himself as an artist, Hall says:

“…the race relations commentary I make is often misconstrued as either White supremacist or Maori centric.  I consider myself an outsider artist, social commentator first and my art is a vehicle for my thoughts and philosophies and aspirations for my country. My art is a conversation with myself and represents moving thought not static dogma.” 2.

Regardless of Hall’s own purposes in producing “Kia Ora Cook”, I couldn’t walk past something that struck so many chords with the work I had been doing and the way my eyes had been opened to this astonishing part of New Zealand’s history.  So now it hangs in our living room, above the piano, and Capt. Cook often gives me a look that’s a little  intriguing, and perhaps even a wee bit roguish…

Kia Ora Cook framed
“Kia Ora Cook”, framed and on the wall.

  1. Te Ara Encyclopedia, Story: Nga Manu – birds, http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/nga-manu-birds/page-1, accessed 31 January 2014. 
  2. About the Artist Lester Hall, http://www.lesterhall.com/artist/, accessed 31 January 2014.