I painted these old faces from life, to produce a record… to show their confidence, calm and dignity, and the authority they had achieved by taking on the blue privilege of the moko
“For the present and future generations I painted these old faces from life, to produce a record, not only of their appearance, but also to show their confidence, calm and dignity, and the authority they had achieved by taking on the blue privilege of the moko.” – Harry Sangl (from his book The Blue Privilege: The Last Tattooed Maori Women, Te Kuia Moko)
When Harry Sangl, a Prague-born German artist came to New Zealand in 1969, he was completely taken by the works of artists Goldie and Lindauer Harry believed that Maori with moko belonged to a bygone era and he wished he’d had the opportunity to paint such magnificent faces.
In 1972, he saw a photograph in the New Zealand Herald of a centenarian Maori woman with a moko (chin and lip tattoo). Harry was so excited that he packed his caravan and took off that very day to find her, in Ruatoki, at the foothills of the Urewera ranges.
This was the beginning of a three-and-a-half year journey around the North Island of New Zealand, looking for the last remaining Kuia with a moko.
Harry’s efforts resulted in a collection of 34 portraits, oil on canvas, which were brought together, along with brief biographies of each Kuia, and published in a book called ‘The Blue Privilege’ – the last tattooed Maori Women – Te Kuia Moko’.
The book was launched in 1980 at the Auckland Museum in the presence of the late Maori Queen, Dame Te Atairangikaahu. The Archbishop of Auckland and late Governor General Sir Paul Reeves, who was also present, removed the Tapu from the paintings so they could be exhibited.
Harry dedicated the book “to all the girls and boys in New Zealand who will grow up without ever having the opportunity of meeting one of these grand old ladies, who represent part of the heritage of the New Zealand Maori.”
The paintings were later acquired by Brierly Investments Limited, in accordance with Harry’s wish that they remain together as a collection on New Zealand soil.
When Brierly’s merged with Maori-owned company Sealord in 1993, the portraits were gifted to the Maori people at a ceremony held in Wellington.
‘The Blue Privilege – Te Kuia Moko’ collection subsequently toured and was exhibited in a number of Marae around New Zealand. The paintings however, have remained in storage ever since and the book, now a rare collector’s item, has never been reprinted.
This interview for the Cultural Icons Project was conducted by Harry’s daughter, Michaela Sangl.