International Exhibitions

Written by

In 1984, a major exhibition of traditional Maori carving opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York city, later traveling to Chicago and San Francisco.The exhibition ‘Te Maori’ received rave reviews in the United States and acted as a catalyst for New Zealand to review its attitude towards Maori art and culture. Until ‘Te Maori’, New Zealand art galleries had labeled Maori art as "Marae decoration” - Marae are traditional Maori gathering places.

That year I won a Fulbright Award and traveled throughout the United States meeting Native American and African-American artists. Katherine Rust of New Mexico introduced me to a network of Native American artists, including Harry Fonseca, Allan Houser, Dan Namingha, Lillian Pitt, Juane Quick-to-See Smith, and several others, many of whom later traveled to New Zealand to meet and work with Maori artists. We immediately felt a bond with Native Americans.

The reaction to "Te Maori" gave Maori artists a new confidence at the same time that it transformed the attitude of the museums and art galleries in New Zealand. Maori artifacts were now displayed as works of art rather than as building decorations. Bicultural programs were developed, and major museums took greater pride in their collections of Maori art.

The main organizers behind "Te Maori" were Ihakara Puketapu, Professor Hirini Moko Mead and Piri Sciascia, the administrative executive who oversaw the project.

Professor Mead was not always popular with Contemporary Maori artists. Intellectually sharp and highly knowledgeable in Maori history and culture, he kept the senior artists on their toes and was often misunderstood. He was seen by some of the more senior contemporary artists as a formidable foe rather than an educator and ally and, like Sir Kingi lhaka, was considered to be highly conservative. However, from my observations both Sir Kingi and Professor Mead helped give substance to the contemporary art movement by continually questioning it.

One of the key issues facing Maori then and still today, as we change and become global, is what "Maoriness" we hold on to and take into the future. Each step we take in a different direction is another step away from who our parents and ancestors were. That step into the future will eventually define the next generation of Maori.

The contemporary Maori Arts Trust had formed in 1980. Comprised of men who had emerged as artists in the 1950s and 1960s, the trust was designed to act as a catalyst to allow elite groups of artists to discuss oral history and knowledge, debate important concepts of traditional and contemporary Maori art, and support important art exhibitions. This was a time of considerable upheaval for Maori, when there was high unemployment.

Maori had experienced more than twenty-five years of urban drift, and a generation of Maori elders was passing on.

When a respected master carver challenged the Arts Trust for being arrogant, he pointed to me because I was the youngest of the group at the time. Arnold Wilson, the elder of our group, kept calling out to me to "get him". The master carver wasn't sure whether it was to be a physical or verbal rebuttal. (ln retrospect, I realize that criticizing the youngest was a probe to test the strength of the group: getting me to answer was a deliberate show of strength).

When the master carver finished his rebuke, he sat down and looked sternly at me.

I looked at the beautiful carvings in the house and they gave me my answer: it was as if they wanted to play the game as well. I replied reluctantly to the master carver "If you call us arrogant then we must be, because you are the expert in arrogance. What is more arrogant than the master carver who waiks into the forest of Tane, cuts down his eldest child and carves it in his own image?" This reference to Tane Mahuta, God of the Forest, was followed by laughter throughout the group and big smiles from the master carver. Then one of the senior artists commented: "If we don't provide the pathway for our future artists too, then the bloody academics will do it for us". In many cases, unfortunately, this is what has happened.

A major exhibition of Maori art entitled "Maori Art of the 1980s" was launched at Pipitea Marae in Wellington in 1980, and with it a festival that showcased the work of contemporary Maori artists on a grand scale for the first time ever in New Zealand's capital city. Sponsored by the Department of Maori Affairs, these events featured sculptors, painters, weavers, poets, writers, dancers and artists working in a range of media. The major forces behind this project were Colin Knox and writer Bruce Stewart; my job was to put the exhibition together. The only way to obtain the pieces was to hire a big truck, go to the artists' studios and just take the work from them. Several pieces were arriving at the last minute, and we still had to build an entire gallery out of timber and cardboard. Myself, Buck Nin, our Greek designer Tolas Papalazou and some helpers worked all day and all night. We installed the final piece just as the doors opened and Maori Queen Te Atairangikaahu walked in at dawn to inaugurate the exhibition. The artworks looked magnificent and, during the week we were open, drew 2,000 people a day into the makeshift gallery.

In the wake of "Te Maori" there were a number of exhibitions of contemporary Maori art. Once ‘Te Maori’ returned to New Zealand, it toured throughout the country and was accompanied by "Maori Art Today", curated by the Wellington Arts Centre Trust in partnership with the Maori and South Pacific Arts Council. Both organizations also combined to curate ‘Seven Maori Artists’, which toured Australia in 1985, and ‘Maori Artists in Africa’ which toured in 1987. The Maori Arts Council curated and toured the exhibition. ‘Te Waka Toi: contemporary Maori Art’ in the United States from 1992 to 1994.

Thanks to these exhibitions, by the late 1980s Sandy A dsett, Fred Graham, Ralph Hotere, Paratene Matchitt, Selwyn Muru, Buck Nin and Cliff Whiting had all emerged as important New Zealand artists.