Story: Arts and social engagement

People have used art to persuade and protest in New Zealand since the 19th century. Visual artworks, songs, poetry and theatre have been employed to engage New Zealanders socially. The arts are also used to help people with mental or physical disabilities.

Story by Ben Schrader
Main image: Emma Lancaster at an art class at the Ranfurly Care Society, Auckland

Story summary

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Colonisation and social change

For many artists the production of artworks has had a social and cultural purpose. In early colonial paintings New Zealand’s rugged landscapes were sometimes changed to make them look more attractive to potential settlers from Britain.

Māori employed art to protest against the detrimental aspects of colonialism. Some Māori also composed waiata (songs) in protest at the loss of their land and other injustices.

Cartoons often satirised current events, but they were also used by some groups to promote social change. Unions were among the first to use art to build a collective identity and attract public support.

Criticising society

When Māori rugby players were banned from the 1960 All Black tour of apartheid-era South Africa, Gerry Merito from the Howard Morrison Quartet wrote the song ‘My old man’s an All Black’ to protest against the decision by the Rugby Football Union. From the 1970s artists increasingly questioned New Zealand’s idealised view of its race relations.

The feminist movement sought to give women the same opportunities as men. Jacqueline Fahey’s paintings, for example, depicted the social isolation of suburban life.

The environmental movement rose to prominence in the early 1970s following a government initiative to dam Lake Manapōuri for hydro-electricity. John Hanlon’s 1973 protest song ‘Damn the dam’ became popular. Artists such as Pat Hanly and Ralph Hōtere used their art to protest about environmental and political issues.

Arts therapies and access

Arts therapy is based on the belief that art practices and materials can help build, restore and maintain physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. It encompasses visual art making, drama, dance and movement.

Music therapy is used to help people with disabilities and those who are socially isolated.

A number of non-government arts organisations advocate on behalf of people who experience barriers to participating in the arts.

How to cite this page:

Ben Schrader, 'Arts and social engagement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 14 July 2024)

Story by Ben Schrader, published 22 October 2014