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Horomona, Maata

1893–1939

Ngāti Whakaue; actress

This biography, written by Minette Hillyer, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2024. It was translated into te reo Māori by Basil Keane.

Maata Horomona was New Zealand’s first movie star, as the leading lady in films by French filmmaker Gaston Méliès. Méliès claimed to have discovered her, but by 1912, when she appeared in three of his films, Maata was already a seasoned performer on the international stage. She never sought individual fame or advancement, but her adventures in the public eye placed her at the centre of extraordinary historical events. She owed her career on stage and screen to her considerable beauty and talent, but also to her iwi, and to Rotorua’s global reputation as a place where Māori performance could be enjoyed. Her experiences signify the importance of iwi- and hapū-based performance to New Zealand’s modern image, and how central Māori performers were in communicating it to the world.

Early Life

Maata Ngaamo was born at Reporoa on 26 February 1893, the daughter of Te Wau Ngaamo Pera (Ngāti Whakaue) of Reporoa, Bay of Plenty, and an Englishman named Moore; Moore left for Auckland shortly after Maata’s birth, and Maata and her mother remained in the Rotorua area.  Maata’s mother died when she was an infant, and she was raised by her maternal aunt Te Rua Kahurangi Horomona Pera (Ngāti Whakaue) and uncle Horomona Pouaru (Ngāti Kahungunu) in Ōhinemutu. As was customary at the time, Maata took Horomona, the first name of her matua whāngai, as her surname. Maata’s whānau were not wealthy or of high rank, although Te Rua was active in tribal affairs and descended from a line of carvers.

The Hippodrome, New York

Maata’s aunt, Te Rua, was active in a choral group led by Reverend Frederick Augustus Bennett (Ngāti Whakaue), the superintendent of the Anglican Māori mission at Rotorua. Bennett’s choirs were the first to bring Māori-centred performance to Pākehā theatrical settings, and to incorporate waiata, poi and haka into imported genres. Most famously, they toured the story of Hinemoa and Tūtānekai to opera houses and town halls throughout New Zealand, in the form of tableaux (1908) – static scenes popularised on the vaudeville stage – and as an opera (1915). In April 1909 a promoter asked Thomas Donne of the Department of Tourist and Health Resorts for 50–80 Māori performers to appear on contract at New York’s Hippodrome Theatre. The promoter nominated Bennett’s company as the model, and the department asked Bennett to find suitable performers.

The Hippodrome – which had opened in 1905 – billed itself as the ‘largest playhouse in all the world.’1 It could seat 6,000 people and regularly sold out, entertaining up to 2,500,000 over a single season. It took up an entire city block in midtown Manhattan, and featured such wonders as elephants, circus performers and underwater ballets. It was dedicated to spectacle, including, for the first time, performances by indigenous peoples. A representative of the Hippodrome visited Rotorua in June 1909, seeking performers who would ‘titillate’ theatregoers ‘tired of our Indians.’2 Maata later recalled that an American reporter who visited Rotorua in 1908, seemingly a ‘swagman’ who ‘hung around the pā’, had reappeared in a limousine to ferry the group around Manhattan.3 The visits generated breathless reports in the New York papers, possibly written by the reporter himself.

In July 1909 a group of 40 Māori performers and their manager, Pākehā journalist William Farmer Whyte, departed Wellington for San Francisco. At 16, Maata was probably the youngest in the group; she travelled with her parents. Donne, Bennett, and entertainer Mākereti Papakura helped with the early arrangements, and there was extensive coverage of the group’s departure in the Māori- and English-language press. They were farewelled by Ngāti Tūwharetoa rangatira Tūreiti Te Heuheu Tūkino and Native Minister James Carroll (Ngāti Kahungunu).

The group featured in the press from the moment they arrived in New York, when they performed a haka in front of Grand Central Station. Early coverage veered between respectful inquiry and sensationalist caricature. Maata’s photo appeared frequently in the early months of their stay, inset in larger images of the entire group, as the ‘Maori belle’ who was ‘wowing’ Hippodrome audiences.4 One article likened their performance to the ‘Salome’, a risqué dance craze, and Maata to the popular opera singer Fritzi Scheff.

It’s unlikely their performances were as titillating as such coverage suggests, not only because of the group’s evident respectability, but because of their roles on stage. They appeared in a half-hour play titled ‘Inside the earth’, the final act in a spectacular evening’s entertainment. It told the story of an American miner’s wife kidnapped from a camp near a Māori village, then rescued – with the help of the Māori men – from sun worshippers living in a subterranean city who intended to marry her to their Sun God. The final scene involved an underwater ballet, with chorus girls. Although their role in the narrative was slight, the Māori performers had a full five minutes on stage alone. The wāhine Māori appeared only in the first scene, in ‘canoe’ and ‘poi’ dances.5 The comparisons to Fritzi Scheff suggest that Maata sang.

The group’s time abroad was full of adventure. They rented a boarding house at 161 East 33rd Street, and spent their spare time playing football against the Hippodrome stage crew and taking in the sights. When they visited the American Museum of Natural History to evaluate Māori artefacts, Maata’s stepfather impressed the curators with his fluent English. They made recordings of the group performing waiata, and some members allowed plaster casts to be made of their heads (none of which have survived). Maata later talked of meeting the famous showman Buffalo Bill, who gifted her jewellery. After leaving New York in early May 1910, they were engaged for two months in Chicago, and most were contracted for another five weeks on the vaudeville stage in San Francisco.

