Te Ao Hurihuri – a Maori model for syntax & semantic?

At the end of Thinking semiotically about Maori architecture I posed the question of whether Mike Austin’s use of semiotics (specifically the concepts of syntax and semantic) to frame the development of Maori architecture was valid. I was alluding to the approach being a form of colonialism in itself – the need to utilise Eurocentric models to translate or reveal something of te ao Maori as though it is not understandable in its own right.

So here I take on my own challenge (which is probably exactly the type of additional enquiry that Dr Austin wanted to spark with his SAHANZ 2014 paper). I set out to look for a comparable – or better – Maori concept that would achieve a similar (or improved) framework to understand the development of Maori architecture. There are a number of Maori concepts that embrace the ideas of change balanced with a constant element (even the notion of whakapapa is an example of this). But the one I think most suits Dr Austin’s approach is Te Ao Hurihuri.

I think the concept of Te Ao Hurihuri is useful since it has multiple readings (though a common thread runs through it) and has been used by a prominent Maori artist (so something we can learn from). To understand Te Ao Hurihuri architects need to understand its complementary concepts that are part of Maori cosmology – Te Ao Marama (the world of light), Te Korekore (the realm of potential being, between light and the dark of Te Kore), and Te Ao Hou (the new world). We emerged from Te Kore (the void), passing through Te Korekore where potential revealed itself, and into Te Ao Marama where we emerge into light and encouraged to continually search for enlightenment, giving Te Ao Hurihuri the ever-changing world , and leading to Te Ao Hou the new world.

In the above synopsis Te Ao Hurihuri is framed as the ever-changing world. But the concept isn’t solely about change, but also encapsulates the idea of a constant core that acts as an anchor to the change occurring around. Without too much of a stretch, you can see clear similarities to the notion of syntax and semantic as Mike Austin discussed. Aspects such as tikanga and whakapapa act as the semantic elements, providing a cultural foundation as part of the ever-changing Te Ao Hurihuri. These foundational elements shift over time as well, adjusting to societal shifts and adapting to new technologies.

Maori artist Michael Parekowhai utilised Te Ao Hurihuri as the title for one of his recent works. Two large African elephant bookends fashioned from fibreglass occupied the Michael Lett gallery in Auckland in 2009. One stood upright with its head pushing against the gallery wall, the other placed on its head. TJ McNamara wrote in the New Zealand Herald that they were ‘transplanted culture’ (see here). The art blog Eye Contact called Parekowhai’s work as “The revenge of the colonised. A counter-attack by the appropriated.” Both of these commentators pick up on the two-way dialogue that is occurring when cultures interact – a site of semantic and syntax, a response from Te Ao Hurihuri.


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