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New Zealand culture overseas

by Nancy Swarbrick

From the late 18th century Māori taonga (treasures) were taken overseas – even meeting houses sometimes travelled to Europe for display in exhibitions. Later New Zealand cultural exports were as diverse as Māori showbands, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra and contemporary art in the Venice Biennale.

Taking New Zealand to the world

New Zealand culture is portrayed through visual arts, crafts and design; music, dance and performing arts; and literature and film. In these many forms it has been published, performed, exhibited and sold overseas since the late 18th century.

Expatriates and ambassadors

New Zealand culture has often become known overseas through the efforts of individuals. Many talented expatriate New Zealanders such as writer Katherine Mansfield, artist Len Lye and opera singer Kiri Te Kanawa have made their mark in other countries. Other kapa haka performers, artists, musicians, singers, writers, curators, performers and film makers have become known overseas while continuing to live and work primarily in New Zealand.

Government’s role

Since the 19th century the government has played a significant role in promoting New Zealand culture overseas. International exhibitions have been one of the places where global audiences have been able to experience traditional and contemporary art, Māori performing arts and New Zealand music of various kinds.

Various government agencies have used a number of other methods, including gifts, delegations, displays and participation in competitions, to promote New Zealand culture overseas. Their motivations have included helping to build diplomatic relations and trade with other countries and encouraging tourism and migration to New Zealand.

Cultural diplomats

Among the major projects sponsored by the Cultural Diplomacy International Programme were a performance by kapa haka champions Te Waka Huia at the America’s Cup and a Royal New Zealand Ballet tour of China in 2013. Smaller projects also received support, including a 2010 visit by Māori pop musicians Moana and the Tribe to Taiwan, and a visit by jazz saxophonist Nathan Haines and his band to Jakarta the same year.

Cultural Diplomacy International Programme

In the 2000s Manatū Taonga - the Ministry for Culture and Heritage administered a Cultural Diplomacy International Programme supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, New Zealand Trade and Enterprise, Tourism New Zealand, Te Puni Kōkiri and Education New Zealand. Its purpose was to build a New Zealand cultural presence in other countries to enhance New Zealand’s economic and diplomatic interests. One of the goals was to ensure a cultural dimension at big events such as international sports tournaments.

Fulbright funding

Fulbright New Zealand is best known for the scholarships it provides for New Zealand scholars to study in the United States (and for American scholars to study in New Zealand), but it also funds a three-month Pacific Writers’ Residency at the University of Hawaii, a 10-week visual artists’ residency at the Headlands Centre in California and travel awards to assist artists (as well as scholars and professionals) to study or present their work in America.

Creative New Zealand International Programme

At the same time, arts funding body Creative New Zealand ran an international programme to give artists opportunities to engage with other cultures and art forms overseas. The programme provided funding for art, writing and dance cultural exchanges, support for overseas tours and engagements, grants to publishers wanting to translate New Zealand books into other languages, and help in organising New Zealand participation in major international arts events such as the Edinburgh Festivals, the Venice Biennale and the annual Australian Performing Arts Market (APAM).

Art, craft and design

Māori material culture, including carvings and weaving, was sought after by collectors and ethnologists from the time of British navigator James Cook’s explorations in the late 18th century. Despite a 1901 law to restrict their export from New Zealand, many treasures were taken overseas and were still held in museums and collections throughout the world in the 2000s.

House on the move

Often the centrepiece at an international exhibition was a major structure such as a Māori meeting house. The Mataatua meeting house from Whakatāne travelled to several exhibitions in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 20th century exhibitions sometimes included Māori villages, depicting the daily life of the ‘old time Māori’.


Traditional objects were regarded by Māori as taonga (treasures), imbued with the spirits of ancestors. However, Pākehā viewed them as colourful relics of a bygone age, and as such they were displayed at international exhibitions from the 1850s. Gradually, they came to be seen as symbols of New Zealand.

European-style artworks including painting and sculpture, and crafts made from local materials such as native woods, also revealed New Zealand’s uniqueness. Art depicting New Zealand’s natural wonders was shown at exhibitions from the early 1900s with the aim of boosting tourism.

Cultural sophistication

From the mid-20th century displays of contemporary art overseas revealed New Zealand as not just a tourist destination or source of produce, but a nation with a vibrant cultural life.

