Collective person, connected gift: some preliminary thoughts on taonga, whakapapa, and ‘the gift’ in Maori art.

Ryan O'Byrne


In this paper I use interviews with one Maori artist to provide some preliminary thoughts on the ways Maori art can be used to understand Maori personhood. Art work is defined as taonga-whakairo and artistic talent as taonga-tuku-iho. Maori conceive both artistic talent and production as taonga and I argue that the relationships between art, taonga, whakapapa and tipuna encompass networks of connections between persons, objects, and ideas simultaneously. I suggest a structural linkage between art, taonga, and exchange which form distributed social relationships. Underlying this is the proposition that artistic comes from the ancestors and involves particular responsibilities. Major points of argument are that: in Maori art, taonga and whakapapa interact to allow the possibility of things being persons and persons being things; taonga are fundamental to the Maori concepts of tipuna and whakapapa; taonga and Maussian exchange relations are co-constituting; art-as-taonga is a productive means of understanding a Maori worldview; and that study should be conducted into Gell’s (1998) ‘distributed person’ through taonga and Maori art.


art, anthropology, Maori, cosmology, ontology, taonga, whakapapa, gift

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