Maori art was once neglected within New Zealand and under-valued elsewhere, but as the community's work went on display in central Paris this week, one tribal chief said the current outlook is much rosier, AFP
"Now, it's extremely expensive to buy our art," Matiu Rei, head of the Ngati Tao Maori tribe, told AFP
while perusing "Maori: their treasures have a soul" at Paris's musee du quai Branly.
The Maori, who date their arrival in present-day New Zealand to roughly 1200 AD, struggled to defend their culture as an influx of European settlers assumed control of the Antipodean territory after the 19th century.
"There was a period when the colonial settlers actually sought to take over much of what was happening in New Zealand and in the Maori community," said Michelle Hippolite, an exhibit curator based at the Museum of New Zealand.
But since the 1960s, as the Maori have reclaimed some of the political, language and land rights they say were stripped of under colonial rule, Maori leaders have also sought to revive the community's cultural identity.
To highlight their success, Hippolite provided some monetary context:
"An object from the 17th or 18th Century, one of the small objects, can get (at auction) up to 100,000 euro ($133,00). Before (it) would have been lucky to get 10 or 12 euro," she said.
Maori art has partly flourished, Hippolite and Ray argued, through boosted international exposure that began with a highly-acclaimed 1970s collection presented in the US.
But, perhaps more crucially, non-Maori New Zealanders have also re-evaluated Maori culture, and its role in defining their national identity, Rei said.
Prior to the 1960s, New Zealanders of European descent "always considered England to be their home," the tribal chief claimed.
"And what happened in the 1960s, when the UK decided to abandon its empire ... all of us in New Zealand started to think even harder about what our identity was going to be," he added.
Maori culture, he explained, clearly had a role to play in redefining the identity of a nation where they made up 15 percent of the 4.35 million population, according to a 2006 census.
The dominant piece at the quai Branly musuem exhibit is an intricately carved frame used to support a traditional Maori house, where family members live communally, without dividing internal walls.
Featured prominently at the high point of the frame is an engraving, representing the family's most prominent ancestor, Rei said, explaining that Maori often recount family history through the carvings displayed in their homes.
The detailed carving, like much of the 250-piece exhibit, highlights the nuances of Maori culture, but is perhaps not the best example of how Maori culture has permeated broader New Zealand society.
But, with the New Zealand-hosted Rugby World Cup set to enter its knockout round, that example was not hard to identify.
"The Haka is now really part of New Zealand, and the way in which we see ourselves ... It's gone past the Maori .. It's part of the cultural revitalisation," said Rei, referring to the Maori dance famously performed by the country's national rugby before each match.
Rei said the Haka, also detailed at the Branly, was composed by one of his ancestors and he wants New Zealand's government to formally acknowledge its origin.
"We are not seeking compensation," he said. "We are seeking recognition."