In the late 1940s the Department of External Affairs (which later became the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) developed an art collection to create a New Zealand ambience at overseas posts, to promote New Zealand artists and to enhance the country’s image as a sophisticated and high-achieving nation. In 2014 a selection of over 2,500 works were displayed at New Zealand embassies.

By design

New Zealand design has achieved world attention, and the primary reward has been economic. Particularly since the 1950s, industrial design, including appliances, furniture, household tools and agricultural equipment, has found export markets. In the late 1990s New Zealand fashion designers began showing at Australian Fashion Week and London Fashion Week to acclaim, with subsequent benefit for individual designers.

Diplomatic agendas also influenced the way art and craft was presented at international exhibitions. At Expo 70 in Japan, there were contemporary prints and paintings, murals by John Drawbridge and Roy Cowan, and New Zealand-made Japanese-influenced pottery. At the 1992 Seville Expo, the work of ceramicists and a glass artist were exhibited as Treasures of the Underworld.

Te Māori

A turning point in how traditional Māori art was displayed occurred with the Te Māori exhibition, which toured the United States in 1984 and New Zealand in 1986–87. Te Māori’s success in America affected the perception of Māori material culture back in New Zealand, in particular its spiritual significance.

Art festivals

New Zealand art has been represented at international festivals, including Australian events such as the Sydney Biennale, and from 2001 the famous Venice Biennale. New Zealand’s pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale attracted a record number of visits.

Music and dance

Kapa haka

As well as entertaining visitors to New Zealand, kapa haka (Māori performing arts) groups toured overseas from the 19th century. One of the first concert parties went to Sydney and Melbourne in 1862, and on to London in 1863. In the 2000s professional kapa haka groups continue to perform around the world.

Like Māori taonga (treasures), kapa haka performances were used to draw attention to New Zealand’s distinctiveness at international exhibitions. In the later 20th century the invigorating blend of waiata, poi dance and haka drew enthusiastic crowds at expos. In the 2000s kapa haka groups represented New Zealand at cultural and sporting events, including Commonwealth and Olympic games.

Two traditions

Unusually, the official New Zealand opening ceremony at Expo 70 blended elements of the traditional Māori welcome with triumphal band music. It featured Māori kapa haka performers and the National Band – both at Expo before embarking on world tours.

Cross-cultural influences

Māori music was influenced by European music and vice versa, with songs like ‘Pō atarau’ (Now is the hour) becoming known beyond New Zealand shores. Māori and Pasifika languages and musical traditions also infiltrated international styles such as classical, jazz, reggae and hip hop. Some New Zealand composers and songwriters produced works based on traditional Māori music or using taonga puoro (Māori instruments). Composers also took inspiration from New Zealand’s turbulent history and spectacular environment.

Classical musicians

From 1974, when it first toured overseas, the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra championed the works of New Zealand composers, and also built a worldwide following through recordings. Since the 1990s other classical musicians such as the New Zealand String Quartet and the New Zealand Youth Choir have acted as cultural ambassadors. And since the early 20th century numerous New Zealand opera singers have become internationally famous.

Three in one

Footrot Flats: the dog’s tail tale (1986), which was a huge success on both sides of the Tasman, spanned several art forms. The film was based on Murray Ball’s internationally successful comic strip, Footrot Flats, and the title song ‘Slice of heaven’ was a massive hit for Dave Dobbyn and Herbs.

Popular musicians

Kiwi popular culture and idioms made their way into the music of travelling jazz, pop and rock artists. New Zealand jazz musicians were performing in Australia from the 1920s, and later globe-trotting stars included pianist Mike Nock and saxophonist Nathan Haines.

In the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s Māori showbands – the Maori Volcanics, the Maori Hi-Five and others – toured clubs and casinos in Australia, Asia, the United States and northern England, bringing their own sense of humour and singing style to an international repertoire. Soloists such as John Rowles achieved fame overseas at this time with unmistakably New Zealand songs.

From the 1970s New Zealand rock bands such as Dragon made a name for themselves in Australia, and in the case of Split Enz, further afield. The local recording industry, notably the Flying Nun label, brought original local bands like Straitjacket Fits to international attention. Bands like Shihad made it overseas from the 1990s. In the early 2000s solo artists including Kimbra, Ladyhawke and Lorde became highly successful with Kiwi-inflected pop.


From the 1950s New Zealand dancers and choreographers became internationally known. In the 1980s the Royal New Zealand Ballet began to tour other countries, playing a similar role to the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra as a cultural standard-bearer.

