Tristes Tropiques

David R. Simmons, Ta Moko: The Art of Maori Tattoo. Auckland: Reed Methuen, 1986, p. 159.

‘Drawing is the beginning of tattooing.’ — Wiremu Maihi Te Rangikaheke on Ta Moko.1

Claude Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, translated by John and Dorren Weightman. New York: Atheneum, 1974, p. 185. Elsewhere, Lévi-Strauss made a lot more of the similarities between these two different peoples inhabiting rainforests on opposite sides of the Pacific. In ‘Split Representation in the Art of Asia and America’, Lévi-Strauss says of the art of the Caduveo and the Maori: ‘The analogies between them are striking: complexity of design, involving hatching, meanders, and spirals; the same tendency to fill the entire surface of the face; and the same localization of the design around the lips in the simpler types. The differences between the two arts must also be considered. The difference due to the fact that Maori design is tattooed whereas Caduveo design is painted may be dismissed, since there is hardly any doubt that in South America, too, tattooing was the primitive technique. Tattooing explains why the Abipone women of Paraguay, as late as the eighteenth century, had “their face, breast, and arms covered with black figures of various shapes, so that they present the appearance of a Turkish carpet.” This made them, according to their own words as recorded by the old missionary “more beautiful that beauty itself.” On the other hand, one is struck by the rigorous symmetry of Maori tattooings, in contrast with the almost licentious asymmetry of some Caduveo paintings’ (Lévi-Strauss, Structural Anthropology, Vol. 1. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1963, pp. 256-257). The idea that the Caduveo patterns are ‘licentious’ or somehow sexual is emphasised with this anecdote: ‘The dislocation [of facial imagery] here involves, besides the decorative value, a subtle element of sadism, which at least partly explains why the erotic appeal of Caduveo women (expressed in the paintings) formerly attracted outlaws and adventurers towards the shores of the Paraguay River. Several of these now aging men, who intermarried with the natives, described to me with quivering emotion the nude bodies of adolescent girls completely covered with interlacings and arabesques of a perverse subtlety’ (Ibid, p. 255). Perverse indeed!

The Story Unfolds
Before I read Claude Lévi-Strauss’s Tristes Tropiques, I assumed it would be about the South Pacific. Like everywhere else, we suffer from a kind of parochialism here at the base of Te Moananui a Kiwa, sure that our trials and glories are the centre of the known universe. I imagined sad Polynesians sitting by a beach of rusted tin cans, dead fish and nuclear fallout. This would surely be the subject of Tristes Tropiques?

Perhaps a similar misapprehension attracted John Reynolds to Lévi-Strauss’s most personal text, sometime in the early 1990s? We know that Reynolds read the book, and that it inspired a series of paintings with that self-same title. Of course, the memoirs of the celebrated father of structural anthropology turned out to revolve around fieldwork in the Amazon rainforest in the 1940s. However, what Reynolds and I both found was that, as different as this place was to the South Pacific, there was a startling similarity between the curvilinear face painting of the Caduveo tribe, and the spiralling moko, tattoo, of the Maori. ‘Their faces, and sometimes even their whole bodies, were covered with a network of asymmetrical arabesques, alternating with delicate geometrical patterns.’2

Similar-but-different is a fun game to play, especially at a time when portrayal of Maori imagery was the subject of fierce debate. Art history academics Rangihiroa Panoho and Ngahuia te Awekotuku came out against Pakeha modernist painter Gordon Walters for his use of the Maori koru, the bulb-capped rod; traditional schematic signifier for the fern-frond; the symbol of regeneration that so fired the Maori artistic imagination on arrival in Aotearoa. In an impassioned riposte, Pakeha scholar Francis Pound wrote the book The Space Between (1994), which defends Walters against charges of insensitivity, and upholds him as a genuinely ­­bi-cultural artist.

