Kōrero: New Zealand identity

Whārangi 6. Culture and arts

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Art, literature, music and film unofficially reflect many important aspects of a national identity. The arts confirm a sense of identity for locals and help establish the character of New Zealand for people overseas. In particular, they show us how the geographical and cultural anchors of New Zealand identity have changed over time.

Colonial culture

Much 19th-century literature is known for its romantic accounts of rural life in New Zealand. It often embodied the pioneer mythology. Some of the poetry and novels at the end of the 19th century romanticised Māori – as did paintings such as those by Charles Goldie.


In the early 20th century some significant writers and artists saw New Zealand as a desolate cultural landscape. A number, such as the writer Katherine Mansfield and the painter Frances Hodgkins, expatriated themselves. Most novelists published their books in London for a British readership, although they often used colonial settings.

Cultural nationalism

From the mid-1930s a cultural nationalist movement sought to establish a thriving local culture and break with British traditions. The men alone in the rugged bush and mountains, or the moment of European discovery of New Zealand, were favourite themes. They were expressed in John Mulgan’s novel Man alone, Denis Glover’s poems about Arawata Bill, Allen Curnow’s verse and composer Douglas Lilburn’s ‘Landfall in unknown seas’. Painters such as Rita Angus, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston also focused on the distinctive landscapes of New Zealand. At a popular level, writers such as Barry Crump elevated the hard life of the backblocks deer culler into a national icon.

New ‘home’

The poet Denis Glover, who helped establish a local publishing outlet, Caxton Press, showed in his 1936 poem ‘Home thoughts’ how ‘home’ had moved for many New Zealanders:

I do not dream of Sussex downs
or quaint old England’s
quaint old towns—
I think of what may yet be seen
in Johnsonville or Geraldine.1

Film and television

From the 1960s New Zealand television reflected New Zealanders to themselves. Expressive of the rural mythology, Country calendar became New Zealand’s longest-running programme, and John Clarke established a large following for his comic persona Fred Dagg, a gumboot-wearing farmer. Local film-makers took time to become established. Some, such as Jane Campion, left New Zealand to build their career abroad. Not until the 1990s, with the more rapid growth of the local film industry around Peter Jackson’s film productions, was it common for film-makers to make their career in New Zealand. Jackson’s films, particularly The lord of the rings trilogy, became hugely important in presenting images of the New Zealand landscape to the world. Māori filmmakers such as Taika Waititi also presented Māori culture and identity on the big screen.

The work of Weta Digital – creating digital and special effects for movies – conveyed an image of New Zealanders as technically sophisticated.


Contemporary New Zealand literature, film, theatre and music is enriched by the diversity in New Zealand’s population. Composer Gareth Farr incorporates European, Māori and Pacific strands into his classical compositions, while musicians such as Che Fu, King Kapisi and Ladi6 present a strongly Pacific-flavoured New Zealand identity to the global hip-hop scene. New Zealand reggae – infused particularly with a Māori and Pacific flavour – is also represented internationally by groups such as TrinityRoots and Fat Freddy’s Drop.

Modern expatriation

Although cultural life flourishes in New Zealand, expatriation remained a major phenomenon among New Zealanders in the 2000s. Over 16% of New Zealand citizens, and almost 25% of tertiary-educated New Zealanders, were estimated to live abroad. The largest group of overseas New Zealanders lived in Australia. In 2001 the Kiwi Expat Association (KEA) was founded to connect New Zealanders overseas to the nation, to enhance business opportunities and to promote New Zealand around the world. Their activities are a reminder that the nation also includes New Zealanders not currently resident in the country.

The ‘OE’ (overseas experience), whereby young New Zealanders travel and work abroad, was seen as an important rite of passage. This circulation of New Zealanders in and out of the country had become part of the national identity. It shaped how New Zealand and New Zealanders interacted with, and related to, the wider world.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Denis Glover, ‘Home thoughts.’ In The Penguin book of New Zealand verse, edited by Ian Wedde and Harvey McQueen. Auckland: Penguin, 1985, p. 211. Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Fiona Barker, 'New Zealand identity - Culture and arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/new-zealand-identity/page-6 (accessed 21 April 2024)

He kōrero nā Fiona Barker, i tāngia i te 20 Jun 2012