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Pacific arts in New Zealand

by Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai

Dynamic, vibrant and innovative, the work of Pacific artists has had a significant impact in New Zealand. Pacific writers, visual artists, musicians, dancers and theatre practitioners draw inspiration from both the art forms of their homelands and urban life in New Zealand.

Pacific arts and artists

The contribution of Pacific people and art to New Zealand creative arts since the 1960s has been hugely significant.

In the decades after the Second World War, New Zealand became home to substantial communities from other island nations of the wider Pacific. These peoples brought with them art practices and art forms from their homelands, which they continued to use and maintain. These became key sources of inspiration for New Zealand-born artists of Pacific heritage. At the same time, artists of Pacific heritage drew directly from their experiences of living in New Zealand (in particular their urban environment). Some utilised technology such as photography, film and social media.

The new generation

In 2012 Auckland museum curator Fulimalo Pereira described emerging artists of Pacific heritage who ‘create where they reside and exhibit, sing, dance, paint, act and recite wherever it pleases them. The traditional “centre” of art in New Zealand has little currency; the endorsement they seek comes from their community, their peers, who are not to be found at the “centre”. Their works are influenced by a new world of technological potential and expressed through refreshed vocabularies of meaning, free of the old centre and energised by new possibilities.’1

Shifting position

The first generation of New Zealand-based artists of Pacific heritage to be recognised included singer Mavis Rivers, songwriter and pop singer Terry Fidow (also known as Terry Dean), poet Alistair Campbell and poet and fiction writer Albert Wendt. Generally they produced some of their finest work within the conventions of European genres. Artists of Pacific heritage of the 1980s and 1990s were less bound by these genres, but still thought in mainstream terms: ‘good’ art was approved by the artistic mainstream and took place within it. The generation that emerged in the 2000s rejected these categories.

Dynamism and broad appeal

Pacific arts produced in New Zealand are dynamic and innovative. In the 2010s they were diverse and growing in importance and appeal. Artists of Pacific heritage were community-focused, globally connected, young and high-achieving.

In 2011 research undertaken by Creative New Zealand (the primary government arts funding agency) found that artists of Pacific heritage and their arts had a growing appeal to a broad range of audiences throughout New Zealand. It found that 88% of people surveyed who had attended a Pacific arts event in the previous 12 months were not of Pacific Island descent.

Art and life

For many Pacific peoples, art, culture and daily life are not separated. The various spaces where art, culture and life are at play portray the living dynamism and innovation of the Pacific arts scene in New Zealand. These creative spaces include church (in particular special occasions such as White Sunday), island-specific independence-day celebrations, birthdays, hair-cutting ceremonies, anniversary celebrations, funerals and graduations. In such contexts there is creativity and innovation galore.

    • Fulimalo Pereira, ‘Arts specific: Pacific peoples and New Zealand arts.’ In Tangata o le moana: New Zealand and the people of the Pacific, edited by Sean Mallon, Kolokesa Māhina-Tuai and Damon Salesa. Wellington: Te Papa Press, 2012, p. 333. Back

Visual art and literature

Pacific art has infiltrated and excelled within the mainstream New Zealand arts sector. Literature, exhibitions and public performances have allowed other New Zealanders and the world to access, participate in and appreciate Pacific arts.

Art exhibitions


Exhibitions demonstrate the important contribution of Pacific arts in New Zealand. The 1962 Primitive Sculpture exhibition at Auckland Museum was described by Paula Beadle, director of the Elam School of Fine Arts, as the most important exhibition ever seen in New Zealand.

The 1960s also saw exhibitions by two painters of Pacific heritage, self-taught Samoan artist Teuane Tibbo and Cook Islander Paul Tangata. European attention to their work in the 1960s resulted in Tibbo becoming the first artist of Pacific heritage collected by Auckland Art Gallery, and Tangata the first artist of Pacific heritage to graduate from Elam School of Fine Arts.

