Story: Contemporary Māori art – ngā toi hōu

Drawing on customary Māori art and European influences to varying degrees, Māori artists have produced some of New Zealand’s most significant and ground-breaking contemporary art.

Story by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki
Main image: Te Hono ki Hawaiki meeting house, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, Wellington

Story summary

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Traditional Māori artists such as carvers and weavers quickly adopted European tools and materials. In the early 20th century some Māori began practising European arts such as easel painting. Politician Apirana Ngata worked to revive carving and weaving.

After the Second World War many Māori moved to the cities. Some studied at university art schools. Māori teacher trainees took part in Gordon Tovey’s scheme to train primary teachers as art and craft advisers. Some became important artists – and so did their students.

Contemporary or customary art?

The modern Māori art movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. Artists such as Ralph Hōtere, Paratene Matchitt and Cliff Whiting blended Māori tradition with western modernism. At a national hui in 1960 Māori art and craft advisers studied with experts. The first Maori Arts Festival was held in 1963. Some people debated the relationship between customary arts and the new art practices.

New developments

The first hui (meeting) of the New Zealand Maori Artists and Writers Society was in 1975. Hui were then held annually on marae. From the mid-1970s Māori art became more political, with themes such as land rights, culture and the Treaty of Waitangi.

In 1984 the Te Māori exhibition toured the United States and showcased Māori culture. However, modern work was not included. When Te Māori returned to New Zealand, contemporary exhibitions were shown alongside it.

Women artists such as Robyn Kahukiwa, Emare Karaka and Shona Rapira Davies emerged in the late 1970s. An exhibition of contemporary Māori art that toured the US in the early 1990s included traditional weaving along with western art forms.

Pottery making was an ancient Pacific practice, but the ancestors of Māori had lost these skills. From the 1950s Māori artists began making pottery, drawing inspiration from Native American work.

Into the 2000s

From the 1990s university-trained artists such as Shane Cotton, Lisa Reihana, Peter Robinson and Michael Parekowhai became hugely successful in New Zealand and internationally. Māori artists developed relationships with indigenous artists from other countries.

In the 1990s Māori art programmes were set up in polytechnics and wānanga (Māori tertiary educational institutions). Innovatively designed meeting houses – including the marae at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa – were built.

In the 2000s Māori were among New Zealand’s most honoured artists.

How to cite this page:

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, 'Contemporary Māori art – ngā toi hōu', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 13 April 2024)

Story by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, published 22 October 2014