Artists Maori and Pakeha entered the fray. Elder Pakeha, like painter Rick Killeen and jeweller Warrick Freeman, both asserted Pakeha rights to imagery that had entered the public domain of Aotearoa. Younger Maori artists, Michael Parekowhai, Peter Robinson, and Shane Cotton, ‘re-appropriated’ Walters’ use of the koru, in a knowing, postmodern pastiche of traditional and contemporary arts. Debate reached a fever pitch when fair dinkum Pakeha pop artist Dick Frizzell thought it would be a good idea to combine tiki imagery with cartoon references. Intellectual property and cultural appropriation were so hotly contested at the time, that Reynolds must have been thrilled when he found a clever way to paint koru without painting koru.

In his series Tristes Tropiques, Reynolds copies the loops and spirals that are included as line drawings in Lévi-Strauss’s memoir (they are not drawn by the anthropologist but by the women who were the tribe’s face painters). If anyone were to accuse Reynolds of plundering Maori whakairo, decorative arts, he would have a ready response — these were in fact koru from another tribe altogether, a tribe so distant to the cultural situation in Aotearoa as to be almost ‘fair game’. The fact Reynolds’ paintings were still ‘plundering’ another non-western culture was less of an issue – if it wasn’t Maori, it wasn’t ‘contested’ (parochialism again). Recently, jeweller Jason Hall has managed a beautiful sleight-of-hand using similar logic — he makes what he calls ‘ornaments for the Pakeha’ which mimic the curlicues surrounding wrought-iron gates and fences. They look exactly like Maori koru, but their prosaic provenance deftly deflects any criticism.

Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, op. cit., p. 189

Lévi-Strauss wrote: ‘As we look at the motifs in the shape of stripes, spirals and whorls, which are particularly prevalent in Caduveo art, we cannot help being reminded of Spanish baroque, with its wrought-iron work and stuccoes.’3

In the unpublished essay ‘Faces on the Body’, Samoan-New Zealand theorist and architect Albert Refiti analyses the practice of Samoan tatau. He frequently uses the term ‘gene-archaeological matter’ signifying the body as a form of architecture for the ancestors. The body is a house, and I think this is particularly interesting given the Maori wharenui, in which the house is envisaged as a body. The fluidity of these categories intrigues me. I think tatau makes them even more fluid, because the body is wrapped in a series of lines which look very much like the coconut sennit binding which is used to construct ceremonial buildings (Tongan artist Filipe Tohi explores this art of lalava). In Polynesia the house is wrapped or bound, while the body is ‘hammered’ (tapped, struck, with the toothed comb of tatau).

An Unholy Trinity
There is one work from the series left in the Sue Crockford Gallery stockroom. Titled simply Tristes Tropiques, from 1991, it’s two and a half metres high and almost four metres long. Made from three separate panels, the triptych forms an unholy trinity of warring patterns. The left and middle panels’ designs are silver and white, picked out on a dark, muddy ground. The left panel’s pattern is abstract, hard-edged and geometric. It looks like a schematic architectural diagram, and somehow it also reminds me of the folds of an envelope (well, Marshall McLuhan did believe that writing and architecture were closely interlinked, and the Italian for room, stanza, is also a unit of poetic space).4 Reynolds’ hard edges here are drawn with graphite so that they shine when seen from certain angles — the same effect he later achieved with silver marker pens and spray cans.

This curled cross bears a striking resemblance, and is perhaps the progenitor, to a floral, blooming crucifix which Reynolds was asked to tattoo on the leg of a friend, who just happens to be an architect and sport the full pe’a, traditional men’s tatau from Samoa. ‘Drawing is the beginning of tattooing,’ but Reynolds had to actually incise his lines into flesh, for the first, and perhaps the last time, in a process the artist describes as ‘close to etching’.

The central panel’s pattern is made of dots in a design that is part flower, part cross — like a lacy tablecloth or perhaps Mexican paper decorations hung over tableaux for the Dia de los Muertes. The religious overtones are made definite by the over-painting of a giant crucifix which dominates the entire panel, though it’s a delicate, thin-boned cross with curlicues at the end (not unlike Peter Robinson’s later attempts at making the swastika and other symbols ‘Maori’ with the addition of koru).5 In this panel, Catholicism has come to the jungle.