1980s and 1990s

In the 1980s a group led by Samoan artist Fatu Akelei Feu’u formed a loose artists’ support network and set up the Tautai Art Gallery in Karangahape Road, Auckland, as a space for artists of Pacific heritage to exhibit. The Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, providing mentoring, support and advocacy for Pacific artists, was formed in 1995.

Two landmark exhibitions were held in the 1990s: Rangihiroa Panoho curated Te Moemoea no Iotefa (The Dream of Joseph) in Whanganui in 1990, and Jim Vivieaere was the curator of Bottled Ocean in Wellington in 1994.

Artists who were featured in these two exhibitions were pioneers and were recognised not only in their respective island communities but also within mainstream New Zealand arts. They included Fatu Feu’u, Niki Hastings-McFall (Samoan/English), Ioane Ioane (Samoan), Sale Jessop (Niuean), Lily Laita (Samoan/Māori), Ani O’Neill (Cook Islander), Johnny Penisula (Samoan), John Pule (Niuean), Greg Semu (Samoan), Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi (Tongan), Michel Tuffery (Samoan/Cook Islander) and Jim Vivieaere (Cook Islander).

The letter man

During Samoan-born Joseph Churchward’s 50-year career as a graphic designer he designed and created by hand 654 typefaces (fonts), the most any one person has come up with. In the late 1960s some of his fonts were used worldwide. One of them is the title font used for the Lonely Planet series of travel books, with approximately 55 million copies in circulation. Churchward died in 2013, four years after receiving the prestigious John Britten Award from the Designers Institute of New Zealand.

Pan-Pacific exhibition, 2012

Home AKL: Artists of Pacific Heritage, a 2012 exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, featured most of these pioneer artists. It also included Pacific master artists: weavers Foufili Halagigie (Niuean), Kaetaetae Watson and Louisa Humphrey (Kiribati); crochet and embroidery practitioners including Lakiloko Keakea, Kolokesa Kulīkefu and Hūlita Tupou (Tonga) and a tapa-making collective from Tonga along with masi (Fijian tapa cloth) artist Joana Monolagi (Fijian).


Pacific peoples have made their mark in New Zealand literature, beginning with well-known pioneers Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (Cook Islander) and Albert Wendt (Samoan). Campbell was primarily a poet, but also wrote novels and plays. Wendt produced poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Recognised internationally for his integration of Samoan fagogo (a dramatic form of oral storytelling) within written fiction, Wendt also supported and encouraged others. Pacific writers, he said, had ‘indigenised and enriched the language of the colonisers and used it to declare our independence and uniqueness’.1

First stories

From the 1960s writing for children was a quiet strength of Pacific New Zealand authors. Their stories could be found in special editions of the New Zealand School Journal published in Niuean, Cook Islands Māori, Samoan and Tokelauan. Work by authors of Pacific heritage also appeared in the journal’s English-language version, and in books for children published from the 1980s. Albert Wendt was one of the first, in 1961; other authors included Peggy Dunlop, Emma Kruse Va’ai, Lino Nelisi and Johnny Frisbie.

Campbell and Wendt were followed by fiction writers Sia Figiel (Samoan) and John Puhiatau Pule (Niuean).

One of the most accessible outlets in the 2000s for Pacific writers was public performance of their work. A strong contingent of poets who write and perform their works includes Selina Tusitala Marsh (Samoan), Karlo Mila-Schaaf (Tongan/European) and Tusiata Avia (Samoan). Young, fresh voices were heard in the works of collectives such as the South Auckland Poets Collective, including co-founders Daren Kamali (Fijian) and Grace Taylor (Samoan/European), and in the works of poet and playwright Courtney Sina Meredith (Samoan).


Pacific music and performing arts

The most visible contribution of Pacific artists to the New Zealand arts scene has been in performing arts such as music, dance, theatre, film and television.