After the initial excitement of their arrival had subsided, press coverage of the group focused on the women’s ability to vote at home, a right still denied American women. British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst invited three wāhine Māori to appear with her at a suffrage rally at Carnegie Hall in late October. At 16, Maata was too young to vote, and portraits of the three ‘savage suffragettes’ replaced Maata’s in press coverage, which reported offers of marriage to one (Waapi Tungi Yates).6 In December, however, Maata was pictured along with the other wāhine Māori at a rally for striking shirtwaisters (seamstresses), attended by around 8,000 women. While the press consistently portrayed the group as savages, the wāhine Māori were also increasingly depicted as modern and forward thinking, and in possession of rights and experiences that affirmed their independence and distinctiveness.

The last of the performers returned home in September 1910, travelling from San Francisco to Wellington via Tahiti, where they performed again, and Rarotonga. The New Zealand press hailed the trip as a success: the group had been well paid and well-treated, and all returned home.

Gaston Méliès

In late September 1912, Reverend Bennett brought Maata to the attention of another visiting showman: Gaston Méliès (brother of the more famous Georges), of the Wandering Star Film Company, who had travelled from New York to the Pacific in search of fresh novelty for cinema audiences ‘tired of cowboys’.7 Journalist James Cowan brought Méliès to Rotorua and introduced him to Bennett. Their meeting was transformative. Méliès abandoned his previous plan to pass American actors off as ‘natives’, as he had done in Tahiti, and made three narrative films in Rotorua with an almost completely Māori cast. Maata played the lead in all three: Hinemoa, How Chief Te Ponga won his bride, and Loved by a Māori chieftainess (all 1913). Sadly, none survive.

Méliès enjoyed a mutually beneficial relationship with his Te Arawa hosts. The performers were paid, and Méliès acknowledged privately that Bennett acted as an uncredited co-director. The films they produced together, therefore, may be both the first with an all-indigenous cast and the first directed by an indigenous person. As for Maata, Méliès waxed lyrical about her ability to take direction, and her ‘natural grace’.8Despite his evident affection for Maata and the other Māori performers, and his stated respect for their intelligence, Méliès regarded the Māori actors as innocents, sprung fully formed and waiting to be discovered. He had little appreciation of the professional experience his cast possessed.

Along with the reels of film to be processed, Méliès sent artefacts and photos home to New York as gifts and for publicity purposes. Among these was a photograph of Maata, dressed in a kākahu and holding a waihaka, leaning on the carved window frame of a raupō building at Ōhinemutu. Méliès inscribed a copy of the photograph for Maata – ‘to my leading lady in New Zealand.’9 In May 1913 it also appeared in Motion Picture Story Magazine, the world’s earliest fan magazine, which helped establish the emerging phenomenon of the movie star. Maata was not the first indigenous person to appear in the magazine, but she stands out among the many uncredited indigenous people who featured in silent films. Her portrait, titled ‘Maata Horomona (Méliès), The native leading woman in “Hinemoa”‘, appears between those of Eleanor Blanchard and Lois Weber, two of the best-known actresses of the day.10

Life after movie stardom

Méliès’ films were never released in New Zealand, and Maata never appeared in other films. Her only performances from that point onwards were at tribal occasions. She married Turereiao (Ture) Gillies (Ngāti Kahungunu) on 10 February 1914 in Waimarama, and moved to Hawke’s Bay, where Turereiao ran a trucking business and worked the family farm. Maata had eight children, six boys and two girls, between 1915 and 1928. After the 1931 Hawke’s Bay earthquake the family moved back to Ōhinemutu. Maata and her four youngest children remained there for the rest of her life; she participated in tribal affairs and was a founding member of the Women’s Health League. Maata died in Ōhinemutu of heart disease at the age of 46, on 15 September 1939, survived by her husband and her children. Her sixth born, Robert (Bom) Gillies, served in ‘B’ company of the Māori Battalion from 1943 to 1945. In 2019 he was made Cavaliere (Knight) of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic, and in 2022 was named Knight Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit. He accepted both honours on behalf of all soldiers who served in the Māori Battalion during the Second World War.

My sincere thanks to the Gillies whānau, especially Robert, Te Taupua, and Robyn, for welcoming me so generously and sharing their time and knowledge with me. Thanks, too, to the Gillies and the Ngaamo / McRae whānau for their support in researching and writing this record of Maata’s life.

Footnotes:
    • New York Hippodrome: Souvenir book. Season 1909–1910. Eph-B-OPERA-NonNZ-1909-01, Alexander Turnbull Library. Back
    • Evening Post, 19 June 1909: 5. Back
    • Personal communication with Robert Nairn Gillies, 26 July 2022. Back
    • Untitled clipping, n.d., n.p.; Scrapbook of clippings compiled by press representative Anna Marble Pollock, R.H Burnside Collection, Box 57, Hippodrome Season 1909–1910. Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Back
    • lsquo;Inside the Earth’ Series II, Production Files. R.H. Burnside Collection. T-Mss 1952-002 Box 14, Folder 7. Billy Rose Theatre Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. Back
    • ‘Wants to Marry Waapi.’ Daily Citizen (Brooklyn, New York), 20 November 1909, n.p., Scrapbook of clippings compiled by press representative Anna Marble Pollock. Back
    • Marlborough Express, 20 August 1912: 2. Back
    • Gaston Méliès to Paul Méliès, 12 October 1912, Rotorua, Correspondence between Gaston Melies and Hortense Melies, Georges and Gaston Melies documentation collection, Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, Wellington. Back
    • Ibid. Back
    • Maata Horomona (Méliès), The native leading woman in Hinemoa.’ The Motion Picture Story Magazine, May 1913: 2. Back
How to cite this page:

Minette Hillyer. 'Horomona, Maata', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2024. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6h16/horomona-maata (accessed 15 July 2024)