Māori and the arts

The talent of Māori is evident in many fields of creative endeavour, both in New Zealand and overseas.

In music, numerous Māori have made their mark on the international arts scene through the beauty of their voices. Best known is soprano Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, but others include singers Moana Maniapoto, Bic Runga, Che Fu, Deborah Wai Kapohe, Shaun Dixon, Anika Moa and Hinewehi Mohi.

In film, Māori actors and directors are also world-class. Actors include Temuera Morrison (Once Were Warriors, several Star Wars films, and video games), Cliff Curtis (Three Kings, Collateral Damage) and Keisha Castle-Hughes (Whale Rider, Vintner's Luck). Directors include Don Selwyn (The Māori Merchant of Venice), Taika Waititi (Boy, Two Cars One Night, Eagle vs. Shark), Lee Tamahori (Die Another Day) and veteran film and documentary maker Merata Mita. One of Mita’s documentaries, Hotere, celebrated the life of prominent artist Ralph Hotere.

Māori artists shine at incorporating their traditional Māori culture into modern artistic offerings. Don Selwyn, for example, arranged an unconventional marriage of Māori language and Elizabethan English when he created a Māori language version of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice in 2002.

International successes

More and more Māori culture is making an appearance in the global market place through Māori artists and international successes like the movie Whale Rider. It stunned audiences at the 2002 Toronto International Film Festival and was honoured with the People’s Choice award. The film portrays life in a small Māori community, and features a cultural performance by Mai Tawhiti, a kapa haka (performing arts) group. Whale Rider was filmed on location in a small village near Gisborne in the Eastland region, which is the first place in the world to see the sunrise each day.

In 2010, another film set in a Māori village on the east coast, Boy, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. Written and directed by Taika Waititi, it has become New Zealand’s highest grossing film.

Singer Hinewehi Mohi wasn’t afraid to let Māori culture meet the modern world in her hit albums Oceania and Oceania II, sung entirely in Māori.

Wai (Māori word for water) is another Māori group uncompromising about its use of Māori language and making waves on the European circuit. It brings together the collective experience of Maaka McGregor and Mina Ripia, who have played in a number of well-known New Zealand groups. The Wai sound steps away from traditional western song structure but includes sounds of poi, breaths and foot stamps in a more contemporary form.

As a performing and recording artist, Moana Maniapoto has consistently pushed the boundaries of Māori music with a blend of traditional Māori elements and contemporary western music. Her group Moana & the Tribe, tours Europe and North America regularly and is regarded as one of the most successful indigenous bands from Aotearoa.

New Zealand talent

Artist Shane Cotton is a major New Zealand talent who incorporates Māori symbols and themes in his works, which are mostly oils on canvas. Much of Cotton’s work represents the shared experiences of Māori and Pākehā (New Zealand Europeans) and portrays significant events and places in New Zealand history. The themes and social commentaries of Māori artists like Cotton are reflected in a number of contemporary artists.

Social commentary of another kind was explored in Alan Duff’s novel Once Were Warriors and its sequel, What Becomes of the Broken Hearted?, both made into films. The controversial stories focused on domestic and gang violence.

Other Māori authors have explored domestic themes in relation to whānau. Witi Ihimaera’s writings often refer to his own whānau and iwi. The Matriach, for example, is based on his grandmother’s life. Ihimaera’s intention in his early writings - works such as Whānau and Tangi - was to help convey Māori heritage and legend to young urban Māori.

In many of her stories, Patricia Grace looks at the hard issues of biculturalism and intermarriage between Māori and Pākehā. Her 2001 novel Dogside Story revealed the power of the land, and the strength and aroha (love) of whānau. It was nominated for the Booker Prize and was also co-winner of the 2001 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. In 2008, Grace was awarded the Neustadt International Prize for Literature. Her 2009 book Ned and Katina tells the true love story of a Māori Battalion soldier and a woman from Crete who settle in New Zealand’s far north.

Other Māori writers who incorporate the importance of the natural world, whānau, spiritual forces and legend into their works include Keri Hulme (whose book The Bone People won the 1985 Booker Prize and became an international bestseller), Robyn Kahukiwa, Hone Kouka and Apirana Taylor.

Māori artisans

Māori artisans are renowned for their carving (wood, bone, greenstone), sculpting, weaving (fibre, cloaks, baskets, mats) and painting. Modern artists often employ innovative new techniques to carry on themes handed down to them through the generations.

Traditional Māori art is more than art form - it is a historical record. This concept applies to much Māori art. It tends to be usable (e.g. korowai or cloaks and marae or carved meeting houses), and be reflective of the traditional Māori hierarchical system. It is part of a belief system and is also enshrined in history and serves an educational function.

An indication of the growing awareness of Māori art was demonstrated at the Māori Art Meets America exhibition held in San Francisco in 2005. The show featured approximately 300 pieces of artwork, including wood carvings, clay sculptures, wall hangings, woven bags, painted masks and photographs of moko. It is estimated that more than 9 million people were exposed to Māori art and culture through the event.

With the international marketplace becoming a sought-after destination to promote the integrity and quality of Māori art and artists, the New Zealand government initiated a Māori trade mark - Toi Iho - to authenticate Māori art works.

The Toi Iho brand is embedding itself in the national marketplace and steadily moving into the global marketplace. Toi Iho is attached to bona fide Māori artworks, exhibitions and performances. The landmark exhibition ‘Toi Māori: The Eternal Thread’, showcasing the best in traditional and contemporary Māori weaving, toured to the United States in 2005.

To open the exhibition, a delegation of Māori artists arrived in San Francisco Bay in a ceremonial waka (canoe). The waka party came ashore during the dawn ceremony, in which representatives from California’s native Ohlone tribe welcomed the artists.

Toi Māori was a feature attraction at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. The exhibition contained a cultural legacy of textiles, tattoos and contemporary works from more than 40 Māori artists. On display were traditional and contemporary kā kahu (Māori cloaks), kete (woven bags), displays of tā moko (body tattoos) and art works by Māori sculptors and artisans.

More information

Aotearoa - New Zealand's unique Maori culture

Introduction to Māori culture

Māori and tourism

Māoritanga - Māori culture explained

The haka: New Zealand icon

Tā moko

Māori connection to land and sea

The Māori marae

A new era: the Māori renaissance

The Treaty of Waitangi

New Zealand icon: Silver fern

New Zealand writers - a short introduction

Te Puia - treasuring Māori arts and crafts

Aotearoa - New Zealand's traditional Māori arts

Kapa haka - the Māori performing arts story