EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA


February 24, 2008

Faces of pride: Exhibit features photos of Maori people embracing their roots

The lips of some are tinted midnight blue, tendrils of scrolling ink permanently running down their chins. Others have intricate lines swirling across their entire face, circling around their eyes and climbing up into the hairline.

Many of them didn't want their picture taken.

Photographer Hans Neleman, however, was fascinated with ta moko — the traditional art of facial tattoos in New Zealand. And he was persistent.

His subjects are members of the Maori, the indigenous people of New Zealand who don facial and body tattoos known as moko.

They weren't easy to find — and they didn't readily pose for the camera. Neleman and his team had to immerse themselves in the Maori culture to capture the images.

"We had to rinse ourselves in rivers and cleanse ourselves. We had to sing songs when we met people," Neleman explained of how his team got inside the Maori culture.

"It was spiritual, it was crazy, it was weird," he said.

It also was worth it.

The photos he took were published in the book, "Moko — Maori Tattoos" in 1999. Thirty of the photos will be on display at Peabody Essex Museum.

The exhibit, "Body Politics: Maori Tattoo Today," runs until Feb. 1, 2009.

For centuries, moko tattoos signified rank and status within a Maori tribe, and also marked important events in a Maori's life. Each piece of the intricate design held meaning and was understandable to other Maori.

But through decades of European settlement, the Maori culture was outlawed and the moko tattoos banned.

Now, the moko is in a resurgence as Maori people work to reclaim their heritage. Today, about 7 to 9 percent of New Zealanders claim Maori ancestry.

"This is a group of people who are willing to dedicate their face and move forward by looking backward," he said.

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