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Contemporary Māori art – ngā toi hōu

by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki

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.

Te tīmatanga o ngā toi hou

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.

    • Land of my ancestors [ataata mamati]. Te Whanganui-a-Tara: Island Productions, 2007. Back

Te toi hou a te Māori, te toi taketake a te Māori

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.

    • Takitaki Frank Davis, ‘Maori art and artists.’ Education 9 (1976), p. 29. Back
    • Takitaki ‘Identity and iconography.’ CS Arts Magazine, (i tirohia i te 23 Pipiri 2014). Back
    • H. M. Mead, ‘Maori art restructured, reorganised, re-examined and reclaimed.’ He Pukenga Korero 2, no. 1 (1996), p. 4. Back
    • Harry Dansey, ‘Maori artists make mark as professionals.’ Auckland Star, 3 Mahuru 1966. Back
    • ‘Muru Walters: a personality study.’ Te Ao Hou 35 (Pipiri 1961), p. 28. Back

Ngā whanaketanga hou


From the 1950s modernist Māori artworks began to emerge in forms such as architecture as well as the visual arts. In the whare-like Futuna Chapel in Karori, Wellington (built 1958–61), John Scott produced the most enduring masterpiece of New Zealand modernism. Scott and Wiremu Taurau Royal, the first registered Māori architect, were the first in a line of notable Māori architects that included Rewi Thompson and Rau Hoskins.

National organisations

In 1973 the inaugural hui of the New Zealand Maori Artists and Writers Society was convened at Te Kaha in the eastern Bay of Plenty. Thereafter annual marae-based hui showcased the often ground-breaking work of Māori visual, performing and literary artists within an inclusive, affirming cultural environment. The society was renamed Ngā Puna Waihanga in 1986, and remained a significant representative ‘flaxroots’ organisation in Māori art. A new national umbrella organisation, Toi Māori Aotearoa, was formed in 1996.

Art as activism

The resurgence of Māori nationalism and culture which gathered momentum in the aftermath of the 1975 hīkoi (land-rights march) and the Treaty of Waitangi Act 1975 politicised contemporary Māori artists. Their work became, and remained, an effective tool of indigenous activism. The treaty was a constant theme, as were land rights, property rights and cultural rights. The photographer John Miller’s lifelong vocation of witnessing and documenting Māori political protests dates from the early 1970s.

Te Māori exhibition

The critically acclaimed exhibition Te Māori: Māori Art from New Zealand Collections, which began its hugely successful North American tour in 1984 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, was a pivotal event in positioning Māori culture on the world stage. Hirini Moko Mead, the exhibition’s principal curator, stated, ‘By taking our art to New York, we altered its status and changed overnight the perception of it by people at home and abroad.’1

However, contemporary Māori artists took issue with Te Māori’s exclusion of taonga made after the late 19th century, which implied that Māori art had come to an abrupt end at that time, or that later work was inauthentic and impure. Weavers also took umbrage at the exclusion of their living fibre arts traditions. When Te Māori returned to tour New Zealand, exhibitions of contemporary Māori art and fibre arts toured in parallel in order to redress the perceived imbalance.

Women artists

Māori women artists have sometimes faced conflicts over which of those identities should prevail in their work. A women’s picture book: 25 women artists of Aotearoa (New Zealand) was published in 1988. The editors planned to include prominent Māori women artists such as Irihapeti Ramsden, Jacqueline Fraser and Robyn Kahukiwa. However, several of those artists were offended by content which they felt breached Māori tapu. All but two – Marilynn Webb and Lyndsay Rongokea – chose to withdraw from the publication.

Māori women’s art

The rise of Māori women’s art in the late 1970s owed much to the international women’s art movement. The raw expressionism of Kura Te Waru Rewiri, Emare Karaka, Diane Prince and Shona Rapira Davies positioned women painters and sculptors as a distinctive and powerful force within the contemporary Māori art movement. Robyn Kahukiwa established herself as one of the leading global figures in indigenous women’s art with an iconic series of paintings, ‘Wahine toa: women of Māori myth 1984’ (also published as a book, with text by Māori writer Patricia Grace).

However, when senior women artists were made subordinate to senior male artists in the National Art Gallery’s 1990 exhibition, Kohia ko Taikaka Anake, most of the leading women artists withdrew in protest. The most potent expression of gender solidarity in that sesquicentenary year was the Māori ‘womanhouse’, ‘Hineteiwaiwa’, created by the Haeata Collective in City Gallery Wellington’s Mana Tiriti exhibition.

