From canoe to canvas: Māori culture in modern NZ art

Traditional Māori culture and symbolism – from curling fern fronds to tiki – are infiltrating the best New Zealand contemporary art.

Traditional Māori culture and symbolism – from curling fern fronds to tiki – are infiltrating the best New Zealand contemporary art.

It starts with the koru. The delicate curl inspired by an unfurling fern frond has been gracing the tail of Air New Zealand planes for more than 40 years. It’s a symbol that catches the eye of every homesick Kiwi in airports around the world. And it’s often the first piece of Māori symbolism that visitors see before they even set foot in Aotearoa (the Māori name for New Zealand).

Over the last half century, both Māori culture and symbolism – be it the koru, hei-tiki or hei-matau (fish hook) – have made their way into the practice of some of New Zealand’s leading artists. The recent record NZ$1.3 million sale of a large painting by Colin McCahon (1919-1987), one of the first New Zealand painters to be recognised overseas, confirms the importance and compelling influence of this culture on artists both Māori and Pakeha (non-Māori). 

McCahon changed the course of New Zealand art with his distinctive paintings, which explored themes of life and death and played homage to gods from both the Māori and European belief systems. His work is multi-layered and rich in symbolism, and although often painted in dark, moody colours, including lots of black, his paintings convey the inseparable bond between the people and the land that is the essence of Māoritanga culture.

Māori symbols appear in many traditional art forms – from tattoos and carvings to painting – and were a way to visually present and communicate parts of the culture, belief system and history of Māori in its pre-oral traditions.

For 21st-century travellers to New Zealand, these symbols remain as intriguing and exotic as they did to the earliest foreign visitors nearly 200 years ago.

Those who want to see how they have been incorporated into contemporary art need look no further than Auckland Art Gallery. Situated in downtown Auckland, the award-winning building houses some of the best examples of modern Māori art, along with art inspired by, and infused with, Māori symbolism.

It’s where you’ll find works by Wellington-born artist Gordon Walters (1919-1995), who created his own version of the koru in abstract paintings where positive and negative stylised koru mirror one another in dynamic relationship. His often brightly coloured koru paintings were equally inspired by the Pop Art movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s. 

The collection also features many contemporary Māori artists who have been drawn to the patterns and geometric traditions of European art – but have added their own twist. Reuben Paterson’s distinctive The Kaiahuwhenua and his Three Sons, for example, use the koru, but it is covered in bright glitter. Michael Parekowhai uses modern materials, too: his The Bosom of Abraham column is a lightbox covered in traditional kowhaiwhai patterns. His sculptures often question European settlement while promoting Māori identity and culture.  

Lisa Reihana, who is New Zealand’s artist at the 2017 Venice Biennale, has embraced photography and video in her digital representations of Māori history. Her work for Venice is a filmic re-imagining of the French scenic wallpaper Les Sauvages de la Mer Pacifique. Reihana’s photos often feature Māori in traditional clothing but with glamorous modern make-up. 

From tiki to Te Papa

Dick Frizzell (often dubbed the “Kiwi Andy Warhol”) is an Auckland-based Pakeha artist who worked in advertising for many years. He draws on kitsch “Kiwi-ana” and Māori symbolism, particularly the hei-tiki, or tiki, in his works. This figure, which is depicted either lying down or standing, represents Tiki, the first man in Māori myth. Frizzell’s most famous painting, Mickey to Tiki Tu Meke, portrays a cartoon Mickey Mouse morphing in stages into a tiki. 

Buying a tiki as a memento is a whole lot more exciting these days thanks to a sculptor, carver and artist from Taranaki, Rangi Kipa. Kipa eschews traditional pounamu (greenstone) and creates tiki in a variety of colours and materials, including Corian, a tough, resilient product used for kitchen benches, and resin. Many institutions, including Te Papa, the national museum and gallery in Wellington, have them in their permanent collection, and you can buy them online from the artist or from Toi o Tahuna gallery in Queenstown.

Te Papa is home to a great collection of traditional and contemporary Māori art, and is currently hosting a fascinating exhibition, Māori Minimalism and International Influence, which features works by one of New Zealand’s most loved Māori artists, the late Ralph Hotere (1931-2013).
The complexity and decorative nature of traditional Māori art is given an ultra-modern twist in this long-term exhibition which, for the first time brings together works by Hotere and American minimalist Ad Reinhardt, whose pared-back aesthetic was a major influence on Hotere. This exhibition focuses on how minimalist art was absorbed and reimagined in the context of Māori modernism. 

In the spirit

All this talk of modernism neglects one essential component of Māori art: the spiritual side of the art exchange. It is believed that an artwork featuring these symbols, which is worn with respect or given and received with love, takes on part of the spirit of those who wear or handle it. In this way it becomes a spiritual link between people spanning time and distance. 

In the same way, contemporary art that incorporates Māori symbols, whether it be by a Māori or Pakeha artist, contains their spirit, making it a powerful and unique force in art today and an equally memorable experience for visitors to Aotearoa. 

The art of the carve

Travellers interested in some of the earliest incarnations of Māori symbols can now see one of the country’s most famous waka (canoes) in Hamilton, less than an hour from Auckland. The Waikato Museum recently unveiled the majestic Te Winika, a 200-year-old carved waka taua (war canoe), in the Te Whare Waka o Te Winika gallery which overlooks the Waikato River. Carvings such as these often convey stories and myths about life, creation and tales of the tribes who did the work. They are more than an abstract, random collection of designs: each symbol has strong associated meanings, with all the subtlety of spoken language.