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


  • Ryan O'Byrne



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


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.

Author Biography

Ryan O'Byrne

An MA candidate at Victoria University Wellington, my MA research is on customary cultural practices among Sudanese Acholi refugees in Wellington, for which I was awarded a 2011 Ryoichi Sasakawa (SYLFF) Fellowship, a 2011 Freemasons Scholarship, and a 2011 J.L. Stewert Postgraduate Scholarship. Proposed chapters from this research have been accepted for presentation at the 2011 AAA and ASFAAP conferences. I intend to pursue a PhD through the University of London, for which I have been awarded the Gordon Watson Scholarship and the Shirtcliffe Fellowship. Address correspondence to: Ryan O'Byrne School of Social and Cultural Studies, Victoria University Wellington.




How to Cite

O’Byrne, R. (2011). Collective person, connected gift: some preliminary thoughts on taonga, whakapapa, and ‘the gift’ in Maori art. Sites: A Journal of Social Anthropology and Cultural Studies, 8(2), 126–146.