But the third panel is anything but Christian, though certainly bloody. The tropical mud of the other two panels has been rudely, roughly whitewashed, and the top of the panel sustains a bloody spray which drips downwards and also leaves traces on the middle panel. Atop this painterly carnage, is the delicate line drawing in black of a Caduveo woman’s facial decoration. It’s interesting that there is so much violence in this panel, for Lévi-Strauss only hints that the Caduveo are headhunters. His portrayal of this group of people is as a band of jungle-dwelling dandies, courtly lords and ladies for whom vanity outweighs violence.

In the South Pacific, tatau was practiced in some places specifically as a revolt against Christian doctrine. Anne D’Alleva writes: ‘Tatau became an important component of religious resistance, especially among the tutae auri, or Rust of Iron, a youthful rebel movement that practiced Society Islands religion and deliberately desecrated Christian institutions. The missionary William Crook noted that in Tahiti’s Taiarapu district the tutae auri were “very wild” and included “all of the young men with very few exceptions and many of the young women.” In a passage marked with outrage, he recorded that “they mark their bodies out of bravado and most of them are guilty of fornication or adultery.” Crook also noted that in a neighbouring district almost everyone had joined what he called “the heathen party”, even the judges; he writes that “In the way of contempt [they] choose the Sabbath as their favourite day to mark themselves.’” Anne d’Alleva, ‘Christian Skins: Tatau and the Evangelization of the Society Islands and Samoa’ in Nicholas Thomas, Anna Cole and, Bronwen Douglas, editors, Tattoo: Bodies, Art and Exchange in the Pacific and the West. London: Reaktion Books, 2005, p. 97. 

The Western view of tattoos as ‘lacy’ was widespread. Lévi-Strauss says the Caduveo girls were irresistible ‘half-naked on feast days, their bodies patiently decorated with delicate black or blue scrolls which seemed to fit the skin like a sheath of precious lace.’ Likewise, Joseph Banks described the puhoro buttock and thigh tattoos of Aotearoa as being like ‘stripd breeches.’ (See Bronwen Douglas, ‘Cureous Figures: European Voyagers and Tatau/Tattoo in Polynesia, 1595-1800,’ in Thomas, Cole and Douglas, op. cit., p. 40). It is the interstices of lace (an import into the Pacific) and tattoo (an export) that artist Lonnie Hutchinson explores, cutting into black builders’ paper to make patterns with various Pacific associations. Reynolds himself has had an interest in embroidery and lace, both in his curly, obsessive mark-making, and in the paper doilies he used to stick directly onto paintings, for example, The Light in Egypt, mixed media on 41 doilies, 1989 and By the Rivers of Babylon, mixed media on 26 doilies, 1989 (in this last work the doilies are, rather appropriately for tattoo, painted black).

Refiti, ‘Faces on the Body’, unpublished, unpaginated MS.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988, p. 42.

Perhaps it is the carnage of Christendom in the ‘New World’ that Reynolds’ bloody brush alludes to?6 Or perhaps he is thinking less of the Caduveo bamboo pen and more of the Maori chisel, which carved human faces and bodies as if they were wooden pou? For the practices of moko and tatau are bloody indeed, and the process by which fine, delicate, even lacy7 patterns are eternally etched into the body, requires a violent rite of passage. Albert Refiti writes that the act of Samoan tatau can ‘allow the ancestors to bleed onto the surface of the world.’8

As a whole, Tristes Tropiques the triptych does indeed seem to convey a rite of passage, or at least the passing of time. The bold, architectural structures of the left hand side are engulfed, like Mayan temples strangled by hallucinogenic lianas in a hyperventilating jungle. The left depicts Apollonian order (effected with that symbol of suffocating bureaucracy — the pencil) while the right side writhes with Dionysian vines, convolvulus, Sargasso, snakes and feminine wiles. The centrepiece attempts to contrive order but cannot escape the bloody flecks of the right panel. The floral pattern of the central panel, which could be an embroidered design on a counterpane, seen in proximity to the Caduveo painted whorls which also stand in for moko, reminds me of a passage of just such a visual juxtaposition, in Moby Dick:

