What are Kowhaiwhai?

Open the following links to see videos about Kowhaiwhai



The Maori people brought a culture, which included Kowhaiwhai patterns, from Polynesia hundreds of years ago. There are Kowhaiwhai paintings that are over 500 years old still surviving today. The oldest known Kowhaiwhai are the patterns painted on the canoe paddles. These paddles are very rare and are only found in museums throughout the world. There are only 22 of them existing and they date from pre-European to mid-nineteenth century. In pre-European times, the war canoe was viewed as the main symbol of tribal identity, unity and pride.

Then as the use of canoes declined, Kowhaiwhai developed to become part of the design of meeting houses, the new symbol of pride. This is most often found on the ridgepole (tahu) or rafters (heke) in great meeting houses (Wharenui). Kowhaiwhai is Maori history as recorded by Maori. The patterns painted on the ridgepole represent the tribal genealogy. The main line of descent begins with the founding ancestor. On the rafters, patterns represent the diverging branches of the family. The patterns, therefore, differ from tribe to tribe, and many have kowhaiwhai unique to their area. In fact, that is the point of the patterns: they are used to define the environment where the tribe exists. Some of the more popular patterns are mangopare (hammerhead shark), ngutu kaka (parrot's beak), ngaru tai (ocean waves) and puhoro (power and speed). Each pattern has deep spiritual significance. They also help to illustrate the mana of the house, the mana of the ancestor and the mana of the people.

The meaning of many Kowhaiwhai patterns have been lost over the years, but some are still known. Every country in the world has used designs as part of its art and culture. These designs have been put on the inside and outside of buildings, on vases and even in tattooing on the human body. Each pattern carries a bit of the spirit of the culture from where it comes.

One oral account from Ngati Kahungunu about Kowhaiwhai:

When Whiro, Haepuru and Haematua climbed up to the second heaven to obtain carvings for their house, they were told by one of the gods that the art of decorating houses with woodcarvings had already been taken away by their younger brothers. Whiro and his two friends complained to the god that they could not go begging to their younger brothers for the art, so the god showed them how to embellish a house with painted designs, 'painted it is said with red ochre, blue pigment, white clay and charcoal.' Whiro and the two friends then descended and adorned their houses with painted designs.
(Best, 1982, pages 287-288)


The videos and this piece of text can be used as a literacy exercise
(See my Literacy in Mathematics Wiki

Note: The definition of Kowhaiwhai used today is wider than traditional rafter patterns, and includes any Maori design painted on a surface.

What is Transformation Geometry?

Transformation Geometry is a part of mathematics, which looks at the way that shapes can be changed and can make patterns. To transform something is to change it to make it look different.

Kowhaiwhai patterns are repeated over and over again. The long repeated pattern is called a frieze. Mathematicians have found that there are only 7 ways to make a frieze pattern and all 7 ways can be found in Kowhaiwhai. Transformations include reflection, rotation, translation, enlargement, glide reflection and shear.

What shapes make up the Kowhaiwhai?

The koru is the most basic shape of the Kowhaiwhai pattern. The curves of the Kowhaiwhai look like the young native fern. The koru is increasingly used in modern designs such as company logo; for example, as used Air New Zealand.


Koru NZ Stamp.jpg

The other two basic shapes used in kowhaiwhai are the kape (crescent) and the kapua or ovoid shape.

The traditional colours of Kowhaiwhai are:
  • RED = to represent warmth, blood, life. Red was obtained by mixing red ochre with shark-liver oil.
  • WHITE = to represent purity, promise for the future, an awakening. Pipeclay was ground and mixed with shark oil.
  • BLACK = to represent the earth. Black was obtained by mixing charcoal with shark oil.


Kowhaiwhai in Wharenui


Note: I have placed the links to photos or images where there is copyright.$301368&l=en
Omahu Marae
Click on the links below to find out more about a marae

Suggested Introductory Class Activities

1. To visit a local marae and classify the geometrical nature of rafters in the Wharenui.

2. To invite the local Kaumatua to talk about the Kowhaiwhai in the local marae.
4. Read the following article and discuss both sides of the issue of using Maori cultural designs in a modern setting
5. Practise drawing a basic koru shape