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Ministry of Education.

Elements and Symbols of Visual Language within a Cultural Context

Note: The images referred to in this resource can be found in the text - Ministry of Education. (1996). Exploring Language: A Handbook for Teachers. Learning Media: Wellington (p. 200)

Visual language, like oral and written language, is presented and viewed within a cultural context. That context may or may not be familiar to the viewer.

Wahine Toa: Women of Maori Myth is a series of paintings and drawings by Robyn Kahukiwa that explores, expands, and develops the role of women in Mâori creation myths. Robyn Kahukiwa uses traditional Mâori elements and symbols and vivid colours in arresting designs that create dramatic effects. The associated text by Patricia Grace reflects the age-old style of first-person narrative in myth telling.

In her Introduction, Robyn Kahukiwa states:
 [...] I have attempted to redefine eight ancient myths of the Maori in visual terms. I do not see my paintings as illustrations of the myths but rather the myths in painted form; each painting contains the elements and symbols which go to make the whole myth. I also wanted my work to be relevant to adults because for too long Maori mythology has been reserved for children only, and I am sure the myths provide something for everyone if he or she will take the time to read or listen to them.

The artist explains that all the paintings include at least one element of traditional Mâori art, making them immediately identifiable as relating to something Mâori.

In some of the paintings I have included symbols which have come from traditional Maori times, such as in the work "Papatuanuku". I have painted the wooden pegs which symbolised the gods and were placed outside the whare wananga to tell the people which subject was being studied at that particular time. Viewing the pegs from left to right, they represent Tumatauenga, Tawhirimatea, Tanemahuta, Tangaroa, Rongomatane, and Haumiatiketike. They appear in this painting because these six sons of Ranginui and Papatuanuku were most involved with the separation of their parents and it was Tane who finally placed his father on the four toko or poles of light [...] And so, with these clues, the text and the bare outlines of the myths [...] I leave you, the viewer, to make what you will of the symbolism in my work [...]

Given the clues above, it is interesting to explore the painting of Papatuanuku in the light of Patricia Grace's text, before referring to the artist's outline of this myth and her further information. Which elements and symbols are readily identifiable? What other elements and symbols are evident? From the shapes of the wooden pegs, can you interpret some of the attributes of the godly beings they represent?


There was a time when I was as one with Rangi, but now we live far apart. Between us, but not separating us, were our many children to whom we had given life and nourishment, and into whose hands had been given future life and growth. But this future life and growth required light and space. So our children set us apart, causing Ranginui the father, and me, Papatuanuku the mother, great pain and anguish.

Such was our suffering that our children turned me away from Rangi so that we could not see one another's pain.

It was our offspring Tanemahuta who succeeded in thrusting us apart. And it was Tane who later formed from red earth, a new life shape.

It was Tawhirimatea who raged in jealousy against Tane and Tangaroa. I hid Haumiatiketike and Rongomatane away to keep them safe, while Tangaroa drew his children to him too, to shelter them.

Tumatauenga, strongest of all our offspring, withstood Tawhiri's onslaught, and stood astride earth where he will stand for ever. And it was this great Tumatauenga who first of all cut the sinews which bound Rangi and me, causing the flow of blood which reddened the now sacred ochre-coloured clay. It was Tumatauenga who assigned to me the karakia of great abundance, and who originated the hunting and cooking of food.

So now Rangi dwells far above, giving space for growth. From his dwelling place he is ever witness to life and death, joy and sorrow, hope, despair, destruction, invention, jealousy, treachery, courage, faith and love, and the many earthly happenings.

He directs the warmth and light that nourish seeding, towards and into the earthness that I am, while I remain the nursing parent, clutching to my belly our trembling, fire-gifted child Ruaumoko. Rangi and I are lovers set apart, yet love has not diminished, neither has sorrow. But love and sorrow find expression still, as my own mists of morning sighs rise to mingle with the caressing night-dew tears of Rangi.

  • Now consider the artist's outline of the myth.
  • Does it provide further clues?
  • Why is it different from Patricia Grace's text?

Papatuanuku: The Earth Mother

Papatuanuku, the earth mother, was born from Te Po, the darkness, the night, the unknown. Ranginui, the sky father, descended and took her as his wife. In the darkness of Te Po, they had seventy children, all male, who crawled and crouched between the bodies of their parents. At length, the offspring became tired of darkness and decided to lift their father, Rangi, up from their mother, Papa, so that light could bring some benefits. First Rongomatane tried to separate his parents, then Tangaroa, then Haumiatiketike, then Tumatauenga. All were unsuccessful. Finally, Tanemahuta pushed his feet on Rangi and his head against Papa and forced them apart. Tumatauenga cut the arms off the parents and caused the blood of Ranginui to flow into the heavens (sunsets) and the blood of Papatuanuku to flow into the soil (red ochre). Both were desperately unhappy at the actions of their children and began weeping unceasingly.

Their sons then turned Papa over so that she could not see her beloved Rangi nor could she be seen by him. Ranginui was placed even higher up on toko (poles) of light by Tane and so the primal parents were separated forever.

Robyn Kahukiwa comments further in outlining the myths:
 The toko or poles hold Ranginui, the sky father, apart from Papatuanuku, the earth mother. Papa sends up the cloud children, formed from her perspiration, to cover the body of Rangi. Ranginui's body is stained with his own blood, shed when Tumatauenga severed his arms encircling the earth mother. Papatuanuku's blood forms the red ochre of her skin.

She also explains the godly beings represented by the wooden pegs. From left to right:

  • Tumatauenga, the god who represents man and war, stands erect;
  • Tawhirimatea, the god of winds and storms, has a corkscrew shape;
  • Tanemahuta, the fertiliser and god of forests and birds, has a semi-circular bend that signifies growth;
  • Tangaroa, the god of the sea, has a shape representing waves;
  • Rongomatane, the god of kumara and cultivated foods, has gentle wave lines showing the mounds raised by kumara while growing;
  • Haumiatiketike, the god of fern root and uncultivated food, has three semi-circles placed on the length of the peg, representing the irregular and twisted form of the fern root.

The exploration of the visual images in the painting has been the focus of this example, but the written text has provided additional visual and cultural clues that have assisted our close reading. Many examples of poetry and prose respond to and are directly based on such visual images as paintings. Such literature is always best explored using both visual and verbal language for cross-referencing and to clarify meaning.

Exploring language content page

Published on: 07 May 2009