Pacific music has always been popular in the New Zealand mainstream. Pioneers from the 1960s include Samoan singer Mavis Rivers, Tongan-born Bill Sevesi and his bands, Samoan guitarist Olaf Keil (who founded the band Herma Keil and the Keil Isles) and the Samoan Yandall Sisters.

In the 1980s artists Annie Crummer (Cook Islander) and Lole (Samoan) and the band Ardijah made waves in the local industry. Herbs, the founding fathers of Pacific reggae, emerged in the early 1980s and were still making music in the 2000s. The hip hop band Upper Hutt Posse included Teremoana Rapley, of Māori, Cook Islands and Kiribati descent. Their first album was released in 1989.

Since then, many more Pacific musicians have featured on the New Zealand music scene, including King Kapisi, Scribe, Ladi6 (all Samoan), Che Fu (Niuean/Māori), Savage (Samoan), Nesian Mystik, Brooke Fraser (Fijian/European), Aradhna (Samoan/Indian) and Deceptikonz. Critically acclaimed classical singers included Ben Mākisi (Tongan), Iosefa Enari, Daphne Collins, Jonathan Lemalu and Darren Pene Pati (all Samoan).


Dance companies Black Grace and MAU have made a significant contribution to New Zealand dance. The founder and artistic director of Black Grace, Neil Ieremia (of Samoan heritage), is regarded as one of New Zealand’s most accomplished choreographers. Internationally renowned avant-garde dance and theatre company MAU was founded by Samoan choreographer and theatre director Lemi Ponifasio.

Dancers of the Palace Dance Studio were recognised on the international hip hop dance scene. Founder and internationally renowned choreographer Parris Goebel (Samoan) created a uniquely New Zealand dance style known as ‘polyswagg’. She was a dancer and lead choreographer for the Auckland-based all-female dance group ReQuest, who won gold medals three years in a row at the World Hip Hop International Dance Championships in the United States. Since choreographing a music video for Jennifer Lopez in 2012 she has gone on to work with some of the world's biggest music stars, and become a star in her own right. In 2022 she received her third Emmy nomination.  

Pacific Dance New Zealand (PDNZ) was set up in 2010 by Dance Aotearoa New Zealand, with choreographer and educationalist Iosefa Enari its first director. PDNZ supports and extends the Pacific dance sector in New Zealand. It runs a wide range of programs, including two Auckland-based annual events – a Pacific Dance Fono and a dance residency.

Theatre, film and television

Artists of Pacific heritage feature strongly in New Zealand theatre and performing arts. Pioneering individuals and groups include Lani Tupu Snr, Nathaniel Lees, Maiava Eteuati Ete and Jay Laga’aia (all of Samoan heritage), producer Makerita Urale (Samoan) in Wellington, Pacific Theatre in Auckland and Pacific Underground (established in 1993) in Christchurch. In the 2000s there were groups such as Wellington theatre company The Conch (2002) and the South Auckland-based company Kila Kokonut Krew (2002).

Writer, actor, director and comedian Oscar Kightley (Samoan) was a founding member of Pacific Underground and a member of comedy theatre group the Naked Samoans (1998). Kightley is acknowledged as influential within mainstream theatre and television. His work with the Naked Samoans included New Zealand’s first animated sitcom, bro’Town (2004–9), which became a national and international success. The group followed broTown with the feature film Sione’s wedding (2006), which took the number-one spot in New Zealand in its first week, and had the biggest opening weekend of any New Zealand-made film, grossing over $3 million.

Sima Urale (Samoan) directed the award-winning short film O tamaiti (1996) and the feature Apron strings (2008). Other Pacific filmmakers in New Zealand include Toa Fraser, of Fijian descent, who wrote and directed No. 2 (2006), based on his play of the same name, and Samoan-born Tusi Tamasese, who wrote and directed The orator – o le tulafale (2011), the first Samoan-language feature film.

Pacific grassroots arts

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.

