According to anthropologists, hankering for the blemish-free look that only make-up can give goes back 1.5 million years, when our ancestors began plastering each other with red and yellow ochres, brown limonites and black manganese oxides. Initially, what they were probably after was protection from the harsh elements and from irritating insects, but the smearing soon evolved into primeval fashion.
Throughout history, there have always been “naturals” with the informal artform. Cleopatra used kohl for her trademark black eyelashes; Greek maidens fluttered theirs after blackening them with incense. The Romans stained their cheeks with wine and lightened their faces with chalk. Catherine de Medici’s complexion secret was dewy peach blossoms gathered at dawn and mixed with crushed almonds by moonlight.
By all accounts, Maori used red ochre—kokowaiin a big way. At the Waihou River mouth, a surprised Endeavour crew came across locals painted from head to toe. Smearing the face with the reddish iron oxide pigment was universal with early Maori, and any contact left an indelible mark. Commented Joseph Banks: “[The] red ochre which generally was fresh and wet upon their cheeks and foreheads was easily transferrable to the noses of anyone who should attempt to kiss them … as the noses of some of our people showed.”
Wandering the Waikato in 1893, naturalist John Bidwell discovered a people, “who looked as if they had fallen into a paint pot. I understand it is going out of fashion .. . but is still so common that it is impossible to be carried by a native without getting your clothes daubed all over with the red dirt with which they had saturated their mats.”
Ochre pits, chosen for rich colour and lack of grit, were often kept secret to a tribe or even a family. In the absence of a solid deposit of ochre, fern fronds were used to collect a red iron oxide scum leaching on to the surface of swamps and streams, as at Pukupuku on the Whanganui River. Once dried, it could be scraped off and processed as normal. This involved roasting the material in a hot oven to make it more friable and bring out the colour, then crushing it to a fine powder with a kuru (stone pounder) on a large rock.
Shark liver oil was used as the foundation cream with which the cosmetic was blended for application. In situations requiring a little more finesse, pleasant smelling vegetable oils—pressed from seeds of titoki, kohia or miro—were used.
The kokowai and shark oil combination was an effective sandfly repellent, but it also had the advantage of keeping away the dreaded patupaiarehe, or fairy folk, who were thought to be not partial to the mixture. The ancient Polynesian tradition of equating red with kura (a valued possession) carried through in the Maori’s wider use of ochre as a sacred colour. Colour anything red and it was tapu: carvings, war canoes, a dead person’s house, even the scraped bones of a chief.
Wholesale kokowai coatings were mandatory on chiefs and elderly matrons. Experimenting with multicoloured facial designs became the prerogative of the young, especially females, but it seems males were allowed wider variation of design.
At a funeral ceremony in the 1830s, trader Joel Polack describes “antipodal exquisites” dipping their entire heads into a kokowai calabash: “One of them had painted one half of his face longitudinally with this mixture … the opposite half being rubricated with charcoal dust, and the whole washed over with rancid shark oil. The effect of the red and black joining in the centre … executed with much exactitude … was ludicrous in the extreme. Many had also enriched the crimson stains with broad bands of blue earth, the eyes like spectacles. The elders were bedaubed by oil, red earth, and blue clay; and one grotesque monster had painted his forehead, nose and chin a bright yellow, obtained from the bark of a tree, every other part of his face and person being a glaring fiery red.”
The blue clay (pukepoto) was probably vivianite, or iron phosphate, while the chrome yellow was derived from rotting wood. Young women would often use the bright blue pollen of the native fuchsia as a kind of lipstick.
Archdeacon Herbert Williams, an early missionary whose special interest was Maori figurative painting, gave the name tutaewhetu (star droppings) to a slimy blue-grey clay that the Ngati Porou on the East Coast used as both paint and make-up. WI I liams went on to document other common facial designs, including diagonal and horizontal coloured lines, facial marks from the red juice of a berry and patterns of dots on the face.
By the early 1900s, however, traditional Maori make-up had become a thing of the past, as European fashion codes were adopted.
The country’s largest and best quality ochre deposits occur at Parapara in Golden Bay, where concentrated pigment literally rusts out of the most exposed section of a nine-milliontonne lode of high-grade iron ore preserved in a fault angle depression.
According to locals, early morning and late afternoon are the best times to look for ochre, as the light accentuates the rich red and umber boulders washed down by erosion from the ore-body.
Raw ochre has the texture and density of an oil crayon, and is able to be daubed directly on to the skin.
Exactly how the original Ngati Tumatakokiri people of Taitapu (Golden Bay) utilised their renowned ochre has been lost, since successive genocidal raids from northern tribes finally wiped them out around 1813.
However, demand for the pigment brought European interests to the area in the early 1870s. Under the auspices of the entrepreneurial Washbourn family, the New Zealand Haematite Paint Company produced high quality paint pigment at a quarter the cost of imported oxides.
New Zealand Railways became their best customer, and virtually every railway wagon and goods shed in the country was painted with their reddish brown line. A brighter colour ended up on hundreds of woolsheds around the country, but the company’s attempt to make a bright red roof paint for the domestic market was unsuccessful.
The plant closed at around 1920 (little sign of it remains today), and the last pigment was extracted from Parapara in 1930 by the Nelson Paint Company.
Iron in the rock found other uses, too. The nearby Onekaka Iron and Steel Company extracted some 40,000 tons of pig iron from 80,000 tons of limonitic ore between 1922 and 1935 in the country’s first successful attempt at iron production. More recently, the oxides have been used as a coal gas purifying agent and as a hardener in high grade concrete—it was used in the concrete for the Clyde Dam.
A few locals continue to use the Onekaka minerals as natural cosmetics, applying the reddish powder to their hair as a henna substitute. One uses the material as a sunscreen. In a year or two, will we see the Kiwi cricketers with indigenous red sunblock opposing the white zinc of the Aussies?