Maori Designs In Our Art – Appropriated or Legitimate?

Kia ora friends,

I’ve been asked a culturally sensitive question by a Scandinavian man who at one point spent time living in New Zealand.

NZ Artist Gordon Walters' Painting

I’d like to put his question to you all because although the issue has been discussed in the public arena before, I’m not quite sure what the answer is or where to find it….

Rihanna's Maori Wrist TattooFor those of us who are of Maori decent and gradually learning about our heritage and culture…

…and for those who are non-Maori and genuinely interested and inspired by Maori art and motifs…

Is it alright to combine elements of Maori designs and create something new out of them?

Artists and designers all over the world are using Maori symbols without knowledge of their meaning but have no way of finding out what is acceptable usage and what isn’t.  Therefore I think it’s important to readdress this.

When you express yourself creatively, where is the line in visual arts between ignorantly/innocently appropriating cultural symbols and mindfully incorporating them?

Air New Zealand's Koru LogoHow do you know if you’re being respectful?  Do you have to know what each symbol means and where it comes from?  Do you have to have Maori blood in order to use Maori designs in your work?  Who has the authority to decide?  Who can you ask about your specific case?

Our Scandinavian friend googled “maori symbols” but didn’t find any site with contact details to anyone who he could ask – he just got links to jewellery stores and tattoo studios.

Have you got any suggestions or opinions on the subject? Please Leave a Reply below or email me

Written by artist Sofia Minson from
New Zealand Maori portrait and landscape oil paintings

21 thoughts on “Maori Designs In Our Art – Appropriated or Legitimate?

  1. “To suggest that somebody who doesn’t know Maori culture, doesn’t know Maori full-stop, could come in and start to want to change a very important part of their culture, is one of the major threats of the maintenance of Maori culture, it’s very fragile” says artist Cliff Whiting near the end of this YouTube video. This is part of a very interesting fly-on-the-wall doco called “Getting To Our Place” about the creation of Te Papa back in the 90s.

    • Sir Ron demanding that the kawa be Ngati Porou while Te Papa sits in the land of Te Atiawa and Ngati Toa is quite hilarious (and ignorant)….that’s what happens when you know nothing but you can’t control your own urge to control others

  2. As a non Maori first generation New Zealand artist I have struggled with this but I have no links to my own cultural heritage, all I know is my New Zealandness. For me this encompasses all aspects of New Zealand culture that I have so far experienced to me this is totally valid it is after all my experience and the way I have been influenced by that. Maybe intention is a good one to add in here – is the artist using the motif to tap into a market or are the symbols the artist’s New Zealandness coming out even if it’s not entirely accurate in terms of Maori culture. I’m not Maori remember my experience of that part of New Zealand is from my cultural perspective. I sometime get frustrated about all importance put on Maori culture, I have a culture too it’s a little harder to define it’s still evolving but just as important and valid this is a point that seems to be overlooked most of the time.

    • That’s so interesting Jo thanks for sharing your own experience. And you’re so right that it effects all of us New Zealanders whether or not we have Maori blood, because it’s in the culture and images that surround us. Yes INTENTION is key.

  3. And also in response to what Jo was saying about having a unique culture of her own as a New Zealander without Maori ancestry – wow, this cultural identity is something so many New Zealanders have to define over the course of their lives and it’s quite difficult considering we are such a young post-colonial country. But there are definitely kiwi traits and customs and attitudes that are unique. And sometimes it’s easiest to see these when you travel overseas, maybe that’s why we’re a nation of travellers.

  4. A facebook comment – Toni wrote:

    “Run your own truth”

    And I think perhaps this translates as “be authentic and you will know what’s right for yourself”

  5. Hey Sofia, I think we could take the time/make the effort to learn as much about tikanga Maori as we are able to. In this way we show respect to our tangata whenua and will be able to make informed choices about what we as artists incorporate into our art. I am Pakeha but have extended whanau who are Maori – sister-in-law, neice, daughter-in-law etc. I think its important because Maori culture and all it involves is central to New Zealand as a country.

  6. I disagree about intentions being key. Racism is behaviour, not intentions, therefore if Maori culture is being harmed by something, then it doesn’t really matter how this something was intended. I think the question is whether it is HARMFUL to combine elements of Maori design and create something new out of them? If it is, then it should not be done.

    • Hmmm interesting. If incorporation of Maori designs in new art keeps Maori art alive and changing, how can we distinguish between harmful ‘using and abusing’ of traditional cultural symbols and helpful incorporation of these symbols?

      Would you say that the viewers’ response to the artwork would be more important that the artist’s original intention? I.e. if Maori consider it a racist artwork, or if in the bigger picture it washes down the culture in some way, that is more important than the artist’s innocent belief that they are reflecting and inspired by Maori images that surround them?

      How can anyone (and who can) make a definitive call that something is racist and harmful?

  7. A facebook comment – Baz te Hira wrote:

    “let the buyer beware. anybody is (or should be) free to be creative without culture cops deciding who can draw what. it’s up to the buyer to be discerning, do they want a genuine Maori piece of art, or do they just want one of those sqiggly things that that other guy did that looks kinda like Maori art? if they are happy buying imitations, hei aha.”

