First contemporary exhibition
The modern Māori art movement emerged in the 1950s and 1960s from a blending of two distinct artistic traditions. These were the indigenous Māori tradition and transplanted western modernism, especially a version of modernism known as primitivism. The blending became apparent in an exhibition by five teachers (Ralph Hōtere, Katerina Mataira, Muru Walters, Selwyn Wilson and Arnold Wilson) working in Northland. Held at the University of Auckland’s Adult Education Centre in June 1958, it was the first exhibition of work by modern Māori artists adapting the styles of contemporary European modernism.
Question of identity
In 1976 artist Ralph Hōtere declared, ‘I am Maori by birth and upbringing. As far as my work is concerned this is coincidental.’1 More recently, Robert Jahnke inverted this statement: ‘I am a Maori and it is coincidental that I am an artist.’2 Most Māori artists are distributed across this spectrum, which holds customary and contemporary art in dynamic tension.
Nationwide contemporary art movement
Prime Minister Walter Nash agreed in 1959 that Māori culture should be introduced into the mainstream education curriculum. Gordon Tovey and master carver Pine Taiapa convened a national hui at Ruatōria in 1960, at which the Māori art and crafts advisers studied under acknowledged experts. They also formed a national grouping of artists. From this hui a nationwide contemporary Māori art movement emerged. In 1963 the first Maori Arts Festival, held at Tūrangawaewae, Ngāruawāhia, brought together customary and modern Māori art for the first time. In 1966 a more ambitious and comprehensive presentation of contemporary art featured in the Maori Arts Festival in Hamilton.
Maori Culture and the Contemporary Scene
Later in 1966 the exhibition Maori Culture and the Contemporary Scene was held at the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch. It was curated by Buck Nin and included other Northland artists, such as Cath Brown, Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, Selwyn Muru and Pauline Yearbury. Controversially, this exhibition placed avant-garde Māori art alongside traditional artefacts from the museum’s collections.
Defining Māori art
In 1996 Hirini Moko Mead stated: ‘Māori art might be defined as art that looks Māori, feels Māori, is done by Māori following the styles, canons of taste and values of Māori culture. A Māori artist might be defined as a person who identifies as Māori, is Māori by whakapapa and has some proven ability in Māori art.’3 This definition tended to marginalise urban Māori artists who were successful in the world of dealers, collectors, curators, public art galleries and critics, rather than the meeting houses which artist Cliff Whiting insists are the galleries of Māori.
The ‘continuity or rupture’ debate
The relationship between this new art and customary art remained unclear. Practitioners and critics vigorously debated whether it represented continuity with tradition, or rupture. Kāterina Mataira noted the strong Māori affiliations influencing the sculptures of Arnold Wilson and Paratene Matchitt, and the use of Māori motifs, carving and kōwhaiwhai patterns in the paintings and designs of Muru, Matchitt and Whiting. For Māori journalist Harry Dansey, on the other hand, it was the ‘absence of surface decoration and the presence of a smooth, lustrous finish’ that marked out the modern aspect of contemporary Māori wood sculpture. He was baffled by Hōtere’s austere formalist abstractions, observing that they showed ‘no influence whatsoever of a Maori background, either in theme or execution’.4 What would he have made of the work of Matt Pine, who was at that time based in Europe, and practising a severe minimalist sculptural style?
Some new artists deliberately set out to distance themselves from customary art. In 1961 Muru Walters observed that ‘some modern carvers seemed content to repeat old forms endlessly without considering how these applied to modern conditions’.5 The New Zealand Institute of Māori Arts and Crafts was established in Rotorua, with a carving school opened in 1967 under the direction of Hōne Taiapa and a weaving school in 1969 under Emily Schuster. Depending on the artist’s view of the relation between customary and contemporary art, this institute could either be regarded as a retrograde step or a positive development, an investment in the future.