The Surreal Art of Taonga

The Māori people believed that objects of treasure (taonga) need to have personal stories attached to them. In this way, they remain connected to the owners. The surreal art of taonga emerged from such a practice. But how can modern historians decipher such codes and completely understand their values, when much of the Māori culture has encountered significant acts of obliteration?

hidden Māori treasures

Though the word has evolved to indicate many things, taonga originally meant tangible and intangible things considered as treasures. Each generation used to pass these treasures to the next. The term thus started indicating the objects that customary practices shaped through their conventions. Over time, the Māori people started attaching words and stories to these objects. Such stories are deeply personal as they are associated with particular families and might not characterize a higher meaning.

The nature of the word’s meaning is such that the Māori people refer to the Māori language too as a taonga. Therefore, the word is wide-reaching in terms of usage. But essentially it denotes something that can be considered a treasure. The Māori language was not formally written. So the people passed this knowledge on orally. It was a treasure to them and needed preservation. The tribal scholars and elders used memory to ensure that the essence of the culture and its histories pass from one generation to the next. The surreal art of taonga thus not only refers to the artifact but also the words, stories, and the entire practice associated with it.

problems for modern art historians

The Māori word for a story is korero. The modern art historian can decipher the discourse surrounding a particular artifact. If this discourse is then associated with that object, then it can be rendered operative. But the modern art historian’s fundamental problem is that it is difficult for them to identify the story. To understand that, they not only have to be experts in the language but also have to be adept in genealogy and local tribal sayings. This is because the stories lack universality and are extremely local in terms of dialect.

Additionally, there is an ethical dilemma regarding the process of korero identification. The words associated with a taonga often present genealogical information. Art historians wonder whether studying the history of a family lineage is ethically correct since it is a private affair. Moreover, such information might not contribute to the identification of the overall Māori art history. The artifacts thus have mostly lost their functional values. Instead, they merely showcase their physical significance in museums. A lot of modern Māori people are becoming associated with such museums. They might be able to decipher the stories behind these objects if they are absolutely familiar with the local dialects.

Universal significance

However, the surreal art of taonga is a visual and cultural experience that has universal values. They need and deserve the contribution of modern art historians. This is because indigenous art can act as a time traveler. The established domain of art history explains the historical contexts in a particular way. However, the history featured in taonga articulates history through a completely different perspective. The words and stories are essentially memories of the elders that elaborate upon events having high significances. If deciphered accurately, they will fill long-existing gaps and connect the present with the past.


Skinner, Damian, “Settler-colonial Art History: A Proposition in Two Parts,” Journal of Canadian Art History, 2014, Vol. 35 Issue 1, p 130-175.


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