New Directions in Maori Art

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In the 1980s, a number of Maori artists began working in clay and expanding the scope of their art. Although some artists who were teachers in the New Zealand Department of Education in the 1960s had explored clay art, the movement began to develop its greatest momentum under Manos Nathan, Hiraina Poulson, Paparangi Reid, Baye Riddell, Wi Taepa and Colleen Waata Urlich.

Nathan, Poulson and Reid introduced their clay art to the New Zealand Crafts Council at a meeting in the mid-1980s. Present were the director and the crafts advisory officer for the Arts Council and myself as director of the Central Regional Arts Council. The pieces were raw and exciting, but they did not conform to the highly developed British and Japanese-influenced pottery style that had evolved in New Zealand. The work failed to excite the crafts adviser - but I knew when I saw the pieces that this was a significant development in the history of Maori art.

Nathan, Riddell, Taepa and Urlich, as exponents and teachers, were the major influences on this Powerful new form of Maori art. Nathan and Riddell were recipients of a Fulbright Award that allowed them to spend several months working with clay artists in New Mexico.

Nathan, Riddell, Taepa and Urlich continue to develop their careers on the international art scene with exhibitions in Australia, the United States, Canada, Britain, Asia and Greece. Their work is featured in several publications on Maori and New Zealand art.

Equally important was the clay art of Shona Rapira Davies, now established as a leading New Zealand and Maori artist. She created large-scale public clay installations and sculptures that endure today as major works of New Zealand art.

Paerau Corneal was the next significant artist to join the main group. Young artists now emerging include Davina Duke, Carla Ruka and Cameron Webster, who have a sensitivity of touch that is of their own generation. Other clay artists are coming from the Toihoukura Maori art school based in Gisborne.

Atsuo Okamoto, the Japanese sculptor, sat on the hill overlooking the sculptors for three days, sketching and making mathematical calculations. By then the Africans were confused by him and the Maori bemused.
In 1990, Sir Peter Elworthy, a prominent New Zealander and farmer and his wife, Lady Fiona of Timaru, worked with John Tahuparae and me to put together a sculpture symposium on their farm estate, Craigmore, in south Canterbury province. This conference included several Maori and African sculptors and a Japanese sculptor, and we learned much from each other's distinct approaches to sculpting stone. There was also much joviality, deep discussion and understanding of each other's cultures. The African artists - Matamera, Mukomberanwa, Ndandarika and Takawira - imaged the unknown spirit within the rock and drew it out instinctively, chip by chip. Where they caressed the stone, the Maori artists attacked it with gusto and power tools, roughly establishing the form, then sculpting the detail.

Word was that Okamoto was lazy. On day 4, he strode down from the hill with his plan. Much to the horror of the other sculptors, he mathematically smashed his stone, carved the pieces, then over the next week proceeded to glue them all together again. The result was an Okamoto masterpiece. He had hollowed the rock, placed river stones in the middle of it, glued it together and then carved the outer layers. Okamoto was sponsored by the Japanese government, and he later took Brett Graham to Japan as his assistant. Graham has since become one of New Zealand's foremost sculptors.

In 1982, the first of the contemporary Maori art schools, Tairawhiti Polytechnic, opened in Gisborne under the leadership of Sandy Adsett, Steve Gibbs and Derek Lardelli. These three became the driving force responsible for helping young Maori learn their traditional language, dance and music, as well as for developing the modern skills of painting, sculpture and weaving. Earlier, Ross Hemera and Robert Jahnke had taught a Maori art program at Waiariki Polytechnic in Rotorua. Later, Adsett left the team at Tairawhiti Polytechnic to found Toimairangi School of Maori Visuai Culture in Hastings, one of the many new Maori arts schools forming under Te Wananga o Aotearoa.

Other Maori art schools now include Wananga o Raukawa, whose main tutors are Kohai Grace and Diane Prince; the Wananga o Awanui a Rangi, with tutors Julie Kipa, Rangi Kipa, Wi Taepa, Christina Wirihana and Kura Te Waru Rewiri; Massey University under Professor Robert Jahnke, Shane Cotton and Rachel Rakena, and many Private schools whose teachers are leading Maori weavers, such as master weaver Erenora Puketapu Hetet and her husband, master carver Rangi Hetet.

Shane Cotton, Brett Graham, Michael Parekowhai, Lisa Reihana and Peter Robinson have been leading the third generation of important artists in the contemporary Maori art movement. Strongly intellectual and creative in their approach, they reflect the state of their generation of Maori. A "tidal wave" of young Maori artists is rapidly following in their tracks. They are the graphic designers, filmmakers, new technology artists, fashion

Designers, contemporary weavers, jewellers, performance artists, poets, writers, animators and business entrepreneurs.

MAORI CULTURE since colonization in the 1800s has become more a "way of life" than a bloodline. There are now an estimated 500,000 people of Maori ancestry, and to find a person who is not of mixed blood would be very rare. The continuing ownership and building of tribal houses and the ongoing Practices and teaching of Maori ritual, art, language and history maintain the strength of being Maori. What we look like, how we sound and what we think or define ourselves to be is something for future generations to decide.

"We look into the eyes of our ancestors and then we turn away."

More in this category: « The Rise of Maori Clay Artists