Social movements from the 1960s, especially feminism and the Māori and Pacific people’s cultural revival, have had a profound impact on New Zealand painting.
Feminism gave birth to a self-conscious women’s art movement. The Women’s Gallery was established in Wellington in 1980 and the ‘Mothers’ exhibition, held in 1981, was a significant exhibition of women’s art. There was a rediscovery of earlier painting by women, especially Rita Angus’s ‘Goddess’ paintings and a deliberate attempt to dissolve boundaries between the personal and the public. The painters who gained confidence and some recognition from this movement included several from an earlier generation, such as Jacqueline Fahey, a figurative painter who portrayed the domestic world of modern women, and Mary McIntyre, whose realist paintings have often pictured single figures (frequently herself) set slightly disturbingly against a New Zealand landscape.
Younger feminist painters included:
- Claudia Pond Eyley who, among other works, painted shields with symbols drawn by women in other cultures
- expatriate Alexis Hunter, who used photography and film as well as painting to challenge the patriarchy
- Carole Shepheard, primarily a printmaker, who also used symbols and images of the body in a consciously feminist way
- Julia Morison, another highly versatile multimedia artist, whose work constantly experimented with new forms, materials and symbols.
A major inspiration for Māori artists to reinterpret their traditions within modernist art was Gordon Tovey, the supervisor of arts and crafts for the Department of Education for 20 years from 1946. He encouraged Māori artists such as Ralph Hōtere, Para Matchitt, Cliff Whiting, Selwyn Muru and John Bevan Ford to draw on their culture. Many moved into sculpture and carving. Hōtere continued to paint, moving his focus of interest into environmental issues. Ford explored Māori history and traditions, especially in his paintings of cloaks.
What is ‘Māori’ art?
In 1976 Ralph Hōtere was quoted as saying, ‘I am Maori by birth and upbringing. As far as my work is concerned this is coincidental’1. Despite this, it might be suggested that Hōtere’s extensive use of the Māori language and the colour black in his work shows that his Māori heritage was never far from his work.
From the 1980s the output of modernist Māori painting increased, partly reflecting the impact of the international Te Māori exhibition in establishing the credibility of Māori art and partly as an expression of protest. Women were prominent, including:
- Robyn Kahukiwa, who painted strong Māori women and explored Māori traditional figures in a style reminiscent of meeting-house carving
- Emily Karaka, whose exuberant expressionist paintings speak of anger about injustice to Māori
- Kura Te Waru Rewiri, who used kōwhaiwhai and weaving patterns to produce beautiful abstract designs.
In the 2000s Star Gossage explored her own Māori traditions in images of delicate figures in the landscape.
Among the important contemporary Māori male painters, the most recognised is Shane Cotton of Ngāpuhi, who began as an abstract painter and then discovered his Māori heritage from the 1990s. His work took on the traditional colours of brown, red, white and black and began to confront issues of Māori loss of land and power. His painting became dense with symbolism and made allusions both to kōwhaiwhai and to Gordon Walters’s modernist koru paintings.
Peter Robinson used his discovery of his Māori whakapapa to confront issues of race and identity, often using words and numbers in red, black and white. In the 2000s Darren George painted geometric abstract works drawing on kōwhaiwhai and Māori words.
The major migration of people from Pacific Islands since the 1960s, and their desire to retain their own heritage, led to Pacific painting which, like Māori work, combined modernist approaches with traditional content. They range from the naïve-style images of Samoan life by 1960s artist Teuane Tibbo, to the tapa-like work of Samoan Fatu Feu’u and Niuean John Pule, and the colourful expressionism of Lily Laita. Michel Tuffery drew on Polynesian motifs for works in many media, including prints, paintings, sculptures and multi-media projections.