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Rākau Kōrero – Mātaranga Māori

mataranga maori

GSM talks to Dr Johnson Witehira (Tamahaki, Ngāti Hinekura, Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Tū-te-Auru) about the principles of design from a traditional Mātaranga Māori perspective.

dr johnson witehiraOur nation is moving towards a more inclusive future, with an increasing appreciation of the uniqueness and the value of Māoritanga (Māori culture) to our country. Recently, this has extended into the teaching of visual communication. In fact, for students beginning studies in a Bachelor of Design (Visual Communication) course, there is now a requirement to understand Mātaranga Māori (traditional Māori knowledge) in relation to the Principles of Design. This is a significant step forward. In this article, we look at the Principles of Design from a Mātaranga Māori perspective, and how these contrast with the European-based convention —the Principles of Design drawn from Gestalt Theory.

Gestalt Theory and The Principles of Design

Firstly, let’s go back to design school and quickly revisit Gestalt Theory. Gestalt is a school of psychology that emerged in the early-1900s. At the core of Gestalt Theory is the concept that humans perceive the entirety of something in its whole – as opposed to the individual parts making the whole. Essentially, the whole is more than, or different to, the sum of the parts—and we see this whole first. We then see the parts, or the details—second. From this thinking evolved a series of Principles of Design that, when correctly applied, help create effective visual communication. The basic principles according to Gestalt Theory (and there are others) are often expressed as the following: (note these are often explained using different terminology).

mataranga maori

  • Similarity/Difference: This is the idea that your brain instinctively groups objects together with similar characteristics. For example size, shape, colour, texture etc.
  • Proximity/Grouping: Visually, we group objects that are close together—and separate things far apart.
  • Continuity/Alignment: Our eye will naturally follow a path or line—whether real or implied.
  • Closure/Open & Closed Forms: We instinctively fill in missing detail if our brain thinks something should be there. This is why well-conceived reduced forms work.
  • Figure/Ground & Positive/Negative Space: Our brain is always trying to establish a figure/ground relationship and determine what is close versus far away.
  • Symmetry (Balance)/Asymmetry (Imbalance): Our brains like simplicity— we find this balance pleasing. Asymmetry (imbalance) achieves the opposite by creating tension. Without delving deep into the above, what is immediately apparent is these ideas end at perception—how we see. There is no implied meaning beyond how we can organise and arrange visual space. Here, we find perhaps the primary difference with the Principles of Design according to Mātaranga Māori—which have a meaning or purpose beyond their use within visual space.

Mātaranga Māori and The Principles of Design

When looking at the following Principles of Design, it is essential to remember that these were developed before contact with Europeans, and any subsequent ideas they may have introduced. These Principles are also specific to forms of visual expression for Māori—such as whakairo (carving). In addition, these focus on the subjects most relevant to pre-European Māori. Namely, the human figure, the natural and the spiritual worlds, and whakapapa (genealogies). Pre-dating written Te Reo, lineage, events, and history were passed orally, with visual arts supporting this. This functional purpose of story-telling meant an amount of convention to aid the reading of the content—which is reflected in these Principles:

mataranga maori

Tātai Rahinga (arrangement by scale):

  • Scale expresses a hierarchy of importance, often between figures (Tiki). Disproportionate scale is also employed to emphasise parts of the human body which carry significance.

Tātai Mokowā (spatial correctness):

  • Overlapping between figures and objects expresses figure/ground relationships. However, at a deeper level, this can also represent an association or connectedness of the physical to the spiritual.

Tātai Hangarite (arranged symmetrically):

  • The application of carvings to structures or objects such as waka (canoe) or whare (house) often uses bi-lateral reflection. This creates symmetry. For example, when looking at a whare from the front, the pare (carved lintel) would be reflected on each side of the structure. However, the carvings are likely to be asymmetrical (see below).

Tātai Hikuwaru (disrupted symmetry):

The idea of broken symmetry is also constant within Māori art. It is unclear why this disruption occurs within the otherwise bi-lateral reflection seen in works. But could potentially signify tension against the unity or resolution represented by symmetry. Again, likely part of a larger story.

Tātai Whakapapa (proximal Tiki arrangement):

  • The human figure is fundamental to Māori, and the use of Tiki to represent this, including the placement, scale, and proximity—are deliberately symbolic and denote whakapapa (genealogical connections) or Hierarchy. For example, a smaller tiki placed between the legs of a larger Tiki may signify lineage from parent to child. Another example may show husband and wife.

Mana Wahine (the female element):

  • Traditionally, the significant spiritual role of women was expressed through consistent use of the female form—the placement of which is often very symbolic. The female form is often an analogy of both life & death.

Tātai Manawa (heart pulse):

  • Tātai Manawa is a convention whereby an implied pathway guides the viewer through the entire structure of a carving. This often makes extensive use of Tātai Mokowā to achieve flow.

Mātaranga Māori meets Gestalt

When we look at the above Principles, we can see ideas that—at a visual level— correlate with concepts expressed within Gestalt Theory.

For example, at face value, one could compare the Principle of Tātai Manawa (heart pulse) with Continuity/Alignment—and indeed, visual expressions of these could potentially look the same—the difference is the reason. Continuity/Alignment is employed as a tactic to direct the viewer. Tātai Manawa is an engrained part of the story and is done for this purpose.

The Principles of Design from Gestalt Theory provide us with ideas about how we can use visual space.

The Principles of Design, according to Mātaranga Māori, offer a different way of thinking centered around symbology and storytelling. For us, as designers playing our role in developing our national identity, this means the potential of sharing our story to wider New Zealand— and indeed the world—in our own unique visual language.

GSM would like to thank Johnson Witehira for providing his thoughts to us for Rākau Kōrero. Parts of this article were edited from his Thesis, ‘Tārai Kōrero Toi’ Pub. 2013.

Dr Johnson Witehira (Tamahaki, Ngāti Hinekura, Ngāpuhi, Ngāi Tū-te-Auru) @Indigenous Design & Innovation Aotearoa (IDIA) +

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We originally published this article in GSM20. To read this and other great articles purchase this issue here.