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Arts and social engagement

by Ben Schrader

People have used art to persuade and protest in New Zealand since the 19th century. Visual artworks, songs, poetry and theatre have been employed to engage New Zealanders socially. The arts are also used to help people with mental or physical disabilities.

Colonisation and social change

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
    • Hamish Keith, The big picture: a history of New Zealand art since 1842. Auckland: Godwit, 2007, p. 70. Back
    • 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

Criticising society

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. It concerned the outbreak of war on a Pacific Island after a Christian missionary landed bearing the gift of an axe, a metaphor for New Zealand’s colonisation.

Rugby tours to apartheid-era South Africa also raised the issue of race. When Māori players were banned from the All Blacks’ 1960 tour of South Africa, Gerry Merito from the Howard Morrison Quartet penned the song ‘My old man’s an All Black’ to protest the decision. 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 Māori land alienation.
  • In 1988 Dean Hapeta and his group Upper Hutt Posse released ‘E tū’, New Zealand’s first rap song. It charted the detrimental effects of colonialism on Māori society.
  • In 2000–2001 the 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 Otago University’s decision to ban male and female students from living in the same houses. 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 Hotere painted a series of works to protest a proposed aluminium smelter at the Otago township of Aramoana.

Oh shit!

In 2003 artists contributed to a show titled Artists Against Aqua at Ōamaru’s Forrester Gallery to protest 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 proposal 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 1986 bombing of the Greenpeace ship the 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. Using the site of a demolished Wellington theatre, Thomas planted 180 cabbage seedlings, which spelt out the word ‘cabbage’. He was protesting 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.

    • James K. Baxter, Collected poems. Wellington: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 398. Back

Arts therapy and access

Arts therapy

Arts therapy is based on the belief that art practices and materials can help build, restore and maintain the physical, mental and emotional wellbeing of people. It encompasses visual art making, drama, dance and movement. Arts therapists provide a safe environment that encourages people to examine issues in whatever media they choose. It differs from traditional art production in emphasising the creative and meaning-making processes of an art over the end product. Through using non-verbal communication, arts therapy is believed to help people to better cope with trauma and stress, develop their judgement and forge healthier relationships.

Jesse’s jam

Thirteen-year-old Jesse Jackson’s autism meant he was unable to communicate verbally, but was able to do so musically. In 2014 he attended weekly sessions at Auckland’s Raukatauri Music Therapy Centre. As music therapist Claire Molyneux tapped out piano rhythms, Jesse responded and became noticeably calmer than before the session.

Music therapy

Music therapy uses music to help the healing and personal growth of people with disabilities, such as cerebral palsy, autism and Alzheimer’s disease. In music therapy sessions people express themselves musically however they can, using their body, voice or musical instruments. This can reduce a person’s sense of isolation and provide them with new skills, such as motor and social skills.

Helping refugees

Art therapist Suzanne Scarrold said in 2013: ‘Art therapy can access deeper levels of feeling than you may be able to put into words. It is a way of reaching those feelings in the subconscious.’1 She used arts therapy to help new refugees cope with the trauma they had experienced before arriving in New Zealand.

Professional bodies

Arts and music therapists have their own professional organisations. In 2014 these were the Australian and New Zealand Art Therapy Association and Music Therapy New Zealand. Arts and music therapists require a master’s degree in their chosen discipline. Auckland’s Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design offers these courses.

Breaking down barriers

In the early 2000s a number of non-government arts organisations advocated on behalf of people who experienced barriers to engaging and participating in the arts, both as creators and as audience members.

Art Access Aotearoa Whakahauhau Katoa o Hanga helped people with physical, sensory or intellectual disabilities connect with individuals and organisations in the community and professional arts sectors. It also used the arts as a tool to support prisoner rehabilitation.

Auckland theatre company Interacting Theatre put on performances using actors with disabilities to tell stories that challenged cultural stereotypes about people with disabilities. In 2011 it inaugurated the annual InterACT Disability Arts Festival.


Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Ben Schrader, 'Arts and social engagement', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 3 March 2021)

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