The Birth of Contemporary Art Organisations

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A collective called the New Zealand Maori Artists and Writers Society was formed in the 1960s to consolidate the talent, networks and knowledge that were loosely held by Maori artists around the country. Georgina Kirby, who would later become Dame Georgina for her services to Maori, and the educator, writer, artist and broadcaster Haare Williams were two prominent driving forces behind this movement. Although the group was officially incorporated as a society, it became a collective because many of the artists did not pay their annual fees. From time to time they pledged membership, but they also wished to remain autonomous; that is, many of them did not want to belong to an organized group, but at the same time they cherished being able to brainstorm ideas and techniques with equally dynamic artists.

These were happy and exciting times during which we were surrounded by strong personalities and creative minds. The broadcaster and Ngati Porou scholar Wiremu Parker, Maori Queen Te Atairangikaahu and the renowned weaver Dame Rangimarie Hetet provided strong support for Maori artists and writers with their presence. Several other tribal elders backed the society and attended annual conferences to join the discussions and debates that were a hallmark of the gatherings. The artists assembled each year on different tribal lands, where they held art workshops and exchanged stories and ideas.

The Maori Artists and Writers Society later became known as Nga Puna Waihanga. It included painters, sculptors, weavers, poets, writers, actors, singers, dancers, filmmakers and experts in language, ritual and tradition. The intention was to create a forum for artists of Maori heritage to meet annually, learn tribal history and new techniques, and plan other major events that would profile Maori art to our people. These meetings became the catalyst for major exhibitions of contemporary Maori art to be shown in New Zealand galleries.

Some of the great Maori writers to emerge from the association were Patricia Grace, whose books are published in several countries; Keri Hulme, who won the Booker prize with her novel ‘The Bone People’; Witi Ihimaera, who wrote several novels, including Whale Rider; celebrated poet Hone Tuwhare and writers Arapera Blank, Rowley Habib, Keri Kaa, Katerina Mataira, Dun Mihaka, Meremere Penfold, Bruce Stewart, Apirana Taylor and several others.

Within the association there were often arguments, factions and disagreements) some of which lasted for years. Some of the artists were very knowledgeable in Maori tradition and culture whereas others were still searching for their Maori identity. Tribal, gender, individual and age differences also caused conflict. It was a dynamic art scene that made us grow stronger. Unfortunately, this movement lost its impetus as it was taken over by Maori artists who were schoolteachers and academics and the annual artist meetings became unofficial holiday camps for Maori and non-Maori university and polytechnic students.

I recall walking into a classroom around that time to give an art lesson to a group of young Maori artists. Finding no brown Person in the room, I quietly walked out again, without giving the lesson. At that time in our lives we were so focused on developing the Maori art movement that we began to resent the number of non-Maori who were attending the annual conference. The senior artists who gave the association its history and knowledge eventually stopped attending, and the Maori Artists and Writers Society ceased to exist.

For the Maori artists, the line between music, dance, poetry, painting, sculpture, traditional incantations and all the other forms of expression was indefinable. Many of the artists specialized in all these fields, so it was no accident that the success of Maori actors, filmmakers and musicians inspired poets, painters and sculptors. In music, significant Maori show bands had developed, and they excelled in the New Zealand, Australian, Asian and American music scenes. Some of the great individual stars who emerged from the music scene of the 1960s were Sir Howard Morrison and the celebrated international opera stars Dame Kiri Te Kanawa and Inia Te Wiata. They were followed later by popular singers like Rhonda Bryers, John Rowles and Frankie Stevens. As these individual entertainers expanded the boundaries of achievement, new artists were coming onto the scene. Many commentators at the time described this period as the Maori Renaissance, a time when we extended ourselves beyond our traditions and moulded them with the cultures of the world.

In 1963, the New Zealand government established the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, a funding agency designed to support the cultural sector. Two Maori Members of Parliament, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan and Koro Wetere, and the Maori Artists and Writers Society played a significant part in creating the Maori and South Pacific Arts Council in 1978, a sub-agency specifically dedicated to bolstering Maori art by funding programs for Maori artists and providing policy advice to government. Among the key artist representatives on the council were Witi Ihimaera, Dame Georgina Kirby and Haare Williams.

The late Sir Kingi Ihaka, himself an expert in Maori life, language and culture, chaired the first MASPAC board of governors. Although artists initially saw him as being very conservative, he became more outgoing, sharp humoured and creatively challenging during his tenure and close interaction with the contemporary artists. His first executive officer was Rangi Nicholson, who was succeeded by Piri Sciascia. In a gesture of biculturalism, this position was later upgraded to assistant director of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council. MASPAC went through a number of changes. First it became the Maori Arts Council under the leadership of Kuru Waaka when it separated from the South Pacific Arts component. Under this structure it had both a policy and operational role, with a number of its own committees specializing in both traditional and contemporary Maori art forms. When the government decided to strengthen the policy roles of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Councii in 1994, it was renamed the Arts Council of New Zealand, (also known as Creative New Zealand). The new Maori part, Te Waka Toi, replaced the Maori Arts council at the same time and its operations department was separated from the Arts Council. Known as Toi Maori Aotearoa, this organization maintains and governs a wide range of Maori art disciplines involving traditional and contemporary artists.

The first head of Toi Maori was Eric Tamepo, who was succeeded by Garry Nicholas, the current chief executive. Once a small office providing services to various committees of arts disciplines, Toi Maori has flourished to become an organized body that reaches out tribally, nationally and internationally to develop and promote the wide range of Maori Creative and traditional arts.