Māori: Natives of New Zealand. Maori means “the local people”, or “the original people”. Māori was a word which signified “local” or “original” – as opposed to the new arrivals – white European settlers or “pakeha”. The word Māori gradually became an adjective for the “Māori people”.
The Maori have not traditionally separated their creations into what we call art. Many of the things we refer to as Maori art are practical in nature, used to show prestige or rank, or to show ancestry. Most Maori art is not religious, however, and much of the patterns we see are purely decorative. Much of Maori does not depict people for cultural reasons.
Maori Art History
Much like in America, traditional art in New Zealand was largely ignored, pushed aside, or devalued. Native art was thought to be “primitive” and lacking the characteristics that made European art great. After the first 100 years of colonialism in New Zealand many of the traditional art forms began to become infused with European additives, such as text and the written word working its way into carving.
The first noteworthy advancement in modern Maori art was made by lawyer, politician, political activist, and member of the Young Maori Party, Apirana Ngata (1874 – 1950). He founded the Maori school of arts in Rotorua in 1927. One of the first students of this school was Pine Taiapa (1901 – 1972). Here Pine Taiapa (once a rugby player) would learn the Maori carving technique of adze and pass on this knowledge himself. He would later work on 64 meeting houses between 1927 and 1940. He taught hundreds of youth the techniques and traditions of the Maori during this time and would later become a central figure in the Maori Renaissance (see text below). He would often use the people he taught in one area to help him get started on the next meeting-house, helping to grow the circle of expertise. He was an excellent speaker and had a knack for involving everyone in his speaking, fluent in Maori or not. In 1934 Pine Taiapa began teaching at Te Aomarama, the Institute of Maori Carving at Rotorua. Pine Taiapa would launch the first Maori art course in the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand in 1966.
These attempts at revival were not taken seriously in the 1950’s. But the fine artist Theo Schoon (1915 – 1985) took an interest in and studied Maori art, bringing it attention again. Theo Schoon was an immigrant to New Zeland and his work started just before the Maori Renaissance and continued during it. He studied this art form not in the traditional sense but through taking photographs of a range of Maori artifacts. He used these photographs of Maori art to influence his own carving technique and style. He was largely ignored by the fine arts community. Nevertheless he pointed out the formal principles underlying the rich drawings of the Maori and had several successful shows during his life time. However, this appeal was for what was referred to as the child-like qualities of the Maori art tradition rather than its strong formal qualities.
In the 1950’s a major change occurred that catapulted the artwork of the Maori into a Renaissance, sometimes called the Maori Renaissance. At this time the artist and educator Gordon Tovey (1901 – 1974) was the supervisor of Arts and Crafts for the Department of Education. He started a foundation called the Northern Maori Project. This eventually led to the importance of Maori art in the New Zealand Arts Curriculum. Gordon Tovey believed in maintaining a balance of earth, people, mythology and the spiritual in order to give expression and meaning to everyday life through the arts. What Gordon Tovey did was to encourage young Maori artists to attend graduate art school (if not already doing so) and then took them directly from there to be Arts and Craft Specialists. This was a radical departure from taking people from the teacher colleges for this line of work. This included the likes of Ralph Hotere, Para Matchitt, Muru Walters, Cliff Whiting, Fred Graham and more. Each of these artists drew inspiration, and was encouraged to do so, from their Maori heritage and combine with contemporary theories, techniques, and processes to create a personal genre. They acted as mediators between European traditions of arts and their own rich artistic heritage.
Te Rongo Kirkwood: Is a full time artist of Tainui descent that was largely self-taught. She is a mother of two who even as a teenage she was offered commissions to paint. However she had trouble dealing with the business side of being an artist and traveled to London in 1996. During her 12 year stay in London she went into the corporate world of human resource management. In London she was introduced to glass by Danny Lane – a glass sculptor. This gave her the idea of combining her traditional art forms with that of glass and after deciding she wanted nothing more to do with the corporate world she returned to New Zealand.
Do to having two young children formal education was not really an option. So she bought her own kiln and began teaching herself. She began to gain recognition and placed in many artist competitions in America, Canada, and Australia. The Waitakere City Council would select her to create a public sculpture. This would be her first large scale project.
Te Rongo creates largely abstract (non-objective) work. She loves to use pattern and form with her use of negative spaces. She primarily uses various shapes that are a mix of geometric and organic shapes with flowing rhythms. She often uses symmetrical balances and strong harmonies. She uses designs influenced by her Maori and New Zealand heritage combined with inspiration she draws from the land, bush and sea. She seeks to create work that has innate beauty (aesthetic appeal) and reflects her sense of emotion and spirit. Much of this work becomes intuitive as she creates patterns to fill up the spaces she is working on. Her work is not intentionally cultural but says its shows in her work because it is a part of her.
Manos Nathan: A half Greek and half Maori man who is a member of the Te Roroa, Ngati Whatua and Nga Puhi tribes. Manos has been a leader in promoting Maori art since the 80’s and an internationally recognized artist. Manos is the founding member and former chairperson of the Te Atinga, an organization that promotes Maori art. He is also the co-founder of the Nga Kaihanga Uku, a national Maori clay workers’ organization. He draws his inspiration from customary Maori cosmological and creation narratives. In 1989 he traveled to the US after winning the Fulbright award and visited Native American potters. He has continued his cultural exchanges with indigenous peoples.
Manos’s work uses a rich variety of flowing rhythms, combinations of organic and geometric shapes, and strong harmonies. He favors symmetrical balance and shows a strong use of Fibonacci and gestalt in his work. He uses his negative spaces to create an interesting designs and patterns. His work is usually monochromatic or uses a limited range of colors.
Todd Couper: A former apprentice to Roi Toia, Todd is an internationally recognized artist. He attended the Te Aute College and received an arts diploma from Waiariki Polytechnic. He works primarily in wood.
Todd uses strong organic shapes with flowing rhythms. He frequently echoes shapes to create strong harmonies. He does both abstract and objective works of art. Todd often uses neutral or warm colors in his work.