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by Entwistle on 4 November 2019

One of the small treasures on show at the Entwistle stand at this year's Frieze Masters was this rare and refined sculptural tour-de-force from the Maori peoples of New Zealand...

At this year's renowned Frieze Masters art fair in London, Entwistle presented a number of small treasures, among them this remarkable pigment pot, or ipu ngärahu, from the Maori peoples of New Zealand.

The superb stone-cut vessel is a work of great sculptural inventiveness as two contorted tiki figures wrap around the quasi-spherical form of the pot, the limbs and faces of the figures in relief and decorated with numerous curvilinear motifs.

Of extraordinary rarity, the pot is one of only six published examples of the rare wooden vessels: four of the others are in institutional collections - two from the William Oldman collection and two from the Kenneth Webster collection are in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington, while the fifth example, formerly in the collections of Harry Beasley and J.J. Klejman, is in a private collection.

The present example was once in the collection of the renowned English collector and dealer James Hooper and was published in the catalogue of his collection, Art and Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa and the Americas: The James Hooper Collection, written by Steven Phelps in 1976.

The ipu ngärahu held the specialist inks created as part of ta moko (customary Maori tattooing) practice. Also called oko ngärahu, carved ipu wai ngärahu pots were part of the ahi ta moko tattooing rite, which was exceedingly sacred, or tapu. The awheto (vegetable caterpillar) was burned in a fire known as an ahi kauri (tattooing fire), then the awe (soot) was mixed with spring water, fish oil, or resin from hinau tree (Elaeocarpus dentatus), mahoe (whitey wood: Melicytus ramiflorus), poroporo (black nightshade: Solanum nigrum), and other plants, then kneaded and formed into small balls called kauri.

The ngärahu (pigment) obtained from the caterpillar was used for tattooing the limbs or body, but the pigment was not black enough to be used for facial tattooing. Pukepoto (dark blue earth), a fine dark blue uku (clay), was mixed with resins to form a blue pigment and this was applied to the face of the moko (tattoo) recipient.

Every moko was individualised to suit the genealogy and character of the person receiving it. More than anything else, ta moko identified people like a signature. Their moko was their identity etched into their skin and they were proud to wear it. Many chiefs signed treaties and land grants by drawing their moko instead of just signing an 'X'. From the 1840s onwards, carvers and ta moko experts began adapting their methods and experimenting with metal tools because they proved superior or easier to work with than customary tools made from wood, ivory, and bone.


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