Upon waking next morning about daylight, I found Queequeg’s arm thrown over me in the most loving and affectionate manner. You had almost thought I had been his wife. The counterpane was of patchwork, full of odd little parti-colored squares and triangles; and this arm of his tattooed all over with an interminable Cretan labyrinth of a figure, no two parts of which were of one precise shade — owing I suppose to his keeping his arm at sea unmethodically in sun and shade, his shirt sleeves irregularly rolled up at various times — this same arm of his, I say, looked for all the world like a strip of that same patchwork quilt. Indeed, partly lying on it as the arm did when I first awoke, I could hardly tell it from the quilt, they so blended their hues together; and it was only by the sense of weight and pressure that I could tell that Queequeg was hugging me.9

In a sense, the two very different Pacific artforms of tatau and tivaevae are united in this vignette, and possibly, by extension, in Reynolds’ painting. This quirky seafaring scene is a pleasant antidote to what we imagine the nineteenth century must have been like, steeped in the binary opposites of male and female, white and native; here, categories are shown as somewhat porous and unpredictable.

Joseph Banks’ Endeavour Journal, quoted in Douglas, ‘Cureous Figures’, op. cit., p. 45.

This too could have been written about Reynolds’ painting:

Yet ugly as this certainly looks it is impossible to avoid admiring the immence Elegance and Justness of the figures in which it is form’d, which in the face is always different spirals, upon the body generaly different figures resembling something the foliages of old Chasing upon gold or silver…10

Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, op. cit., p. 190.

Or this: ‘The women employ two styles, both prompted by a sense of decoration and abstraction. One is angular and geometrical, the other, curvilinear and free-flowing. More often than not, the compositions are based on an orderly combination of the two styles.’11 It’s not just Reynolds’ Tristes Tropiques triptych that juxtaposes the angular and the curvilinear. Throughout his career, this same battle between the straight and the loopy is played out again and again, and was seen most recently in his 2005 show, I gotta use words when I talk to you. In particular, one corner of the installation faced off a black, stretched canvas covered in silver criss-crosses, an unruly game of noughts and crosses, or a city plan gone awry, with a wall-drawing of a curly line in an endless loop, like a telephone chord having a conversation with itself, a twenty-first century uroburos or kundalini. The playful reworking of rigid modernity turns out, as it so happens, to be based on a painting by Mondrian (as were all the paintings in that particular show). (I Gotta Use Words When I Talk To You (Composition no.12 with Blue), oil and acrylic on canvas, and Sundog, wall-drawing.)

Installation shot from I Gotta Use Words When I Talk to You 2005 Sue Crockford Gallery

William Dampier, ‘A New Voyage Around the World’, quoted in Douglas, ‘Cureous Figures’, op. cit., p. 34.

Germanic Depressive
Reynolds’ interest in Tristes Tropiques must have extended further than the opportunity to filch some spirals. Lévi-Strauss’s designation of Brazil’s jungly environs as ‘Tristes’ was perhaps more of a reflection of the white man’s dis-ease than that of the natives, a melancholia no doubt compounded by the fact that
Lévi-Strauss was a Jew fleeing Nazi Europe for the unutterably foreign Amazon. But Lévi-Strauss doesn’t dwell on emotion and makes clear his disdain for autobiography (indeed, it’s with some surprise that the reader registers, half way through the book, that the anthropologist has been travelling with his wife the whole time — he only thinks to mention her when she catches a debilitating eye disease and has to leave the expedition). Lévi-Strauss sublimates sentiment into graphs and formulae, while Reynolds’ entire painting career has eschewed representational imagery, but has been at the same time far from abstract or minimal, concentrating on patterns, notation, and writing, the flotsam and jetsam of structuralism’s corpse. ‘I cannot liken the Drawings to any Figure of Animals, or the like; but they were very curious, full of great variety of Lines, Flourishes, Chequered Work, &c. keeping a very graceful Proportion, and appearing very Artificial…’12

