Kōrero: Arts and social engagement

Whārangi 2. Criticising society

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

From the 1940s the arts became a pivotal device for social criticism and activism.

Questioning colonisation

Many Pākehā New Zealanders had been raised in the belief that the country’s race relations were exemplary. The poet and playwright Allen Curnow queried this in his 1948 play, The axe – a verse tragedy. This concerned the outbreak of war on a Pacific Island after a Christian missionary landed bearing the gift of an axe, a metaphor for colonisation by New Zealand.

Rugby tours to apartheid-era South Africa also raised the issue of race. When Māori players were banned from selection for  the All Blacks’ 1960 tour of South Africa, Gerry Merito of the Howard Morrison Quartet penned the song ‘My old man’s an All Black’ to protest against the decision by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union. It sold 60,000 copies.

From the 1970s artists increasingly questioned New Zealand’s idealised race relations record.

  • In 1979 the Māori theatre group Maranga Mai performed a play of the same name that dramatised the injustice of the alienation of Māori land.
  • In 1988 Dean Hapeta and his group Upper Hutt Posse released ‘E tū’, New Zealand’s first rap song. This described the detrimental effects of colonialism on Māori society.
  • In 2000–2001 City Gallery Wellington hosted an exhibition about the pacifist Māori community of Parihaka, which was invaded by the Crown in 1881. The show brought together 120 years of art, poetry and songs about Parihaka.

Baxter’s ode

James K. Baxter was renowned for his protest poems. This included ‘A small ode on mixed flatting’, written in 1967 as a satirical response to the University of Otago’s decision to prevent male and female students living in the same house. It included these lines:

The students who go double-flatting
With their she-catting and tom-catting
Won’t ever get a pass in Latin;
The moral mainstay of the nation
Is careful, private masturbation1


The feminist movement sought to give women the same opportunities as men. Among its leading artists was Jacqueline Fahey. In her painting ‘Christine in the pantry’ (1973) she depicted a young woman surrounded by kitchen clutter as a critique of the social isolation of suburban life. Robyn Kahukiwa’s work examined Māori women’s subservience to men. Her 1990 painting ‘Tihe mauri ora’ called on Māori women to combat patriarchy and colonisation. Meanwhile, plays like Renee’s Wednesday to come (1984) and Fiona Samuel’s The wedding party (1988) provided feminist critiques and insights into modern life.

The environment

The environmental movement rose to prominence in the early 1970s following a government initiative to dam Lake Manapōuri for hydroelectricity. John Hanlon’s 1973 protest song ‘Damn the dam’ became a popular anthem for the dam’s opponents. In 1980 Ralph Hōtere painted a series of works to protest against a proposed aluminium smelter at Aramoana, a settlement near the entrance to Otago Harbour.

Oh shit!

In 2003 artists contributed to a show titled Artists Against Aqua at Ōamaru’s Forrester Gallery to protest against a proposal to develop the lower Waitaki River for hydroelectricity and intensive farming. Ken Larraman’s installation ‘Oh shit’ comprised 72 plastic bags in which clods of dried cow dung were sealed – a reference to the environmental damage caused by intensive dairying. The show was one of the gallery’s most popular ever. The proposed development was scuttled in 2004.

Pat Hanly was a leader in the anti-nuclear movement. His painting ‘The great fire’ (1960) depicted the destructive 1666 London event, but was also a metaphor for the nuclear threat. Another painting, ‘Outrage’ (1986), was a condemnation of the 1985 bombing of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour by French secret-service agents.

Temporary art

Temporary art has been another avenue for artistic social engagement. A vibrant example was the 1978 installation ‘Vacant lot of cabbages’ by Barry Thomas. On the site of a demolished Wellington theatre, Thomas planted 180 cabbage seedlings, which spelt out the word ‘cabbage’. He was protesting against the lack of a central city park and challenged Wellingtonians to make the site their own. His call captured the public imagination and the site filled with all sorts of objects. For several months the urban garden became a place for gatherings and events. The installation culminated in a week-long arts festival, The Last Roxy Show, which included poetry readings, performance and the distribution of free coleslaw. A shopping arcade was later built on the site.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. James K. Baxter, Collected poems. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 398. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Ben Schrader, 'Arts and social engagement - Criticising society', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/arts-and-social-engagement/page-2 (accessed 6 October 2022)

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