Story: Contemporary Māori art – ngā toi hōu

Page 1. Beginnings of contemporary Maori art

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Missionary influences

The first western forms and styles of art to produce a response from Māori were biblical illustrations and other Christian imagery brought to New Zealand by European missionaries. One example is the carved Madonna and child made by a Māori convert at Maketū and presented to a new church in 1845. Practitioners of traditional arts such as carving and weaving quickly adopted the materials and technologies that came with European settlement. They received art education in the schools established by Pākehā.

Multi-coloured illustrative painting features in place of the customary carved figures inside Rongopai, the meeting house built for the prophet and resistance leader Te Kooti at Waituhi (north-west of Gisborne) in the 1880s. This demonstrates the remarkable adaptations and innovations of Māori artists after the beginning of European colonisation.

Individual contemporary artists

It was not until the 20th century that individual Māori began practising the visual arts outside a customary, tribal context. One of the first Māori to take up easel painting, in the late 1920s, was Ōriwa Tahupōtiki Haddon, a Methodist minister who was also trained in traditional knowledge. In the following decade Ramai Te Miha (later Ramai Hayward, also called Patricia Miller) became the first professional Māori photographer. However, these were isolated examples.

Early-20th-century meeting houses

The most notable achievements in Māori art in the early 20th century were the carved and decorated whare whakairo that lay at the heart of the cultural revival initiated by Apirana Ngata, the minister of native affairs. Ngata also pioneered the revival of customary fibre arts such as tukutuku (woven panels) and tāniko (decorative weaving). This work was advanced by the Maori Women’s Welfare League. Some of its members, notably Dame Rangimārie Hetet, were among the art form’s greatest practitioners.

Past, present and future

Darcy Nicholas, raised on a small farm in the shadow of Mt Taranaki, sold his first artwork for 30 shillings, at the age of nine. He later became a renowned painter and sculptor, and organised international exhibitions that connected Māori artists with Native Americans. Nicholas has said, ‘The special thing that Maoris have in the world is, they’re able to draw from the ancient traditions and also take their art right into the whole contemporary field. We carry two baskets – there’s the ancient one … and then there’s the new one and that one that is just beyond. So we’re always trying to plan that future.’1

Urban influences

Fast-changing social and cultural conditions in New Zealand after the Second World War caused the relevance of customary Māori arts to be questioned. Māori from rural areas flowed into the cities seeking work and better living conditions. An urban Māori art movement began to emerge in the 1950s and 1960s among artists who had studied at university art schools. There they were introduced to Pākehā art practices and the types, styles, themes and materials of both classical and modern European art. These pioneering Māori artists included Selwyn Wilson and Arnold Wilson, who became the first Māori graduates with tertiary qualifications in fine arts. Freda Rankin (later Kawharu) and Margaret Sampson were the first Māori women to do so. All four became secondary-school teachers.

Gordon Tovey’s disciples

The most influential figure in this period, however, was neither Māori nor a practising artist. Between 1946 and 1966 Gordon Tovey, the visionary national superintendent of art and crafts in the Department of Education, oversaw a scheme to provide primary-school teacher trainees with additional specialist training as itinerant art and crafts advisers. Māori were among the first recruited, including Selwyn Wilson, Fred Graham, John Bevan Ford, Ralph Hōtere, Kāterina Mataira, Cliff Whiting, Marilynn Webb, Paratene Matchitt and Sandy Adsett.

A new generation of Māori artists emerged from the students of these advisers. In Northland, Selwyn Muru and Buck Nin were among the earliest talents to come out of the Tovey scheme. Buster Black (John Pihema), a close associate of Colin McCahon in Auckland, developed a highly individual style of mystical landscape painting.

  1. Land of my ancestors [ataata mamati]. Te Whanganui-a-Tara: Island Productions, 2007. Back
How to cite this page:

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, 'Contemporary Māori art – ngā toi hōu - Beginnings of contemporary Maori art', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 15 April 2024)

Story by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, published 22 Oct 2014