The rest of the soliloquy is as follows (this is my own transcription, and may not be completely accurate): ‘It’s an unfinished country, it’s still pre-historical. The only thing that is lacking is the dinosaurs here. It’s like a curse weighing on an entire landscape. And whoever goes too deep into this has his share of that curse. So we are cursed with what we are doing here. It’s a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger. It’s the only land where creation is unfinished yet. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of harmony, it’s the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. And we in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. And we have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and this overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth, and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this I say this full of admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it — I love it, I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgement.’

The ‘white man in the jungle’ has become a caricature in western thought, from Heart of Darkness to Fitzcarraldo, but as far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t yet outlived its usefulness or its fascination (and, given impending ecological disaster, fear and powerlessness in the sublime presence of nature promises to be an ongoing theme). Lévi-Strauss’s subtle white-man-melancholia reaches a raging boil of angst and ennui in Werner Herzog’s jungle films, in particular in his soliloquy in Burden of Dreams, Les Blank’s documentary on the making of Fitzcarraldo. Against a backdrop of ferns that could easily be the New Zealand bush, Herzog rails against the insidious Amazon. At one point, Blank cuts to shots of insects and flowers, as if in to contrast Herzog’s Germanic depressive viewpoint:

Of course we are challenging nature itself, and it hits back, it just hits back, that’s all, and that’s grandiose about it and we have to accept that it’s much stronger than we are. Kinski always says it’s full of erotic elements — I don’t see it so much as erotic I see it more full of obscenity. It’s just... and nature here is violent, base. I wouldn’t see anything erotical here, I would see fornication and asphyxiation and choking and fighting for survival and growing and just rotting away. Of course there is a lot of misery, but it is the same misery that is all around us. The trees here are in misery, and the birds are in misery, I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain.

He goes on…13

Francis Pound reminds his readers that the very words ‘Maori’ and ‘Pakeha’ are a result of looking into a kind of mirror: ‘…the very name of each, the generic name “Pakeha”, and the generic name “Maori”, historically arises from its meeting with the Other, in the face of which it was first and still is defined; when the name of Pakeha and Maori is always, therefore, already and necessarily marked by the historical trace of its Other.’ Francis Pound, The Space Between, Pakeha use of Maori Motifs in Modernist New Zealand Art. Auckland: Workshop Press, 1994, p. 147.

Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, op. cit., p. 178.

Through the Looking Glass
It’s something of a cliché to acknowledge that the ethnographer reveals more about his or her own culture than that of the tribe under study. Certainly, the ethnographic encounter has an element of gazing into a mirror, one in which characteristic western traits are inverted.14 Western authors have frequently satirised such encounters in unchartered territory, from Gulliver’s travels, to Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (inspired by our own ‘savage’ South Island), to Lewis Carroll’s companion piece to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lévi-Strauss actually invokes the fabulous spectre of Carroll in a description of the Caduveo:

Their civilization is undeniably reminiscent of one that European society playfully invented in a traditional pastime, and the model of which was imaginatively defined with such success by Lewis Carroll: these knightly Indians looked like the court figures in a pack of cards. The resemblance was noticeable first of all in their attire: leather tunics and cloaks that broadened the shoulders fell in stiff folds and were decorated in black and red patterns which the old writers compared to Turkish carpets and which had recurrent motifs in the shape of spades, hearts, diamonds and clubs.15 

(This can be fruitfully compared to the Maori appropriation of Pakeha imagery such as using playing card motifs as metaphysical symbols. Pound argued that Rua Kenana’s flags were as guilty of appropriation symbols ‘out of context’ as Walters’ canvases were, though perhaps this presupposes the ‘level playing field’ so beloved of conservative politicians?)

Ibid, p. 191.

