Kōrero: Pacific arts in New Zealand

Whārangi 2. Visual art and literature

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

Pacific art has infiltrated and excelled within the mainstream New Zealand arts sector. Literature, exhibitions and public performances have allowed other New Zealanders and the world to access, participate in and appreciate Pacific arts.

Art exhibitions


Exhibitions demonstrate the important contribution of Pacific arts in New Zealand. The 1962 Primitive Sculpture exhibition at Auckland Museum was described by Paula Beadle, director of the Elam School of Fine Arts, as the most important exhibition ever seen in New Zealand.

The 1960s also saw exhibitions by two painters of Pacific heritage, self-taught Samoan artist Teuane Tibbo and Cook Islander Paul Tangata. European attention to their work in the 1960s resulted in Tibbo becoming the first artist of Pacific heritage collected by Auckland Art Gallery, and Tangata the first artist of Pacific heritage to graduate from Elam School of Fine Arts.

1980s and 1990s

In the 1980s a group led by Samoan artist Fatu Akelei Feu’u formed a loose artists’ support network and set up the Tautai Art Gallery in Karangahape Road, Auckland, as a space for artists of Pacific heritage to exhibit. The Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust, providing mentoring, support and advocacy for Pacific artists, was formed in 1995.

Two landmark exhibitions were held in the 1990s: Rangihiroa Panoho curated Te Moemoea no Iotefa (The Dream of Joseph) in Whanganui in 1990, and Jim Vivieaere was the curator of Bottled Ocean in Wellington in 1994.

Artists who were featured in these two exhibitions were pioneers and were recognised not only in their respective island communities but also within mainstream New Zealand arts. They included Fatu Feu’u, Niki Hastings-McFall (Samoan/English), Ioane Ioane (Samoan), Sale Jessop (Niuean), Lily Laita (Samoan/Māori), Ani O’Neill (Cook Islander), Johnny Penisula (Samoan), John Pule (Niuean), Greg Semu (Samoan), Sopolemalama Filipe Tohi (Tongan), Michel Tuffery (Samoan/Cook Islander) and Jim Vivieaere (Cook Islander).

The letter man

During Samoan-born Joseph Churchward’s 50-year career as a graphic designer he designed and created by hand 654 typefaces (fonts), the most any one person has come up with. In the late 1960s some of his fonts were used worldwide. One of them is the title font used for the Lonely Planet series of travel books, with approximately 55 million copies in circulation. Churchward died in 2013, four years after receiving the prestigious John Britten Award from the Designers Institute of New Zealand.

Pan-Pacific exhibition, 2012

Home AKL: Artists of Pacific Heritage, a 2012 exhibition at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, featured most of these pioneer artists. It also included Pacific master artists: weavers Foufili Halagigie (Niuean), Kaetaetae Watson and Louisa Humphrey (Kiribati); crochet and embroidery practitioners including Lakiloko Keakea, Kolokesa Kulīkefu and Hūlita Tupou (Tonga) and a tapa-making collective from Tonga along with masi (Fijian tapa cloth) artist Joana Monolagi (Fijian).


Pacific peoples have made their mark in New Zealand literature, beginning with well-known pioneers Alistair Te Ariki Campbell (Cook Islander) and Albert Wendt (Samoan). Campbell was primarily a poet, but also wrote novels and plays. Wendt produced poetry, fiction and non-fiction. Recognised internationally for his integration of Samoan fagogo (a dramatic form of oral storytelling) within written fiction, Wendt also supported and encouraged others. Pacific writers, he said, had ‘indigenised and enriched the language of the colonisers and used it to declare our independence and uniqueness’.1

First stories

From the 1960s writing for children was a quiet strength of Pacific New Zealand authors. Their stories could be found in special editions of the New Zealand School Journal published in Niuean, Cook Islands Māori, Samoan and Tokelauan. Work by authors of Pacific heritage also appeared in the journal’s English-language version, and in books for children published from the 1980s. Albert Wendt was one of the first, in 1961; other authors included Peggy Dunlop, Emma Kruse Va’ai, Lino Nelisi and Johnny Frisbie.

Campbell and Wendt were followed by fiction writers Sia Figiel (Samoan) and John Puhiatau Pule (Niuean).

One of the most accessible outlets in the 2000s for Pacific writers was public performance of their work. A strong contingent of poets who write and perform their works includes Selina Tusitala Marsh (Samoan), Karlo Mila-Schaaf (Tongan/European) and Tusiata Avia (Samoan). Young, fresh voices were heard in the works of collectives such as the South Auckland Poets Collective, including co-founders Daren Kamali (Fijian) and Grace Taylor (Samoan/European), and in the works of poet and playwright Courtney Sina Meredith (Samoan).

Kupu tāpiri
  1. Quoted in ‘Albert Wendt’, New Zealand Book Council, http://www.bookcouncil.org.nz/writers/wendta.html (last accessed 6 March 2014). Back
Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai, 'Pacific arts in New Zealand - Visual art and literature', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/pacific-arts-in-new-zealand/page-2 (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Kolokesa U. Māhina-Tuai, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014