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New Zealand History Through Art

Given its unique global position, art lovers flock to New Zealand to enjoy its celebration of Maori art and craft. The crucible of early an artistic style which has now been exported to every corner of the world, Kiwi's rightly embrace this side of their cultural heritage, affording it the significance it rightly deserves. Exploring New Zealand's art can yield a greater understanding of the country's history, and the many cultural influences which has helped shape it.

Maori Beginnings

Once sheltered, protected and quarantined by half the globe, the art of New Zealand has assumed the country’s now signature identity and uniqueness, whilst reflecting the often difficult relationship between its European immigrants and their influence on sacred land and spiritual culture. However lively the debate about the methods by which New Zealand was colonised, its artwork has followed the progression from wild isolation to cultivated outpost, and is now replete with expressions of traditional nationalism which question its post-colonial transformation.  

Early Maori art was highly totemic, with carvings used to express spiritual motifs and tribal affiliations. Where the surrounding environment was considered, it was represented by the elements – fire, water, sky – rather than documenting the actual landscape. Art was very much a reflection of the stuff of life – air, food, spiritual observance. Carvings representing fish and water are commonplace, and there is something in the lines and geometry which suggest thanksgivings flowing from the soul. It is artwork which celebrates the bounty offered by the land and water, and reflects the higher spiritual relationship the Maori had with their part of the earth and sea.   
In this respect, it is also notable that Maori weaponry is itself highly detailed and artistic. The head of the Taiaha was often elaborately carved, as was the Wahaika. But that these weapons were anything but decorative suggests the strong emphasis placed on life: extinguishing it had equal importance as embracing it, and so even fatal tools were elevated to artworks, both celebratory and deferential in their symbolism.   

It is interesting that the art bestowed to early Maori weaponry – indeed, it may be called a movement within a modern context – retained its prominence despite, or perhaps because of, the Musket Wars in the early 1800s. Although the gunpowder weapons bartered from early European visitors were responsible for the slaughter of tens of thousands of Maori, the artistry of the traditional wood and bone weapons persisted. There are paintings from this time which depict Maori tribes using traditional weaponry alongside muskets. Thus, an early form of nationalism was observed, with the spiritualism represented in artwork pushing against the encroachment of outsiders and their secular tools. 

The Europeans Arrive...

In addition to its usual racism and barbarism, European intervention in New Zealand brought with it the European style of painting which, during the New Zealand Wars between 1840 and 1870, was highly militaristic, racially skewed, and sought to depict the indigenous people as feeble minded brutes. The Maori as the “noble savage” still took prominence, despite the Treaty of Waitangi supposedly bestowing a measure of balance between the Maori tribes and the British Crown. Accordingly, much of the artwork emanating from this period from the hand of the new settlers is strikingly similar to that which came out of Africa during its colonial beginnings.   

What is significant, then, is the shift in cultural ownership of New Zealand during this period, and how it is reflected in the art work associated with the country at that time. There is little prominence given to the significance of Maori art, with its focus on spirituality and the elements. More so, the Maori are afforded the same racist typecasting as with other peoples subjected to European colonialism. The work of C.F. Goldie is still subject to hot debate. For sure, a native Aucklander, but schooled in Paris and, for many, sympathetic and patronising to the Maori who he saw through the clouded lens of a Pakeha: the Maori were a dying breed, and rather than his paintings being a celebration of its culture, they instead foreshadowed its passing.  

New Zealand’s art, as produced by the European settlers, began to document a much more distanced and abstract relationship with the land. Romantic sceneries of deserted hills and valleys became forms of propaganda. Exotica detailing unique and unspoiled flora and fauna was designed to entice longing in those back home, who had only ever known crowded industrialisation. James Nairn was one such exponent of this style, exporting his expressionist style from Glasgow to Dunedin. But in so doing, one cannot help but lament the loss identity taking place. Otago Harbour is not the Clyde, although there is often little in Nairn’s paintings to suggest so.   

A Unique Voice Begins

From this colonial interpretation of New Zealand, there grew a disquiet amongst New Zealand born artists. Now three generations since settlement, artists in the early twentieth century saw themselves as fully native to the country, and their art marked a clear break from the cod-idealised depictions produced by their forebearers. In previous decades, New Zealand born artists received their instruction in Europe, where there was no awareness of the environment and culture from which the artists hailed.  


The La Trobe Scheme, through which art tutors from Britain and throughout Europe were brought to New Zealand to teach, allowed for a more sensitive approach. Modern methods such as Impressionism and Regionalism were imported without breaching the cultural mood, helping to produce the likes of Robert Nettleton Field and Rita Angus. Although descendants of Colonialism, a new generation of artists were recognising the uniqueness of New Zealand, painting the land not with borrowed brushes, but with a sharp sense of belonging and identity.  

It was an identity that eventually, and perhaps inevitably, would run up against its natural ancestry in the 1960s and 1970s, as Maori nationalism began its ascendance. As the social and economic bifurcation asserted itself particularly in the more affluent regions of the North island, themes of protest joined the traditional spiritualism in Maori art. Artists such as Selwyn Muru and Emily Karaka took traditional themes of life and birth and contrasted them with the trappings of industrialism and urbanism to yield a voice of discontent, and of mourning for a land lost to them. Buck Nin’s This Land is Ours, with its tempests of Maori motifs crashing against horrified figures, depicts the march from Te Haupa to Wellington to protest against the appropriation of Maori land. The yearning for once sacred land lost to external influences is as strong in New Zealand art as it in Australian, South African and Native American art.   


Unsurprisingly, the resurgence in Maori is as strong as ever, with all the major galleries celebrating its history and showcasing modern exponents. And ultimately, New Zealand’s history, with it conflicts of culture and traditions, continues to be expressed through art. No tour of New Zealand would be complete without and exploration of its art. 

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