Lévi-Strauss goes on to say: 

The Caduveo decorative style therefore presents us with a whole series of complexities. There is in the first place a dualism which is projected onto successive planes, as in a hall of mirrors: men and women, painting and sculpture, figurative drawing and abstraction, angle and curve, geometry and arabesque, neck and belly, symmetry and asymmetry, line and surface, border and motif, piece and field, pattern and background. But these oppositions are only perceived retrospectively; they are static in character; the dynamic movement of the art, that is the way in which the motifs are imagined and carried out, intersects the basic duality at all levels…16 

Here in the Pacific, University of Auckland-based Tongan scholar Okussitino Mahina has made a definitive statement about Tongan aesthetics that includes the division of all aspects of life into two elemental colours, black and red. This dualism can perhaps be fruitfully compared to the Chinese concept of yin and yang, which uses black and white and similar oppositions of male, female, day, night, etc.... However, the yin yang symbol is a glyph which symbolises perpetual flux — it is not a static sign. This shifting ground is alluded to by Pound in his description of Walters’ work.

Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, op. cit., p. 191.

Pound, op. cit., p. 120.

I’m interested in the structuralist’s invocation of dualism, for post-structuralists are taught to abhor the Cartesian split, and yet as Levi-Strauss so manifestly demonstrates, every society’s self-image is based on a system of oppositions.17 And yet the Caduveo imagery is a dynamic interplay between states, and ‘…each motif can be read positively or negatively.’18 Compare this to what Francis Pound has to say about Walters: 

We might speak of Walters’ work, then, as a visual act of symbolic mediation between two cultures. We might see it as existing in the space of a bicultural overlap. We might also productively read it, as Tony Green has, as an allegory of bicultural relations: as a perpetual interchange between a symbolic black and white — an ever shifting dynamic in which neither gains superiority as ‘dominant figure’ over ‘submissive ground’, and neither cancels the other, in which unassimilated and unassimilable difference is always preserved.19

Tihei Mauri Ora
In David Simmons’ Ta Moko, The Art of Maori Tattoo (1986), a long catalogue of moko from the past is presented with information about the origins of various designs. They are always associated with rank and lineage, sometimes information about an individual’s path in life — who they have married, or whether or not they have been a slave, are among facts contained in the moko. But no information is given about the prevalent shapes of moko, or why the spiral in particular achieved such an apotheosis on the faces of Maori. 

W. J. Phillipps, ‘Maori Carving’, Art in New Zealand, 1938, quoted in Pound, op. cit., p. 68.

The spiral is not unique to Maori. Lévi-Strauss traced the visible connections between the Caduveo, the Maori, Native North Americans and certain periods of ancient Chinese art in an essay called ‘Split Representation in the Art of Asia and America.’ Earlier still, W. J. Phillipps of the Dominion Museum wrote: 

In its simple form, the koru is a curving stalk with an inward curving bulb at one end of it. An amazing series of rafter patterns have been built up on this element of design… The koru has a wide distribution in the Pacific. It is used on the heads of bird forms in Peru, and in Mexico serves to lengthen the eyes of human figures. On the other side of the Pacific, it is often seen attached to the heads of Chinese dragons, perhaps serving as additional eyes. In Japan, the koru may represent both clouds and sea foam.20

And yet, despite its ‘wide distribution’ in the Pacific, the spiral is barely represented in the artwork of Polynesia — except, and that exception is striking beyond belief, among the Maori.

Jill Purce, The Mystic Spiral, London: Thames and Hudson, 1980, p. 8.

The most comprehensive catalogue of spirals in artwork across culture and time that I have found is Jill Purce’s The Mystic Spiral (1980). In it, Hindu serpents, Kabalistic trees, the Caduceus, Rose windows, Taoist clouds, Buddha’s topknot and Van Gogh’s starry night, are depicted beside Maori moko, whirling dervishes, Tibetan mandalas, and Cretan labyrinths. Purce avers that vortical laws govern the movements of water, and reminds us that this element accounts for nearly three-quarters of our physical bodies. 

