Mastering the art of interpretation: What exactly does ‘toi’ mean?

Mastering the art of interpretation: What exactly does ‘toi’ mean?

Does ‘Toi’ mean ‘art’ and ‘art’ mean ‘toi’? Māori Writer Ranea Aperahama explains the origins and significance of the word ‘toi’ with Senior Digital Editor Daniel Crichton-Rouse.

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Entrance to Toi Art, with view into Michael Parekowhai’s Détour. Photo by Maarten Holl. Te Papa

Daniel: Ranea, what is toi? Is toi art? Is art toi?

Ranea: First, can I ask you what you think toi means, and to give a definition of art.

Daniel: Well, when I first heard the word ‘toi’, I thought it referred to a play thing, a ‘toy’, or the reed plant ‘toetoe’. As for a definition of art, it’s a creative activity like painting or sculpture or literature. What about you? What are your thoughts?

Ranea: When I first heard the word ‘art’, I thought it referred to ‘who art thou’, or ‘how great thou art’. As for definitions of toi, let’s look at the origin of both words – toi and art.

Toi – the Māori word ‘toi’ often translates as knowledge, skill, excellence, source, origin, or mastery.

Art – the Greek word ‘techne’, usually translates as ‘mastery’ of any sort of craft. The word ‘art’ derives from the Latin ‘ars’, which means skill method or technique.

Daniel: Wow, the words ‘mastery’ and ‘skill’ stand out for me.

Ranea: Te toi-o-ngā-rangi is the name of the uppermost heaven. It can be interpreted as the highest form of knowledge and expertise, be it creative or otherwise. ‘Toi Māori’ can be interpreted as the pursuit of excellence in the creative sectors.

Daniel: Today, is Toi Māori interpreted as Māori Art?

Ranea: Yes – so in order to transmit and apply a particular form of knowledge, a process and technique is required to express and make tangible that creative knowledge. That’s where ‘mahi’ comes into play. Mahi means to make, to create, or to do. So ‘mahi’ and ‘toi’ mean to craft an item, to make manifest a certain form of high knowledge with expertise. Some vehicles of expression employed by Māori are kōwhaiwhai (painting), whakairo (carving), raranga (weaving), and whai kōrero (oratory).

Daniel: So, Ranea, toi does mean art and art means toi. Hence Toi Art!

Ranea: You got it!

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