Story: Regional cultural life

Page 3. Flourishing regional cultures, 1945 to 2000

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Capital coffee culture

During and after the Second World War European immigrants, including Jewish refugees, brought cultural life to the cities. Wellington had a number of coffee houses where artists and intellectuals met. The earliest, the French Maid Coffee House, was opened by Dick Singleton in 1940. Besides hosting new music, the French Maid exhibited artworks by Theo Schoon, Sam Cairncross, Gordon Walters, Colin McCahon and others. Later coffee houses of the 1950s and 1960s, such as Coffee Gallery, The Windmill, Suzy’s and Monde Marie, played a similar role.


Suzy’s Coffee Lounge was immensely popular among Wellingtonians, and was in business for 23 years. It was run by Suzy van der Kwast, an eccentric and lively host, who would often disrupt diners to shuffle tables closer together so she could create room for more customers. Rita Angus was a notable frequent patron.

Wellington was also home to a creative group of poets who questioned the nationalism and the South Island landscapes of the Curnow/Christchurch school. They included James K. Baxter, Louis Johnson, Fleur Adcock, Peter Bland and Alistair Campbell.

Auckland avant garde

In the early 1950s important groupings of writers and artists emerged in Auckland. At his Takapuna property, short-story writer Frank Sargeson hosted various writers, such as Janet Frame after her voluntary psychiatric institutionalisation in 1955. Allen Curnow moved to Auckland in 1951 and encouraged other poets including Kendrick Smithyman and Carl Stead. In the late 1960s a younger group of poets and writers emerged from Auckland University, including Alan Brunton, Ian Wedde, Leigh Davis and Murray Edmond. They published in magazines like Freed and And.

Artist Colin McCahon also shifted to Auckland in 1953. His presence at the Auckland Art Gallery (alongside director Peter Tomory from 1956) and at the Elam School of Fine Arts was influential. Significant artists such as Don Binney, Gretchen Albrecht and Pat Hanly represented a new generation of politically active Elam graduates. At the university’s architecture school in 1946 an ambitious group of second-year students went on to form Group Architects, committed to modernist design principles.

Peace, sun and beauty

The Group Manifesto expressed the members’ fresh approach to architecture: ‘We know there is another way of living in which a house is logically contrived for peace and comfort, where the sun brings life without faded carpets, and in which leisure and beauty are not interred in respectable museums. And we mean to find it for ourselves and make it real to everyone who feels as we do … Because we want this in New Zealand, overseas solutions will not do. New Zealand must have its own architecture, its own sense of what is beautiful and appropriate to our climate and conditions.’1

In 1970 Auckland University academic Ranginui Walker organised a Maori Leaders’ Conference, which attracted many urban educated Māori. The hui encouraged the creation of activist group Ngā Tamatoa, initially based in Auckland, which led protests over the confiscation of Māori land and the loss of te reo Māori (the Māori language).

Provincial clusters

In the later 20th century distinct artistic traditions emerged in provincial centres.

Toss Woollaston had painted in Nelson from the 1940s. He attracted other artists to the area for short stays, such as Colin McCahon, Rita Angus and Doris Lusk. European immigrant Mirek Smisek moved to Nelson in the 1950s, and began making studio pottery using local clay. He was joined in the 1960s by British potters Harry and May Davis and Stephen Carter, and later Jack and Peggy Laird, who established Waimea Craft Pottery. The Danish silversmith Jens Hansen settled there in 1968, and by the 1980s Nelson was known as a centre for crafts. Out of this culture emerged Suzie Moncrieff’s World of WearableArt show in 1987.

With the support of the Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui city also attracted an arts community, which was encouraged by the opening of the Wanganui School of Design in 1987. In neighbouring Taranaki art was stimulated by the building of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth in 1970. It became known for challenging, boundary-pushing exhibitions, and was home to significant Len Lye works. Local artists Don Driver and Michael Smither made important contributions.

Sounds like Dunedin

Verlaines frontman Graeme Downes remembers recording his band’s contribution to Dunedin double, an early Flying Nun EP, in a ‘pretty grotty little flat. One room was the studio and the next room was the control room … Katherine was playing a tambourine as well but every take we did, the tambourine was so bloody loud that they couldn't get it low enough in the mix because it was all pretty much being recorded acoustically so they ended up burying her under a mattress in the corner of the room. It was absolutely primitive.’2

Regional music scenes

Some regions developed distinctive music scenes. The first punk bands – including the Suburban Reptiles and the Scavengers – formed in Auckland in the late 1970s. In Dunedin a form of indie-pop known famously as ‘the Dunedin sound’ emerged in the early 1980s, coinciding with the advent of Otago University student radio. Bands like the Chills, the Clean and the Dead C were prominent.

From the mid-1980s hip hop flourished in South Auckland, with such acts as Semi MCs, Sisters Underground and Enemy Productions. Another hip hop scene developed in Lower Hutt, especially within the Samoan community, with groups such as the Mau. At the same time in Waikato, heavy metal bands such as Blackjack and Knightshade helped create the region’s reputation for ‘bogan’ culture. By the 2000s Wellington boasted a strong dub and roots music scene, epitomised by bands Fat Freddy’s Drop, Trinity Roots and the Black Seeds.

  1. Quoted in ‘Group architects: towards a New Zealand architecture.’ (last accessed 26 June 2014). Back
  2. Quoted in ‘In love with those times: Flying Nun and the Dunedin sound.’ Stylus, (last accessed 26 June 2014). Back
How to cite this page:

Pip Howells, 'Regional cultural life - Flourishing regional cultures, 1945 to 2000', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

Story by Pip Howells, published 22 Oct 2014