Water is the pure, potential and unformed matrix from which all life takes its being. Consequently, the characteristics of its vortical flow, its ephemeral but changeless configurations, remain in all things as a testimony of their origin. It is from the involution of the unformed waters that the egg crystallises by the turning in on itself of energy, of matter, or of consciousness.21 

Ibid, p. 7.

Purce describes the spherical vortex as ‘perpetually turning in on itself, expanding and contracting, [it] has an interchangeable centre and circumfer­ence, and has neither beginning nor end.’22 Like Reynolds’ 2005 drawing on the window of the Govett-Brewster Gallery café in gold marker pen, all lace, frills, and Elizabeth Regina’s queenly, labyrinthine inaccessibility, the line hasn’t gone for a walk, it’s gone for a whirl. 

Ibid, p. 8.

Purce writes that this in-turning motion is visible throughout nature, noting ‘…the mushroom, the embryo and the brain embody a forward impulse which turns back on itself, they demonstrate exactly the forming of a vortex ring.’23

So, what does the koru mean here in Aotearoa, aside from the ever-unfurling fern frond and the cycle of nature? Whereas it could easily refer to the waves that brought waka to these shores, Tangaroa, the paramount deity of the Polynesian Pacific, was never depicted with spirals until his children sailed further South. I propose then, that rather than water, and in addition to the fern, the koru refers to breath, the life force, mauri (the Chinese would call it chi). Every important Maori oratory is inaugurated with the famous catch cry, ‘tihei mauri ora!’ which I have heard translated as, ‘I sneeze, it is life!’ In the same way, the ritual of the hongi is the exchanging of breath, the spirals and eddies which play about our nostrils each time we fill our lungs, each time we expel the roiling air.

Lévi-Strauss, Tristes Tropiques, op. cit., p. 187.

As Lévi-Strauss explains, Caduveo painting is executed with the juice of the genipapo; ‘it is colourless at first but turns blue-black through oxidation’.24 In a sense, the designs require a chemical transaction with the air — they have to breathe in order to exist — tihei mauri ora! Another anthropologist in another part of South America at another time talks about the Arahuaco men who chew coca leaves in a ritual that involves dipping a stick into a sacred container — a poporo — of crushed lime. 

Michael Taussig, My Cocaine Museum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, p xii.

As I understand this phenomenon, the speed and rhythm of the jerky rotating movement around the spout of the poporo, and hence of the soft suffusing of scratching sounds, correspond to the movement of speech and thought, the Arahuaco word for thinking being the same as breathing in the spirit (kunsamunu).25 

What he is describing is literally inspiration. Tihei mauri ora, indeed!

Once I was walking to the Elam library in summer. There is some kind of willow or cottonwood in the vicinity that carpets the entire pathway to the library with white fluff. I was walking behind somebody; I believe it was the artist Gail Haffern. I couldn’t take my eyes off her boots, because I could see, for the first time, the way in which air swirls and courses around us all the time. Each boot had two spiralling spurs behind it as it rose and fell with the artist’s steps. Like waves of water, the air around her feet was never still, the white fluff spun vortically. I suddenly understood, or thought I understood, the kare atua, ‘eyes of the gods’, the feathered decorations on waka, which were probably windsocks as well as cosmological diagrams. I think I also understood something about breath as mauri, life force, and even that cigarette smoke was sublime for allowing us that reminder. 

Pound, op. cit., p. 184.

Ibid, p. 71.

I imagine Francis Pound, thinking about Walters, koru and Lévi-Strauss, wreathed in smoke, ‘blue, curvilinear, and kowhaiwhai-like’.26 He has this to say: 

We could hardly be further here from Claude Lévi-Strauss’s claim that such abstractions of ‘primitive’ art as the curvilinear and koru-like forms of Caduveo tattooing express ‘an abhorrence of nature’, such a ‘supreme contempt’ as refuses to reflect Nature, and that they aim rather to ‘ensure the transition from nature to culture, from “stupid” beast to civilised man.’ Since the Maori forms are regarded as the products of Nature not Culture, and since Pakeha live in the same Nature as Maori, it follows — such are the weird twists of a geographically determinist logic — that the expressions of this Nature automatically belong to non-Maori and Maori alike.27 

Well, I wouldn’t say ‘belong’ exactly. Perhaps, continuing the theme of breath, ‘inspire’ would be a more appropriate term?