Modern dance companies such as the Douglas Wright Dance Company, Black Grace and MAU also toured from the 1980s. New Zealand hip hop crews won trans-national dance competitions in the 2000s.

Literature, theatre and film

New Zealand’s stories have reached international audiences through a range of media.


In the 19th century accounts of New Zealand, collections of Māori oral traditions and fiction were published in London. Local publishers soon emerged, and books were exported, but overseas sales did not grow significantly until the 1970s. The internet and e-books contributed to the wider reach of New Zealand writing.

The Old World’s watching

The most famous New Zealand writer overseas is Katherine Mansfield, whose works have been translated into more than 25 languages. While she spent most of her writing career in England and France, her New Zealand stories are her best-known. Her impetus for writing them was ‘to make our undiscovered country leap into the eyes of the Old World’.1


Some New Zealand authors gained a following in other countries via overseas publication or translation. For many foreign readers, New Zealand settings were the main attraction. Romance writer Essie Summers boosted tourism and sold over 19 million copies worldwide with titles such as Moon over the alps (1960). Booker Prize-winning novels the bone people (1983) by Keri Hulme and The luminaries (2013) by Eleanor Catton described New Zealand’s landscapes and people.

From the later 20th century some writers chose settings other than New Zealand for their works. New Zealand plays in particular were successful overseas if their subject matter was widely recognisable. Roger Hall’s Middle age spread (1978) had a successful London season and his Conjugal rites (1990) was made into a British TV sitcom.

Royal review

Not just words but pictures have enchanted overseas readers. Much-loved illustrated children’s book Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s dairy (1983) by Lynley Dodd was a local and international publishing sensation, leading to a hugely popular series of books. In 2012 the Duchess of Cornwall declared it to be one of her favourite books for children.

Frankfurt Book Fair

The Frankfurt Book Fair, held in October each year, is traditionally a place to showcase and sell New Zealand literature. In 2012 New Zealand was the guest of honour for a year leading up to the fair, and used the opportunity to feature not just New Zealand books and writers, but visual arts, film, dance, theatre and Māori culture, as well as food and wine.

Edinburgh festivals

Other festivals, notably the Edinburgh festivals, have provided a stage for aspiring playwrights and performing artists. Award winners include playwright Gary Henderson for his play Skin tight at the 1998 Fringe and actor Jacob Rajan for his solo show Krishnan’s dairy in 1999. Comedy duo Flight of the Conchords were a hit in the early 2000s, later achieving success on US television.

Selling Middle Earth

The question of whether Peter Jackson’s award winning Lord of the rings trilogy and Hobbit series are truly New Zealand films is debatable. It seems clear, however, that their mythical setting is brilliantly evoked by diverse New Zealand landscapes. This was undoubtedly one reason that in 2001 Prime Minister Helen Clark asserted, ‘The Lord of the Rings has the potential to expose New Zealand to the world on an unprecedented scale.’2

Film and television

Though promotional documentaries had been shown at international exhibitions from the 1920s, films revealing New Zealand’s landscapes and culture began to find world audiences from the 1970s with the nature documentary series Wild south and children’s drama series like Hunter’s gold (1976), set in 1860s in the Otago goldfields. By the late 1980s exportability was as important as serving local TV audiences, and productions as various as period court drama Hanlon (1985), soap opera Shortland Street (from 1992) and Māori ‘supernatural’ series Mataku (2002–4) sold well overseas.

In the 1970s international co-production of feature films began, as did state support through the New Zealand Film Commission. From 1980 New Zealand features began screening at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and at others such as the Sundance and Berlin festivals.

Jane Campion’s The piano (1993) was the first New Zealand feature to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes, as well as Academy Awards. Since then, winners of other major awards include Niki Caro’s Whale rider (2002), which was acclaimed at the Toronto International Film Festival, the Sundance Film Festival and the Rotterdam Film Festival; Taika Waititi’s Boy (2010), which took the Deutsche Kinderhilfswerk Grand Prize at the Berlin Film Festival; and Mark Albiston and Louis Sutherland’s Shopping (2013), which won the Berlin Film Festival’s Grand Prix that year.

Globally successful documentaries include Merata Mita’s Patu! (1981), Sandor Lau’s Squeegee bandit (2007), and Leanne Pooley’s The Topp Twins: untouchable girls (2009).


External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Nancy Swarbrick, 'New Zealand culture overseas', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 April 2024)

Story by Nancy Swarbrick, published 22 October 2014