Contemporary Maori Art

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The very early Maori artists laid the foundation from which Maori art evolved and Maori culture is reflected. They were known mainly by their tribal affiliation rather than as individuals, and the tribal styles of carving and weaving they created have been handed down to succeeding generations. Ritual and cultural Practices were preserved through rigid disciplines that forbade any variation or deviation, meaning that the "craft" and the "ritual" of Maori culture were part of a carefully planned system of passing skills and knowledge to specifically talented individuals only. This custom guaranteed that tribal practices and stories and the unique development of tribal differences in the art forms were retained. We record our history and culture through carving, weaving, facial and body tattooing, traditional ritual, song and dance, the movements and the words repeated over and over again as rhythmic incantations until they form part of our soul. In this way, each hill, mountain and river and every other single feature of the land has its own story and is included in the oral history of our people.

As the environment, the tools and the needs of the people changed, variations on an old style began to evolve. The first major shifts had come with the introduction of metal chisels, as early as the late 1700s and possibly earlier. With these tools, artists were able to carve sharper and deeper lines, and they began to depict colonial images. Although there were several shifts in Maori art during the 1800s, the largest changes occurred after the Second World War. The influence of other cultures presented Maori with a new way of seeing the world. The use of new tools, materials and techniques and concepts meant that endless possibilities of artistic expression were emerging. The young Maori artists in the 1950s were sculptors, painters, printmakers and mixed-media artists.

Among those who played a major part in the formation of the contemporary arts movement were Sandy Adsett, Clive Arlidge, John Bevan Ford, Fred Graham, Ralph Hotere, Para Matchitt, Muru Walters, Cliff Whiting, Arnold Wilson and Selwyn Wilson. Some of the women were Cath Brown, Freda Kawharu, Katerina Mataira and writer and designer Amy Brown. They broke down the walls of tradition, questioned their elders and debated world art issues and techniques. At the same time, they were part of a dynamic drive by the visionary art educator Gordon Tovey, who set out to discover or invent the elusive "New

Zealand art." Together with non-Maori artists, they were liberating our country from the conservative “British Academy" style of art they had inherited with colonization. They developed the new art forms upon which generations of New Zealand and Maori artists would build.

By the 1960s, contemporary Maori artists had formed small individual groups exhibiting in joint shows around the country. One of the emerging young giants in the 1960s was Selwyn Murupaenga (known as Selwyn Muru), a painter, sculptor, poet, broadcaster and playwright. Muru is an expert in Maori language, ritual, oratory and history. He created a completely individual approach that showed the land as a living ancestor. In the minds of many Maori he gave the land song, history and ancestral voice, and his Maori view of the land gave non-Maori artists insight into another spirituality. The land he painted was

"Maori land”. Muru's ‘Parihaka’ series was arguably the most important group of paintings completed by a New Zealand artist. The Parihaka “incident" as painted by Muru shows both the fight for, and the birth of, a nation. Muru also wrote plays and poetry and directed several important documentaries and stories for television.

Working in television and film at the same time as Muru were rising stars Barry Barclay, Merita Mita and Lee Tamahori, who played a major role in the developing Maori film industry and went on to become filmmakers in the international arena. Tamahori directed the Maori film ‘Once Were Warriors’ and since then several Hollywood movies, including the James Bond adventure ‘Die Another Day’.

Muru's close friend Buck Nin also emerged as an important Maori sculptor and painter. Nin completed his doctorate in the United States and was renowned for his entrepreneurial skills. A larger-than-life intellectual artist, Nin, like Muru, was a visionary. For many years he had dreamed of a Maori art school and university, and with his close and equally visionary friend Dr. Rongo 'Wetere created Te Wananga o Aotearoa, the University of

New Zealand, a Maori university that now caters to more than 50,000 students. Today the wananga (place of learning) is an important contributor to the ongoing development of Maori art, and it also offers courses to the wider community of new immigrants, New Zealanders and overseas students.

Nin completed several large-scale paintings, which expressed the history and importance of land as an integral part of Maori identity. He was an immaculate draftsman, but in later life suffered ill health and often planned and created his work with the assistance of working under his guidance. Sadly, he passed away in 1996 at the young age of 54 years. Maoridom lost one of its great artists.

In the latter part of the 1950s and into the 1960s, Sandy Adsett, John HovelI, Para Matchitt, Cliff Whiting and Arnold Wilson were some of the first contemporary artists to introduce new styles in the art of the ancestral houses. This group created an "assemblage" style that incorporated carving, weaving and a wide range of media from bone to steel and glass. Matchitt, Whiting and Wilson, in particular, completed important murals and works of art throughout the country. Although these three also initiated major developments to the kowhaiwhai (rafter patterns) on ancestral houses, it was SandyAdsett and John Hovell who painted them on to pieces of board and canvas for display as paintings in public galleries.

Generations of artists followed them. Adsett's designs were also transformed into high-fashion garments initiated by WhetuTirikatene, who later became influential in the formation of the Maori and South Pacific Arts Council (MASPAC) when she was a cabinet member in New Zealand's Parliament.

In the 1960s, urban Maori gangs such as Black Power , the Mongrel Mob and the Nomads copied the American gang movements, particularly with regard to skin self-embellishment. Although many of the gangs treated the prison gang tattoo as a serious art form, it was several years before ‘Ta Moko’, the traditional form of Maori body art, was revived. Some of its early exponents included Te Aturangi Clamp, Rangi Kipa, Mark Kopua, Derek Lardelli, Riki Manuel and Laurie Nicholas.

By the mid-1960s, educators like Frank Davis were writing the history of contemporary Maori art as part of the school curriculum. Davis, a New Zealand artist, a speaker of the Maori language and husband of Waana Davis, the current chairperson of the Maori Arts organization ‘Toi Maori Aotearoa, wrote the stories of young unknown artists like myself, Ross Hemera, Robert Jahnke, Albert McCarthy and John Walsh into the annals of Maori and NewZealald Art. At a time when the Maori art movement was ignored by the art gallery establishment, Davis was our champion. He was a ‘pakeha’ (white person), but he respected Maori. He told of visiting a school and asking in the Maori language who spoke Maori. Not one student answered. He was very concerned that he had embarrassed the Maori students and vowed never to use the Maori language again. I was with Frank when he suddenly fell ill. Weeks later, Davis, one of New Zealand's great people and a dear friend, passed away.

As a result of Davis’s efforts, we became the next generation of contemporary Maori artists. Robert Jahnke introduced a new sophistication to the contemporary Maori art scene with skills in animation, design and the use of new technology. Both he and Ross Hemera played an important Part as teachers and educators in fostering and developing the next generation of Contemporary Maori artists. Contemporary sculptor Matt Pine, who returned to New Zealand from Britain around this time, introduced a more conceptual and minimalist approach to Maori sculpture. He continues today with his uniquely individual style, which is slowly gaining momentum among emerging younger Maori artists.