Thomas, Cole and Douglas, op. cit., p 227, (footnotes to Nicholas Thomas’s introduction)

D’Alleva, op. cit., p. 90. .

It is interesting that to those Polynesians who didn’t have a writing culture, writing seemed to them another form of tattoo. James Magra wrote in 1771 that tatau was ‘a term which they afterwards applied to letters when they saw us write, being themselves perfectly illiterate.’28 And the Hebrew injunction against marking the skin, k’thoveth qa’aqa, means literally ‘writing that is stuck in’.29

It might also be worth noting, in the tradition of Pound and the Kenana flags’ use of Pakeha punctuation as a symbol, that Pakeha use of koru and other Maori symbols (including, in Reynolds’ case, the tukutuku pattern poutama, ‘stairs to knowledge’), is about as meaningful as the Nambikwara scrawling wavy lines on pieces of paper.

There is another passage of Tristes Tropiques which surely intrigued Reynolds, the inveterate scribbler. Lévi-Strauss is perplexed when the Nambikwara, a tribe who, unlike the Caduveo, have no tradition of complex pattern making, start to cover the blank pages with which the good anthropologist supplied them, with screeds of horizontal wavy lines. It soon becomes apparent that they are aping the man in the white pith helmet, forever taking notes in his notebook. This harmless, even quaint vignette, somehow incenses Lévi-Strauss, particularly when the Nambikwara chief presumes to attach meanings to his meanders. Now, when the anthropologist asks questions, the chief disdains to reply verbally, instead covering the surface of the page with wavy lines, and giving that to the anthropologist to peruse. Lévi-Strauss is clearly irritated by what he refers to as ‘humbug’. And yet, it doesn’t take much to see that the anthropologist’s pencil and paper, notebooks and measurements, charts, graphs, lists and numbers, are just another kind of humbug. Lévi-Strauss is fundamentally incensed because his authority as supreme shaman is being mocked.30

In Judeo-Christian creation stories, words were what started it all, words uttered, and in the more arcane Kabalistic accounts, letters manifested visually. In the Amazon where Lévi-Strauss did his fieldwork, words are an important tool of the shamans who enter into synaesthetic trances in which shapes are created by the sounds uttered. In every culture, words are magic — hence our word ‘spelling’. And yet, Lévi-Strauss seems unwilling to admit that he dabbles in magic every time he puts words on a page.

Reynolds practices a mockery similar to that of the Nambikwara, parroting the words of wise men without necessarily ascribing them meaning. His random and unclassifiable conglomerations of verbiage do not hang together or tell a story or spell out logical theories in the way that Lévi-Strauss would prefer. They seem like the verbal equivalent of a cargo cult — out of the context of the page, they are venerated simply for their thing-ness, objects themselves rather than descriptors of objects. Reynolds’ compulsion to keep writing perhaps has more in common with the Nambikwara’s wavy lines than it does with Lévi-Strauss’s desire for order — the silver lines are silver lines, an end unto themselves. For this reason, the artist and the tribespeople are perhaps less guilty than the anthropologist of the crime of ‘make-believe’.

Lévi-Strauss, ‘The Structural Study of Myth’ in his Structural Anthropology, op. cit., p. 229.

I will, however, give the old man the last word, for in this passage there seems to be a metaphor and a message for those who would paint koru and those who would admonish those who would paint koru, and also for those who would paint spherical vortices, and scribble silver words at random on any available surface:

Thus, myth grows spiral-wise until the intellectual impulse which has produced it is exhausted. Its growth is a continuous process, whereas its structure remains discontinuous.31

Tessa Laird