Kōrero: Arts and social engagement

Whārangi 1. Colonisation and social change

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

For many artists the production of artworks has had a social and cultural purpose and is not an end in itself.

Promotional art

In 1849 former New Zealand Company surveyor Samuel Brees created the ‘New Zealand Panorama’ in a theatre in London’s Leicester Square. It comprised a series of oversized paintings of New Zealand scenes by Brees, aimed at promoting emigration to the colony. It ran for nearly two years and was very popular, with an estimated 40,000 people going to see it.

Promoting settlement

Early colonial painters sometimes modified New Zealand’s landscapes to make them more attractive to potential settlers. One device was to empty the landscape of people. For example, a sketch by Joseph Merrett depicts a pōwhiri (welcoming ceremony) outside a fortified at Lake Okataina in 1840. When it was republished as a lithographic print in London in 1842 the pā was there but the people had been removed from the scene. As art historian Hamish Keith has written: ‘There is nothing like the sight of an empty landscape to stimulate avarice for land in the heart of a settler who has none.’1 Another trick was to make New Zealand’s topography look more like England’s by rounding rugged hills, depicting cattle in pastoral settings and emphasising townscapes, making it appear more familiar and less exotic.

Māori protest art

Māori employed art to protest the detrimental aspects of colonisation. In the 1850s Wī Tako Ngātata, a chief of Te Āti Awa, commissioned the carving of the pātaka (storehouse) Nuku Tewhatewha. It was one of seven ‘Pillars of the Kingdom’ built across the North Island to show support for the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement). Some Māori also composed waiata (songs) to protest the alienation of their lands and other injustices. A lament of the Ngāti Apakura people, ‘E pā tō hau’, was composed in the 1860s following the confiscation of their Waikato lands by the Crown.


Cartoonists’ work often satirised current events, but cartoons could also promote social change. Lobby groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union used cartoons to advance the cause of issues such as temperance and liquor-trade restraints, while unions employed cartoons in campaigns to improve workers’ wages and conditions. On the other side of the political fence, conservative interests used cartoons to warn against worker militancy and other social activism.

Art and unionism

Trade unions were among the first social groups to use art to convey a collective identity and attract public support. Union banners were carried by members during Labour Day processions from the late 19th century. Many were elaborate and finely detailed, depicting work scenes and trade symbols and messages.

During the 1940s Dennis Knight Turner used his paintings to show concern for workers and their rights. In 1948 he painted a mural comprising five panels, each depicting different groups of workers. The mural had a heroic quality, aimed at lifting working people’s social status.

Workers also used songs to protest their working conditions. A song sung by miners at Waihī at the beginning of the 20th century highlighted the detrimental health effects of the dust that was created by mining:

There in Waihi, with its tail and its treasure,

Men’s lives are squandered while earning a crust,

Leaving homes desolate and a grave for some loved one,

Ruthlessly slain by battery dust.2
Kupu tāpiri
  1. Hamish Keith, The big picture: a history of New Zealand art since 1842. Auckland: Godwit, 2007, p. 70. Back
  2. Rona Bailey and Herbert Roth, Shanties by the way: a selection of New Zealand popular songs and Ballads. Christchurch: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1967, p. 119. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Arts and social engagement - Colonisation and social change', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/arts-and-social-engagement/page-1 (accessed 2 October 2023)

He kōrero nā Ben Schrader, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014