The Evolution of Maori Women's Art

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Male artists dominated the contemporary Maori art movement despite the fact that the international women's liberation movement was well established. Until the 1980s the visual art of Maori women was dominated by traditional weaving. Weavers such as Dame Rangimarie Hetet, her daughter Diggeress Te Kanawa, Te Aue Davis, Erenora Puketapu Hetet, Puti Rare, Emily Schuster and many others were creating new contemporary pieces by drawing on traditional knowledge. In 1983, the Aotearoa Moananui a Kiwa weavers was formed, a combination of Maori and Pacific Island weavers who met each year.

Changes in the arts structures in New Zealand saw them re-establish themselves in 1994 as Te Roopu Rarangawhatu o Aotearoa. Today, many of them are part of the Toi Maori Eternal Thread exhibition touring the United States in 2005 and 2006. This is the first major exhibition of Maori weaving to tour internationally, and it was curated by the Pataka Museum of Arts and Culture in Porirua City in New Zealand, in partnership with Toi Maori Aotearoa.

During the later 1970s and early 1980s, government-sponsored employment programs had sprung up. The Wellington Women's Gallery developed and grew in profile and membership to the extent that its impact was felt throughout the country. At the same time, small groups of contemporary female Maori artists were emerging. Many of the important members of this movement had anglicized names; it was a time when urban Maori were rediscovering their identities, and many Maori born outside the culture were discovering or adopting Maori names. A lot of these women's work was based on searching for identity, myths and legends, reconciling male and female issues, and grappling with some academic ideas on being Maori.

The Maori women's art movement was mainly Wellington inspired. It adopted the name ‘Haeata’ and was a strong and focused group under the driving force of educator and expert in Maori culture Keri Kaa. The women challenged a wide range of Maori issues and wrote their own female "herstory" instead of accepting male-biased "history." At times they were perceived as anti-male and anti-colonial as some of the individuals struggled with their own identities in the early stages of the group's development. Most of the leading male artists preferred to keep away from the women's group and in many cases were guilty of male chauvinism that is not unusual among Maori men. Eventually the contemporary Maori male and female artists formed a peaceful space between them and worked alongside each other to create a series of major touring exhibitions throughout the country.

Prominent among the emerging female Maori visual artists were Shona Davies, a dynamic and creative painter and sculptor (later known as Shona Rapira Davies), and the passionate expressionist and colour painter Emily Pace, who has now adopted her family name and is known as Emily Karaka. Also part of this movement were the minimalist abstract painter Susie Roiri and the poet and creative installation artist Janet Garfield, who later adopted her family name, Roma Potiki. Emerging around the same time were the painter Kura Thorsen (now known as Kura Te Waru Rewiri) and the creatively intelligent painter and installation artist Diane Prince. Australian-born Robyn Porter (now known as Robyn Kahukiwa) embraced her newly found Maori culture by illustrating books and myths and legends under the guidance and encouragement of the Maori women's movement. These artists held several exhibitions of women's art, promoted female writers, organized artists' workshops and encouraged younger artists. It was not easy for them. Along with the female writers, poets, filmmakers and actors, they became an important part of the development of the contemporary Maori art movement.

Individual artists such as June Northcroft Grant, Hariata Ropata Tongahoe and later Gabrielle Belz appeared from outside the group, but each created powerful paintings and prints that were distinct in style and remain so today. Rising young painters like Star Gossage, Huhana Smith, Saffronn Te Ratana and many others are following them.