Women were well represented in the exhibition Te Waka Toi: Contemporary Māori Art from New Zealand, which toured the US in 1992 and 1993. The term ‘contemporary’ now embraced the art of both customary weavers (Rangimārie Hetet, Erenora Puketapu Hetet, Emily Schuster and Diggeress Te Kanawa) and carvers (Lyonel Grant and Riki Manuel), as well as artists who had embraced western art practices.


Ngā reanga hou

Ceramics workers

The rise of an impressive ceramics movement is one of the more striking developments in contemporary Māori art. Clay working and firing of pottery was an ancient Pacific practice, but the knowledge had largely been lost by the ancestors of Māori before they arrived in Aotearoa.

The first Māori artist to take up the artform in modern times was Selwyn Wilson, who studied ceramics in London in 1957. Baye Riddell and Manos Nathan founded the national clay workers’ association, Ngā Kaihanga Uku, in 1986. Other key figures included Colleen Waata-Urlich, Wi Taepa and Paerau Corneal. The new tradition of Māori ceramics has drawn much inspiration from the unbroken, living traditions of First Nations American clay workers and, in the case of Waata-Urlich, ancient Lapita pottery from across the Central Pacific islands.

International success stories

Thirty years after the first ground-breaking exhibition of contemporary Māori art, a new generation of university art-school-trained Māori artists began to make an impact. In its form, scale and technical sophistication and complexity, much of the art of this new generation of individualists sits more easily in the dealer gallery and public art gallery than the meeting house. Artists such as Shane Cotton, Michael Parekowhai, Lisa Reihana, Brett Graham and Peter Robinson have enjoyed phenomenal curatorial, critical and commercial success. They have achieved impressive international profiles and are regarded as being among New Zealand’s most significant artists. 

All in the whānau

Contemporary Māori artists have been working long enough to form family dynasties, such as father-and-son artists Fred and Brett Graham, and Wi and Ngataiharuru Taepa. Ngatai Taepa has asserted, in acknowledgement of his father, ‘Toi tū te whakapapa’ (genealogy remains strong).1

The fourth wave

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a fourth wave of contemporary Māori artists appeared, including Rangi Kipa, Gina Matchitt, Chris Bryant, Natalie Robertson, Maureen Lander, Lonnie Hutchinson, John Walsh and Tina Wirihana, and photographers Fiona Pardington and Neil Pardington.

Five generations of Māori artists

Selwyn Muru, Robyn Kahukiwa and Robin White were among the artists who represented New Zealand in the inaugural Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993. Contemporary Māori artists from across five generations, including Ralph Hōtere, Michael Parekowhai, Brett Graham, Lisa Reihana and Reuben Paterson, appeared in subsequent triennials.

Indigenous connections

At the time of the first Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane in 1993, Lisa Reihana commented that ‘the indigenous world can be very close even though the distances are very far’.2 In 1995 Te Atinga, the Visual Arts Panel of Te Waka Toi, hosted an international symposium of indigenous artists in Rotorua. Connections between the Māori hosts and First Nations artists from Canada and the US were firmed up with strong relationships continuing into the 21st century. Along with Inuit and North Coast art, contemporary Māori art has a permanent outlet in the Spirit Wrestler Gallery, founded in 1995, in Vancouver, Canada. In 1996 an exhibition of 20th-century Native American painters and sculptors, Shared Visions, toured New Zealand.

    • Takitaki Fathers and sons: an exhibition. Te Whanganui-a-Tara: Museum of Arts and Cultures, 2000. Back
    • Pleasures & dangers [ataata mamati]. Tāmaki Makaurau: Point of View Productions, 1991. Back

Ngā toi hou i te tau ruamano

Independent arts advocacy

An independent Māori arts advocacy organisation, Toi Māori Aotearoa, was formed in 1996. It continued the work of Te Waka Toi in taking Māori art to the world with considerable vigour, actively seeking opportunities for customary and contemporary Māori artists to display and market their work. The Māori Art Market provided an outlet for such work.

Kaupapa Māori teaching

Kaupapa Māori-based art programmes also arose in the 1990s. They included:

  • Toihoukura at Tairāwhiti Polytechnic (later a campus of the Eastern Institute of Technology), Gisborne. Toihoukura was founded in 1993 by Sandy Adsett and Derek Lardelli, one of the foremost exponents of tā moko (traditional tattooing).
  • Toimairangi in Hastings (a distance learning outstation of Te Whare Wānanga o Aotearoa, Te Awamutu), founded by Sandy Adsett in 2002. Master carver Pakariki Harrison and weaver Diggeress Te Kanawa stamped their authority on the customary arts programmes of the Wānanga o Aotearoa.
  • Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi, Whakatāne.
  • Massey University’s Te Pūtahi-a-Toi Visual Arts programme, instituted in 1993 under the academic leadership of Professor Robert Jahnke.

Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

In 1985 Hirini Moko Mead proposed a National Centre of Māori Art. This proposal was overtaken by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington. When it opened in 1998, the museum’s marae was controversial. Work on the cartoonish figures and optically disconcerting design and colour schemes for the wharenui Te Hono ki Hawaiki was overseen by Cliff Whiting.

New-wave marae

Whiting went on to work on the similarly innovative wharenui Maru Kaitatea at Takahanga marae in Kaikōura, which opened in 2001, and Tahu Pōtiki at Te Rau Aroha marae in Bluff. Among the wharenui designed by architect Rewi Thompson was that at Ngāti Ōtara marae in 1984, while Lyonel Grant has carved a succession of wharenui: Te Papa o te Aroha, Tokoroa; Ihenga, Rotorua; and Ngākau Māhaki at Unitec, Auckland.

A new millennium

As the new millennium dawned on 1 January 2000, a vast global audience of television viewers saw dignitaries assembled on the summit of Mt Hikurangi on the East Coast for the dedication of a group of nine large whakairo (carvings). Made by students from Toihoukura under the direction of Derek Lardelli, the whakairo relate to the story of the demigod Māui.

Saints and mothers

Isiaha Barlow’s contribution to the 2001 group exhibition Purangiaho: Seeing Clearly was an ‘iconostasis’ – a series of 12 male ‘saints’ of contemporary Māori art depicted in the Byzantine style of Russian Orthodox painting. The panels depict the ‘originators’, including St Fred (Graham), St Ralph (Hōtere) and St Buck (Nin), and relative latecomers St Darcy (Nicholas) and St Bob (Jahnke). In 2002 Barlow completed a set of three medieval triptych altarpieces, each depicting the enthroned figure of a ‘mother’ of contemporary Māori art: Mother Emare (Karaka), Mother Kura (Te Waru Rewiri) and artist-activist Mother Robyn (Kahukiwa). 

Emerging artists

In Christchurch the exhibition Hiko! New Energies in Māori Art (1999) presented the work of seven emerging artists whose world views were in part shaped by the digital age in which they had emerged. In exploring the potential of the new technologies of their times, the young artists were doing what generations of their predecessors had done when confronted with new possibilities. This idea was investigated further in City Gallery Wellington’s 2001 exhibition, Techno Māori: Māori Art in the Digital Age. Concurrently, at the Auckland Art Gallery Purangiaho: Seeing Clearly, a more intergenerational exhibition curated by Ngahiraka Mason, focused on revealing ‘the legacy of tradition in contemporary Māori art’.1

Newer Māori artists in the 2000s included Saffronn Te Ratana, Wayne Youle, Kelcy Taratoi and Star Gossage.

Venice Biennale

When New Zealand first participated in the Venice International Biennale of Contemporary Art, in 2001, Peter Robinson and Jacqueline Fraser (both from Ngāi Tahu) were selected to represent their country. Michael Parekowhai was chosen for the 2011 biennale. Brett Graham and Rachael Rakena were invited to exhibit in one of the biennale’s collateral events in 2007, as was Darryn George in 2013.

Walters Prize

Māori artists who have been shortlisted for the Auckland Art Gallery’s prestigious Walters Prize, instituted in 2002, include Peter Robinson (twice), Jacqueline Fraser and Lisa Reihana. Robinson was awarded the prize in 2008.

Honoured artists

Māori are now among New Zealand’s most honoured artists. The Arts Foundation has honoured Māori artists as laureates (Shane Cotton, Lyonel Grant, Fiona Pardington, Michael Parekowhai, Barry Barclay and Derek Lardelli); as icons (Ralph Hōtere, Pakariki Harrison, Diggeress Te Kanawa, Cliff Whiting and Arnold Wilson); and as new generation artists (Ngaahina Hohaia and Taika Waititi, director of the 2010 film Boy). John Miller and Neil Pardington have each received the Marti Friedlander Award for photography. Cliff Whiting was appointed to New Zealand’s highest honour, the Order of New Zealand, in 1998, as was Ralph Hōtere in 2012.



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How to cite this page: Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, 'Contemporary Māori art – ngā toi hōu', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 24 April 2024)

Story by Jonathan Mane-Wheoki, published 22 October 2014