Kōrero: Otago region

Whārangi 14. Art, writing and music

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Early writing

Scottish-born poet and historian John Barr was enormously popular in early Otago. The gold rushes produced a lot of ephemeral writing and the occasional longer work, such as Vincent Pyke’s novel Wild Will Enderby (1873).

Comings and goings

Charles Baeyertz came to Dunedin as a musical entrepreneur from Melbourne in the 1890s. His monthly journal Triad became a landmark in New Zealand life within a short time before he moved north. Italian artist Girolamo Nerli, another 1890s arrival, fostered the talent of artists Frances Hodgkins and Grace Joel before returning to Europe.

Words and music

Dunedin journalist and poet Thomas Bracken (1843–1898) is best remembered as the author of the words to the national anthem, ‘God defend New Zealand’ (1876). The music was composed by John Joseph Woods, a teacher from Lawrence.

Visual arts

A later generation of artists featured the landforms and landscape of Central Otago. Many studied with R. N. Field, who came to Dunedin in 1925. Colin McCahon was distinctive among them in being Dunedin-raised. He was influenced by nearby coastal landscapes as well as those of Central Otago.

Painter and sculptor Ralph Hōtere lived and worked in Port Chalmers for many years. Grahame Sydney has spent most of his life in Otago, painting many Central Otago landscapes.

Dunedin Public Art Gallery, set up in 1884, has a fine collection of European art.

A literary tradition

Charles Brasch, from a bourgeois Dunedin Jewish family, was a poet who founded the literary journal Landfall in 1947. Brasch edited Landfall (which is still published) from Dunedin for its first 20 years.

Poet James K. Baxter grew up partly in Otago and attended the University of Otago, where he wrote his first published poems. Fellow poet Ruth Dallas was a close associate of Brasch, especially during the years she lived in Dunedin.

Hone Tuwhare, a Māori poet from the northern North Island, was associated with Otago from the 1960s until his death in 2008. Poet and essayist Brian Turner lives in Ōtūrehua, in Central Otago.

Writer Janet Frame explored a different Otago in her work, notably Owls do cry, which drew on her childhood in a working-class family in Ōamaru.

The Robert Burns Fellowship, established at the University of Otago in 1958, was New Zealand’s first literary award. It has supported many of New Zealand’s most important authors.

Library and newspapers

The Hocken Library, based on the collections of local coroner T. M. Hocken, is a major research institution. It was founded in 1910 and later became part of the University of Otago.

From 1851 to 1932 the weekly Otago Witness newspaper recorded the life of the province and kept it informed about the wider world. The Otago Daily Times, still thriving in the 2010s, first appeared on 15 November 1861. It was New Zealand's earliest fully-fledged daily paper. The Oamaru Mail first appeared in 1876; Queenstown’s Mountain Scene, published from 1972, is the liveliest of a number of local papers.


The Otago Museum was established in 1868 and moved into a purpose-built building in 1877.

Otago is the beneficiary of two substantial provincial histories, by A. H. McLintock (1949) and Erik Olssen (1984), as well as a host of local histories. The centennial history project in the 1940s and 1950s saw no fewer than 18 such histories produced, and under the Otago Heritage Books imprint, George Griffiths published many more between 1978 and 2006. In the 1990s Dunedin City Council sponsored four histories: Bill Dacker's The pain and the love - te mamae me te aroha, to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the purchase of the Otago block; Atholl Anderson's The welcome of strangers, on the ethnography of southern Māori; The cyclopedia of Otago and Southland; and Southern people: a dictionary of Otago Southland biography.

A new world of music

Dunedin, like the rest of the province, has a vigorous tradition of choirs, and brass and pipe bands.

It also enjoys a reputation for contemporary music. Christchurch-based Flying Nun records, formed in 1981, produced recordings from Dunedin bands such as The Clean, the Verlaines, Sneaky Feelings, the Stones and the Chills. The distinctive ‘Dunedin sound’ was ‘typically marked by the use of droning or jangling guitars, indistinct vocals and often copious quantities of reverberation’. 1 Dunedin songwriters and bands continued to contribute to the national and international music scene in the 2010s.

Māori arts

The revival of the fortunes of Ngāi Tahu since the 1990s has led to a variety of publications about New Zealand’s southernmost Māori population. Scholars such as Atholl Anderson have analysed the demography and anthropology of Ngāi Tahu through time.

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Matthew Bannister, ‘Anything could happen – Flying Nun history 1980–1995.’ http://www.undertheradar.co.nz/utr/article/UAID/3/Flying-Nun-History-1980-1995.utr (last accessed 21 April 2009). › Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Malcolm McKinnon, 'Otago region - Art, writing and music', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/otago-region/page-14 (accessed 29 May 2024)

He kōrero nā Malcolm McKinnon, i tāngia i te 8 May 2009, updated 1 May 2015