Pacific arts in Auckland

Auckland, in particular South Auckland, is the hub for Pacific arts on both a mainstream and grass-roots level. On a mainstream level it is the home of a number of annual events.

  • From grass-roots beginnings, the fashion and entertainment show Style Pasifika (1993–2011) became a key event of the Real New Zealand Festival during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.
  • Beginning in 1992, the Pasifika Festival expanded in 2013 to become a weekend event showcasing and sharing music, food, arts and dance from 10 island nations, including New Zealand.
  • Polyfest (officially the ASB Auckland Secondary Schools Māori and Pacific Islands Performing Arts Festival), began at Hillary College, Ōtara, South Auckland, in 1976. It is the largest Polynesian festival in the world. Showcasing music, dance, costume and speech, it represents New Zealand’s diverse cultures and celebrates youth performance.
  • The Southside Arts Festival (launched in 2008 as the Manukau Festival of Arts, with a name change in 2011) showcases diverse art offerings from South Auckland, including exhibitions, fashion, dance, music and theatre.
  • SOUTH is an annual arts publication, launched in 2011, which celebrates ‘the unique Maori and Pacific creative flair emanating from South Auckland!’1

Tautai Trust

Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust is also based in Auckland. It was established in the 1980s by visual artist Fatu Feu’u and friends, along with a group of emerging artists. In the 2010s it was a key national arts body, supporting the development of Pacific art through fostering and maintaining links with artists of Pacific heritage. It also ran activities and programmes that nurtured and supported the wider Pacific arts infrastructure, providing secondary school workshops, tertiary visits, and nurturing young curators and those writing about Pacific art.

Nurturing mamas

Nurturing arts from Pacific homelands is the purpose of the ‘Pacifica Mamas’ – master artists from the Cook Islands, Samoa, Tonga, Niue, Fiji, Tokelau, Tuvalu, Tahiti and Hawaii. Working at the Waitākere Pacific Arts Centre (set up in the 1980s), the mamas showcase and share their expertise through educational programmes and festivals, including the Pacifica HeArt Beat and Pacifica Living Arts Festival in March and November each year.

Markets, gallery and theatre

South Auckland is a mecca for Pacific arts. Its markets are well-known places to buy specific types of Pacific art such as tapa, mats, clothing, adornments and T-shirts. The best-known market is on Saturdays in Ōtara, but there are also markets in Māngere and Ōtāhuhu.

Also in Ōtara is the Fresh Gallery Otara. Opened in 2006, it has built a reputation for being an innovative, ground-breaking space while staying accountable and relevant to its community. A few suburbs away is the Māngere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku – which has become a key venue for Pacific theatre.

Creative groups

South Auckland is also the base for creative Pacific groups like the South Auckland Poets Collective, Falepipi he Mafola Niuean Handcraft Group, the band Ardijah, Kulupu Falehanga ’i Teleiloa (a Tongan art group) and the Palace Dance Studio.

It is the home of the record label Dawn Raid Entertainment, through which many of New Zealand’s Pacific hip hop and R&B artists have come – including South Auckland artists Deceptikonz and Adeaze. The international hit song ‘How bizarre’ by the Otara Millionaires’ Club (OMC) also came out of South Auckland – as the band’s name suggests.

Kila Kokonut Krew began as a theatre group then went on to produce music albums and shows in New Zealand and overseas, as well as mentoring up-and-coming playwrights. One of the company’s aims was to raise the professional profile of Pacific artists in South Auckland. In 2011 the company presented New Zealand’s first ever full-length Tongan play, Kingdom of Lote, and New Zealand’s first Pacific musical, The factory, both at Māngere Arts Centre. In 2013 they showcased South Auckland’s first online musical series, The factory, based on the musical of the same name.

    • Nigel Borell and Ema Tavola, editorial, SOUTH 1 (2011), p. 5. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai, 'Pacific arts in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 18 June 2024)

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