Maori women, New Zealand

Arthur James Iles1890 - 1920

Museums Victoria

Museums Victoria
Carlton, Australia

This photograph depicts two unidentified Maori women of unknown tribal affiliation. It was taken by the New Zealand photographer Arthur James Iles. It is one of a series of twenty studio portraits of Maori taken by Iles in Museum Victoria's collections. A professional photographer active during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Iles photographed a range of subjects including people, landscapes, historical and tourist sites as well as indigenous flora and fauna. Iles's specialisation was portraiture, particularly of the Maori population. Maori life had been a common subject among photographers since the mid 19th century. Popular with the non-indigenous population, several categories of Maori pictures dominated the market. These included nostalgic depictions of 'beauties' and 'noble warriors' and the re-enactment of pre-contact life. The emergence of postcards around the beginning of the 20th century resulted in a resurgence in the production of photographs of Maori. A business man, Iles recognised this renewed interest in Maori culture. He drew on established subjects, photographing senior men and young women. Iles's efforts to attract Maori to his studios were aided by two factors. Firstly his association with Captain Gilbert Mair, a highly regarded captain of Maori troops loyal to the colonial government, facilitated visits by Maori community. Secondly, his marriage to Rebecca Elsie Utuatonga, a Maori woman, is likely to have assisted him to encourage young women to be photographed. In this photograph the women are wearing hei tiki or figurative neck pendants. Carved from pounamu [greenstone or nephrite], hei tiki are taonga [cultural treasures]. The pendants are often imbued with mana [power, prestige]. Whilst their exact meaning remains uncertain, they are commonly associated with fertility. The women are dressed in different styles of kakahu [Maori cloaks]. The woman on the left wears a kahu kiwi [kiwi feather cloak], the most highly regarded of kahu huruhuru [feather cloaks]. Feather cloaks became popular in the latter half of the 19th century. The woman on the right wears a korowai [cloak with hukahuka or tassels]. The korowai was a popular style of cloak emerging in the early 19th century. Its origins are in the pake, rain capes formed with multiple layers of flat strips of flax. Over time these flax strips became increasingly decorative in purpose, their functional form being replaced by hukahuka. The korowai worn by the woman on the right is an example of this new focus on aesthetics.


  • Title: Maori women, New Zealand
  • Creator Lifespan: 1870 - 1943
  • Creator Nationality: New Zealander
  • Creator Gender: Male
  • Creator Death Place: Rotorua, New Zealand
  • Creator Birth Place: Oamaru, New Zealand
  • Date Created: 1890 - 1920
  • Physical Dimensions: w137 x h198 mm
  • Type: Photograph
  • Rights: Copyright expired: Source: Museum Victoria / Photographer: Arthur James Iles. Indigenous or Cultural Rights apply
  • External Link: Museum Victoria Collections
  • Medium: Albumen print
  • Subject: Indigenous peoples; studio photography
  • Photographer: Arthur James Iles
  • Artist Information: Arthur James Iles was a professional photographer. Active during the late 19th and early 20th centuries in New Zealand, Iles photographed a range of subjects including people, landscapes, historical and tourist sites as well as indigenous flora and fauna. His specialisation was portraiture, particularly of the Maori population. Iles was born in Oamaru in New Zealand's South Island in 1870. Iles was the son of photographer James and hairdresser Louisa Iles. This early association with photography no doubt influenced him to establish his own studio in Lawrence, Central Otago in 1891 at just 21 years of age. Throughout his career he relocated several times working in Thames, Auckland and Rotorua as well as in Sydney, Australia at the Falk Studios. He married Maori woman, Rebecca Elsie Utuatonga on 27 August 1895 with whom he had five children. They divorced in 1932 and Iles married Ada Hunt. Iles died on 9 April 1943.

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