Go to National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa
Volume 53, 1921
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The Elements of the Panel.

The elements from which the decorative panel which fills up the panelspace (moana) is formed consist of three portions—two rigid and one flexible. These, which form the groundwork, may be called, in terms of wickerwork—(a) vertical stakes; (b) horizontal rods; (c) a flexible material, which, threaded through the above, forms the patterns and designs of the panel. External to the lattice-work panel is the ordinary thatching of the walls; and in some of the common type of dwellinghouse even the vertical stakes of reeds may not be used. Hence we are justified in regarding all the elements used in the formation of the panels as not being essential to the construction of the wall, and thus being primarily decorative in origin.

(a.) Vertical Stakes.—The vertical elements formed the outer layer of the panel. They are composed of the flower-stalks (kakaho) of the toetoe (Arundo conspicua). A single layer of kakaho was placed close together vertically to fill up the panel-space. Hori Pukehika, of Whanganui, states that the flower-ends and the butts were placed alternately so that an even width might be maintained, and great care was exercised that an even number should fill the panel. In some of the Rotorua work this has not been followed out, and the number of stakes is often odd. Where the cross-rods were narrow each vertical reed formed an element for threading purposes; but where the former were wider than usual two reeds were included as a single element in threading. In the sleeping-houses (wharepuni) the vertical lining of kakaho was considered sufficient decoration. In later years Maori have in several instances had specially-cut fluted boards made at the sawmills for lining their more modern houses. This represents the kakaho stakes in more durable material. Hence the conservative Maori artistic sense of his old-time decoration is appeased, and at the same time deference is paid to the European desire for durability. Some say that it is a labour-saving device, due to laziness.

It is in connection with the parallel arrangement of the flower-stalks, as the sole lining of the house-walls or under the roof, that the following proverb is used: He ta kakaho e kitea, he ta ngakau e kore e kitea (A defect in the arrangement of kakaho is seen; a defect of the heart is not seen). This means that deceitfulness is not apparent on the surface.

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(b.) Horizontal Rods.—The horizontal elements form the inner layer of the panel. They were placed close together so as to cover completely the outer layer of kakaho, but leaving enough space between the rods to pass the flexible material through to form the patterns. In old houses the long straight stalks (kakaka) of the common fern (Pteridium esculentum) were used. In the better houses laths of totara (Podocarpus totara) or rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) were adzed out for this purpose. Wood that had lain in water for some time was sought after, as it split much more easily. The laths were shaped to an even thickness and width. The Whanganui people say that rimu was preferable to totara, as it did not fracture so easily. The laths were often painted red with haematite, or blackened by exposing to fire or rubbing with parapara, a black mud obtained from peaty swamps. These two colours were used alternately on an even number of laths. This held good in the East Coast and Whanganui districts. In the beautiful carved house in the Auckland Museum, which is of Arawa design, the number of laths of one colour is generally odd. Colenso,* in his description of the panels of a house that was made for him by the Hawke's Bay people, states that the coloured rods of black and red were in threes. One cannot help thinking that the Maori, no matter how skilled, were careless about some details in building for Europeans, as they did not have to live in the houses themselves. In many of the good houses in existence at the present time white paint has been added to the red and black of old. Paint has, of course, been used for the red and black, as it is more durable than the original material.

The rods or laths are called kaho tara by the Arawa, and kaho tarai on the East Coast. The Whanganui called them arapaki, and also used the same word for the entire panel, including the panel-patterns to be described later.

In some of the very modern houses fluted boards have been placed horizontally across the panel-space to represent the transverse arrangement of rods. A variation in the arrangement of the rods is seen in some of the meeting-houses near Te Puke, in the Bay of Plenty. Here the rods, instead of being horizontal, run diagonally across the panel-space. This method is modern and is used with some of the panels to lend variety.

(c.) The flexible material for stitching the design consisted of (1) flax (harakeke, Phormium tenax), (2) kiekie (Freycinetia Banksii), (3) pingao (Scirpus frondosus).

Kiekie was preferred to flax, as it had a whiter colour after preparation. Pingao was used for its orange colour, but was only procurable in certain localities on the sandhills near the coast. The long leaves of these plants were shredded with the thumb-nail into strips of from a tenth to an eighth of an inch in width. The strips were placed in hot water and then scraped (kaku) with a shell, to remove part of the outer epidermis covering the fibre. They were then doubled over, tied into hanks, and hung up to dry. When dry the kiekie and flax became white, whilst the pingao retained its rich orange colour. Some of the kiekie and flax strips were dyed black to add further colour-variety to the decoration. The method of dyeing was the same as in the preparation of flax-fibre (muka) for dress cloaks. The scraped material was soaked in an infusion of the bark of the hinau (Elaeocarpus dentatus), which acted as a mordant. It was then rubbed with, or steeped in, the black peaty mud (parapara) above referred to. On drying, the strips assumed a permanent black colour.

[Footnote] * W. Colenso, Trans. N.Z. Inst., vol. 14, p. 50, 1882.

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Tumatakahuki.—Archdeacon Williams points out that in all well-made panels a vertical stake, called a tumatakahuki, passed down the middle of the panel and was fixed to the face of the rods by a special stitch. The Whanganui people maintain that the purpose of the stake was to keep the transverse rods in position, the ends of the stake being fixed behind the upper and lower cross-pieces of the panel. The stake consisted of a rounded piece of wood, which was sometimes replaced by lengths of aka vine where the decorative effect of bulging out the stitching was all that was desired.