Art Work of the Week: Our Maori Hei Tiki Pendant

The IU Art Museum has almost 40,000 objects in its collection, 1,400 of which are currently on display. There are works that span media, continents, time periods, and art movements…there is sure to be something for everyone!

Personally, one of my favorite pieces in the museum’s collection is a Hei Tiki pendant from New Zealand, created by the Maori people. It is the most brilliant green (I’d describe it as a cloudy emerald color), and its eyes are made of haliotis (abalone) shell, which really shines. In New Zealand, this shell is called a paūa shell.

Maori peoples, New Zealand
Pendant, Hei Tiki
Nineteenth century
Nephrite, haliotis shell
H. 9 in. (22.9 cm)
Raymond and Laura Wielgus Collection, Indiana University Art Museum

I think this piece resonates with me so much because I traveled to New Zealand as a People to People Student Ambassador when I was 13. The trip left an indelible mark on me, and spending time with the Maori in Rotorua was an incredible life experience.

The other student ambassadors and I experienced our first hangi, a traditional feast only practiced in parts of the country where there are hot springs. A pit is dug and filled with rocks. Whatever food is to be eaten that evening (in our case, it was a pig!) is placed on top of the rocks, then covered with tarps and earth so it can steam for a few hours. After dinner, we were treated to a performance of traditional dancing and singing, then spent the night in their marae, or tribal center. To be granted permission to stay in their marae was a great honor.

The Indiana University Hei (“to suspend”) Tiki (“human figure”) is 9 inches long and therefore one of the largest known. Most hei tiki are between two and seven inches long. Hei tiki are made of nephrite (a type of jade) or bowenite (a type of serpentine), collectively called pounamu (“green”). According to the Masterworks from the Indiana University Art Museum, pounamu’s “rarity, hardness, and mythological associations” (pg. 200) made it the most valuable substance available to the Maori at the time of the first European landing in 1769. These pendants are considered tāonga (“treasure”), the most precious ornament that a person could own.

Most hei tiki are either sexless, or female. Their significance is unclear, but it has been suggested that they promote fertility or represent one’s ancestors. They can be passed down through families across generations, and are sometimes given names. They are typically worn by women, but may also be worn by high ranking men.

Photograph by Iles Photo
Rotorua, New Zealand
Young Maori women with moko (facial tattoo); wearing a kahu huruhuru (feather cloak),
a huia feather in her hair, and a hei tiki (neck pendant)

Nineteenth century
Gelatin silver print
Via. © The Trustees of the British Museum

The markings under the lips of the woman in this photograph (seen also wearing a hei tiki pendant) are a type of body art called Ta Moko. These markings symbolize achievement, adulthood, and aristocracy. As with most forms of tattoos and body art, the process doesn’t sound particularly pleasant (chiseling skin open and applying charcoal into the gouges). This practice is not limited to the face, but can, in some occasions, encompass the entire face (usually on men). This tradition carries on even today.

Come visit our Hei Tiki pendant in our third floor Wieglus Arts of Africa, the South Pacific, and the Americas gallery!