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Mark-making techniques in indigenous peoples

Art and indigenous peoples and their cultures have always held a strong interest for Tobias Wilbur. When he received an opportunity to research the intersection of those interests, he jumped at the chance.

As a participant in the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program (UROP), Wilbur has been investigating Maori mark-making techniques with his mentor, Jamie Mahoney, MFA, associate professor in the Department of Graphic Design, VCU School of the Arts. His project focuses on Maori mark-making techniques and patterns in carving, weaving and tattooing and how they relate to the history and culture of these indigenous people of New Zealand.

“These patterns serve a similar function as typography in Western cultures, as the Maori people were an oral culture prior to European settlement,” said Wilbur. “Today these patterns still exist as living links to the past.”

Wilbur’s research project allowed him the opportunity to travel to New Zealand and visit the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, the national museum and art gallery of New Zealand located in Wellington. He was able to explore the current research projects being conducted at the Te Papa and also to visit its special collections and archives that he otherwise would not have been able to access.

“This fellowship has provided me with an opportunity to meet practicing artists and experience their unique processes firsthand,” said Wilbur. “I’d like to share the stories and lessons of the artists I met in hopes of sharing the values and traditions that motivate them.”

Mahoney said that humans have been using mark-making techniques since the beginning of civilization, and she recognizes what the study of the Maori techniques will do to enhance our knowledge of the history of visual communication.

“Tobias’ research is concerned with marks and patterns of the Kiwi culture of New Zealand and how those marks connect to the people and events that formed their ideologies,” said Mahoney. “Learning how these marks were understood and what their worth was to that society adds to our knowledge base as visual communicators.”

Wilbur has learned much about the history of the Maori people and their mark-making techniques through UROP and has also gained a valuable life lesson: keep asking questions.

“The most notable portion of this fellowship was learning the seemingly basic notion to just ask more questions,” said Wilbur. “Nearly every question I asked, with a basis that showed prior research and interest, was answered passionately and thoroughly and usually led to an experience that otherwise would never have occurred.”

Wilbur’s project will culminate with the creation of a visual field guide to the mark-making techniques and patterns of Maori art, hand-bound and sewn together with New Zealand flax donated by one of the weavers Wilbur worked with.

“The book will explain the methods and techniques used and how Maori art was the basis of a visual language,” said Mahoney. “It can function as a teaching tool in classrooms across the university, from anthropology to graphic design."

Tobias Wilbur (left) with Jamie Mahoney, associate professor in the Department of Graphic Design, VCU School of the Arts
Tobias Wilbur (left) with Jamie Mahoney, associate professor in the Department of Graphic Design, VCU School of the Arts