  8. An email response – Deborah wrote:

    This is a tricky question. Ta Moko, facial tattoo designs should not be attempted to be created as art by anyone who has no permission or heritage to the design to do so. Any historical pattern cannot be recreated without permission or heritage to do so.
    As far as generic pacifica designs this is difficult to define as Maori or Pacifica or possibly celtic designs or all rolled into one. I guess with this if one was to do enough research and show how this final design was created it may be okay.
    Maori are becoming more proactive in copyrighting their designs but the edges are becoming blurred.

    • I asked Deborah “are you saying heritage and/or permission is essential when it comes to the art form of Ta Moko in particular?”

      And Deborah wrote:

      Yes. Ta Moko in particular must be handled with extreme sensitivity. No image may be copied or used unless you are entitled to. These designs are familial and passed down and used through heritage.
      Maori culture is very right or wrong. There is often no middle ground.

  9. I’m part Maori and part everything else in the British world. I didn’t grow up encompassed by Maori culture but instead as a ‘Pakeha’. This of course does play a role in my opinion.

    In my opinion, I believe that it is O.K. to combine Maori artwork and designs to create something new out of them. It means we are spreading the culture around to people who normally may see nothing of it. I also think of art like linguistics. It is always changing. Why should we make our artwork like Latin – a language standing still and archaic. Hardly ever used but by botanists or doctors etc. who are ever increasingly using less of it.

    There is a difference in using Maori designs and artwork to create something new and creating new Maori designs and artwork. There is also a difference in creating something new for use in a certain area. So in my opinion we should not create something new and use it inappropriately and thus showing that Maori may support such a usage. The use of the design should be something in which Maori would use it for and believe and support. And that in itself poses an issue/question and perhaps leads to the same question in which you have asked. What really are the Maori doing: Are we trying hard to stand still and claw onto the past? Are we being forward thinkers and thinking abstractly about a new future?

    I think it will be interesting to see answers to this question that you have received. I too am very curious as to what answers people will come up with.

  10. A facebook comment – Katerina wrote:

    “I think out of respect it may pay to do some research about the significance of these unique cultural designs for every culture, not only Maori. Not only so you know what you are using, but also so that if you are ever questioned about your painting you will be able provide a korero about what the painting means and why you have incorporated the designs?”

  11. I like what Deborah had to say. Ta Moko must only be done by someone who has permission. The patterns and designs all have specific meanings and it is important the meanings are understood. They also vary between tribes, between different areas of NZ, what one design means in one area will mean something different in another. This is why the word ‘kirituhi’ was created. A kirituhi is a pattern allowed to be worn without the heritage connection. In my opinion a kirituhi must still be correct. If you are going to use Maori designs and patterns in your work you must make sure you know what you are doing. I do intense research into patterns I use, sometimes I will get permission from kaumatua to make sure I’m doing it right. Recently I designed a kirituhi for someone and they now wear it proudly on their skin. From the beginning I told him I was not authorized to mark another man skin with this sort if art. I refused payment for it. I spent many months making sure I got it ‘right’. It’s so very important to pass the information down correctly, it’s too easy for a Chinese whispers senario to occur otherwise.
    Years ago I questioned my mentor, who is a kaumatua and Tohunga, because I was concerned, being a pakeha with no Maori decent, that I should not be making art with these patterns, he replied and gave me permission saying I was a neutral, being who I was and with the knowledge and understanding I had of the Maori culture. He also taught me about the ‘old ways’, the rituals, the traditions, and he guides me to this day.
    So if Maori designs are going to be used with other things to make art the most important thing is to make sure you are doing it with the correct knowledge and understanding of all the elements. Pass the information on correctly. If you are unsure, ask kaumatua. The Maori way is a very spiritual way, the highest of respect must be given for things to run smoothly. If it feels wrong it is wrong.
    There is a lot of art out there where people are doing it to make money, it’s cheaply done and it saddens me. As for your work Sofia, I know, and you know yourself, it is being done correctly. With a pure love for the culture.
    Sorry, I have written this via phone as I am without laptop at the moment and I can’t seem to scroll back up to check my spelling/ grammar! I apologize for the rawness of this, I just wrote as it came to me thinking I could go back over it!

  12. A Linkedin comment – Pitihana wrote:

    As far as I know, there is no problem with anything. If you are in doubt, your best option is to go to a local kaumatua, marae and speak to whom ever is there. Most people are most welcoming when it comes to new ideas. They may also be able to help you with the design aspects.

  13. An Email comment – Margie wrote:

    Hi Sofi, you are the one who has been responsible for my personal awakening to Maori art. Haven’t thanked you for that before, so shall now; thanks heaps Babe. I believe that if the evocative (for me) elements of Maori art can be highlighted, therefore introducing others to the form, then I am all for using art in its ‘impure’ form. I am not an art critic, an artist, and certainly not a purist, so can speak only from the perspective of someone who enjoys art. I suspect that this may be a position from which many of us stand.

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