A Gift to the Nation

February 16, 2010 by Miriam Bell
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Emotions ran high at a special event to celebrate an iconic New Zealand Jewish photographer’s gift of a significant collection of vintage prints of elderly Maori women with moko, to New Zealand’s national museum.

Marti Friedlander

In the early 1970s, photographer Marti Friedlander collaborated with the late historian Michael King to produce a book, entitled Moko – Maori Tattooing in the 20th Century, which has subsequently become legendary as an important scholarly and visual resource.

A Friedlander image

The book, illustrated with Friedlander’s photos, told the story of a unique Maori art form – traditional moko [facial tattoos] on women – which was disappearing by the late 1960s. It also tells the story of the last generation of Maori women to wear the traditional moko.

King and Friedlander travelled around New Zealand seeking out elderly Maori women [kuia] who were tattooed, or who had first hand knowledge of the custom. Eventually, they located, talked to, and photographed 70 women who had traditional moko. Within just a few years, only one of those women was still alive.

Recently, Friedlander – who describes her involvement with the Moko project as one of the highlights of her career – decided to gift 60 of her original prints from the book [published in 1972; republished in 2008] to Te Papa Tongarewa / the Museum of New Zealand.

Before the photos are formally handed over to the national museum in Wellington later this year, they are being exhibited together, as The Moko Suite, for the first time at FHE Galleries in Auckland.

At the FHE exhibition opening last week, gallery director Kathlene Fogarty, who was moved to tears, said that working on the exhibition and “bringing all the women together” had been a powerful and moving journey.

“These photographs cannot simply be viewed as an eloquent record of what was believed to be a dying art form. Rather, to be in their presence is to understand them as living images: their mana resonates. The Moko Suite is an exhibit of people, a record of a time lost and of unflinching strength.”

Fogarty also said Friedlander’s gift ensures that “these beautiful kuia, who give us enduring generosity of their gaze will always be honoured, treasured and beloved”.

Speaking at the opening, Friedlander said she felt she had been very privileged to work on both the original book, and now The Moko Suite too – especially as many of the women she photographed for the project had never been photographed before [because of their belief that taking a photograph takes part of the soul].

She also said she was deeply thankful to Michael King for recruiting her for the project, to the women whose photographs she had taken, and to all those who had worked to ensure The Moko Suite progressed from an idea to a reality.

* Marti Friedlander was awarded the Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to photography, in 1999. Her work has been exhibited extensively, both nationally and internationally. Recently, her photographs were featured in a special solo exhibition which accompanied the publication of a book [Marti Friedlander] about her work.

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