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5 / Cosmology and Belief

Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa)
Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa)
Artist / Origin Cliff Whiting (Maori, b. 1936)
Region: Oceania
Date 1969–76
Material Carved and painted wood
Medium: Sculpture
Location National Library of New Zealand, Wellington, NZ
Credit Courtesy of the National Library of New Zealand and the artist

expert perspective

Anne D’AllevaAssociate Professor of Art History, University of Connecticut

Additional Resources

D’Alleva, Anne. Arts of the Pacific Islands. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998.

Davidson, Janet M., et al. Maori: Art and Culture, 2nd ed. London: British Museum Press, 1998.

MacLagan, David. Creation Myths: Man’s Introduction to the World (Art & Imagination). London: Thames & Hudson, 1977.

Mead, Sidney, et al. TE MAORI. Maori Art from New Zealand Collections. New York: Harry N. Abrams in association with the American Federation of Arts, 1984.

Skinner, Damien. The Carver and the Artist: Maori Art in the Twentieth Century. Auckland: University of Auckland Press, 2008.

Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa)

» Cliff Whiting (Maori, b. 1936)

Cliff Whiting’s Te wehenga o Rangi Raua ko Papa (The Separation of Rangi and Papa) represents a key event in the Maori story of creation.

According to the myth, of which variants exist across the Pacific Islands, the universe began as a great void of nothingness (Te Kore), from which the darkness (Te Po) came into being. Out of this darkness, two primordial figures—Rangi and Papa—were born. Rangi and Papa procreated, but their children were trapped in the darkness of their tight embrace. Seeking to escape this suffocating darkness, the six sons of Rangi and Papa debated whether to kill their parents, but in the end, settled on separating the two. After all of his brothers tried unsuccessfully to pry the two apart, Tane took his turn. Pushing in both directions he finally succeeded in breaking the embrace. He pushed Rangi up above, where he became the Sky and Father. Papa went down below, where she became the Earth Mother and the World of Light (Te Ao Mārama) came into being. The six brothers populated the world with all manner of beings and became the gods.

Whiting’s mural focuses on the gods, each of whom is depicted with raised arms in his attempt to separate Rangi and Papa. Tane, surrounded by a bright, sun-like aura, is the largest of the group as befits his central role in the separation and later as the creator of human beings. Tane has further significance here as well. As the god of the forest, he is intimately linked to the work of art itself, which is not a painting as it might first appear, but a carving in wood to which paint has been applied.

In the past, images of the creation often appeared in the decoration of Maori community houses and war canoe prows. In both places, representations of the myth would serve to remind Maori viewers of their common origin, descended by way of local ancestors from the gods. Whiting’s work was also created for a public, communal space—the reading room at the National Library at Wellington in New Zealand. By applying a modern aesthetic to a traditional Maori form (carved and painted wood), Whiting, an artist and educator, updates the creation myth in a way that is relevant to a contemporary audience.


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