Story: Pacific arts in New Zealand

Page 4. Pacific grassroots arts

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Pacific artists, art forms and practices that fall outside mainstream New Zealand’s definitions of art have received little attention. Many well-known artists of Pacific heritage studied in art institutions, regularly exhibited their work in art galleries or museums and had their works collected by these institutions. However, some masters of fine arts came through cultural art institutions in their homelands, where they grew up surrounded by art and art-making. Over time, knowledge and skills were passed on to them.

Cultural art institutions

In New Zealand, these Pacific artists either work on their own or have set up their own cultural art institutions through community groups – which can be church-based, ethnically specific, village-based or even multicultural. These masters weave; embroider and crochet; make tapa, adornments and costumes; carve, make and play musical instruments; compose music and songs; choreograph dance; or use oratory and language.


These artists’ work is shown annually at national events such as Auckland’s Pasifika Festival and Polyfest, and community events such as the independence-day celebrations of various island nations. Their art is also seen at gatherings such as anniversaries, birthdays, graduations and weddings, where tīvaevae (quilts), tapa or embroidered and crocheted sheets decorate the space or are used as items for gifting. National or island-specific dress is often worn in these contexts, including:

  • for Tongans, a ta’ovala (waist mat) or kiekie (waist attire)
  • for Samoans, a puletasi (women’s two-piece garment) or ‘ie faitaga (men’s formal lavalava or wrap-around skirt)
  • for Cook Islanders, a mu’umu’u (Mother Hubbard dress) or pare (headdress)
  • for Niueans, a pulou (hat)
  • for Kiribati people, a tibuta (distinctive smocked blouse)
  • for Tuvaluans from Niutao, a gatu kolose (crocheted top).


Another key innovative and creative space is church. Tongans, for example, have Fakamē (White Sunday), a specific time in the year (usually in May) dedicated to children. Children come dressed in the latest trend in clothing and adornments. These may be completely Western-style, or strictly Tongan-style – a puletaha (girls’ two-piece outfit) or tupenu (boys’ formal attire) with a shirt and ta’ovala (waist mat) – or a mixture of both. The Tongan elements of these garments are made by women fine artists.

While these master artists’ works may not be found in the mainstream, they are key movers and shakers in maintaining and innovating within their various art forms.

Local innovation

The use of alternative materials and the innovation that takes place as a result has resulted in New Zealand-specific art. Weavers, for example, have used various forms of plastic and harakeke (flax) as alternatives to pandanus.

How to cite this page:

Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai, 'Pacific arts in New Zealand - Pacific grassroots arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 20 June 2024)

Story by Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai, published 22 Oct 2014