The Kokowai Cluster relates to the source of the Waiwhakaiho. This also implies origins and beginnings. The river sometimes runs red with ochre, so connected to this page you will find information about iron oxide – its’ significance, role and place in Māori culture. Then there is the geology of rivers. The Waiwhakaiho is also a source of andesite – which is highly valued by sculptors, uniting geology and creativity.
Kokowai is the name given to a stream that is a tributary of the Waiwhakaiho, high up on the mountain. Kokowai is also the name of a naturally occurring colour of the Earth, and is significant to Māori.
The cultural significance of red ochre
Since the mid 1600s, Taranaki weaving was famed for its rich colours, particularly the kokowai hues in taniko (twined geometric patterned borders) of cloaks. These were highly sought after. There are instances of a cloak from here being exchanged for waka, or large quantities of taonga.
Within Aotearoa, Pasifika and many indigenous nations this ochre the hue named kokowai is a significant material in visual and performative culture. For Māori, its significance is that the ochre is the blood of Rangi and Papa when they were separated – they had been in an embrace for so long they had become entwined. Tane had to cut through sinews etc., to separate them. This is a metaphorical narrative on many levels in regards to cosmology, and also the pain/suffering/sacrifice these parents undertook to allow their offspring to develop and transform.
In Māori culture, to apply kokowai to a structure, particularly in visual culture is to render the object, artefact, structure or body ‘tapu’ i.e. charged with energy (which originates in the intangible , higher realms of reality of Te Po) therefore requiring significant attention to restriction, boundaries and respect.
Te Po is the primary reality, it is the potentiality of life (it is where Rangi and Papa reside: their expansiveness outwards – created Te Ao Marama – the realm we reside in; it is an outcome of the potential of Te Po.
Te Ao Marama is a constant reminder that we are here to develop, to acquire wisdom towards enlightenment. Kokowai reminds us of this: it is a layered, rich viscous material. To apply ochre to an artefact or structure is called kura.
Kura means ‘prized possession.’ One of the most prized taonga is knowledge (hence its association to school). Red ochre signifies an artefact is ‘taonga’. This can be seen in many instances of Māori visual culture. This remains relevant and resonates deeply in the Maori aesthetic and conceptual continuum.
It is also a customary understanding that ‘wai’ as water is first and foremost understood as of the cosmic stream of energies, i.e. it has a spiritual quality first. Wai as water is a manifestation for this realm ‘Te Ao marama,’ its essence is intangible.