Art of New Zealand

Maori Art in New Zealand

Traditional New Zealand art consists of the art of the Māori people, who first settled the island between 1250–1300 CE.

Learning Objectives

Identify the key elements of prehistoric and traditional Māori from New Zealand

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • New Zealand art includes traditional Māori art and more recent forms taking inspiration from Māori, European, and other traditions. Polynesians settled New Zealand in 1250–1300 CE and developed a distinctive Māori culture.
  • Charcoal drawings, estimated between 500 and 800 years old, can be found on limestone rock shelters in the center of the South Island, with over 500 sites stretching from Kaikoura to North Otago.
  • Māori visual art of New Zealand consists primarily of four forms: carving, tattooing (ta moko), weaving, and painting.
  • Carving was done in wood, bone, and stone, and carvings were used to create jewelry and decorate houses, fence poles, containers, and other objects.
  • Ta moko is the art of traditional Māori tattooing, done with a chisel. Men were tattooed on many parts of their bodies, including faces, buttocks, and thighs, while women were usually tattooed only on the lips and chin.
  • Weaving was used to create numerous things, from decorative wall panels in important buildings to functional clothing and bags.

Key Terms

  • koru: A spiral shape based on the shape of a new unfurling silver fern frond and symbolizing new life, growth, strength, and peace; an integral symbol in Maori art, carving, and tattoos.
  • Māori: The indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, originating with settlers from eastern Polynesia who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages at some time between 1250 and 1300 CE.

Overview: New Zealand

New Zealand is an island country in the southwestern Pacific Ocean. The country geographically comprises two main landmasses—that of the North and South Islands—and numerous smaller islands. Because of its remoteness, it was one of the last lands to be settled by humans. Polynesians settled New Zealand in 1250–1300 CE and developed a distinctive Māori culture. Europeans first made contact in 1642 CE. The British and Irish immigrants brought aspects of their own culture to New Zealand and heavily influenced Māori culture, particularly with the introduction of Christianity. More recently, American, Australian, Asian, and other European cultures have exerted influence on New Zealand.

New Zealand art includes traditional Māori art, which was developed in New Zealand from Polynesian art forms, and more recent forms, which take their inspiration from Māori, European, and other traditions.

Early Charcoal Drawings

Charcoal drawings can be found on limestone rock shelters in the center of the South Island, with over 500 sites stretching from Kaikoura to North Otago. The drawings are estimated to be between 500 and 800 years old and portray animals, people, and fantastic creatures. Some of the birds pictured are long extinct and were drawn by early Māori; however by the time Europeans arrived, local inhabitants did not know the origins of the drawings.

Traditional Māori Art

Māori visual art consists primarily of four forms: carving, tattooing (ta moko), weaving, and painting. Traditional Māori art was highly spiritual and conveyed information about ancestry and other culturally important topics. Most traditional Māori art was highly stylized and featured motifs such as the spiral, the chevron, and the koru. The colors black, white, and red dominated.

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Portrait of Hinepare of Ngāti Kahungunu by Gottfried Lindauer, showing chin moko, pounamu hei-tiki, and woven cloak: This portrait shows traditional jewelry (known as hei-tiki), woven cloth, and chin moko, or tattooing.

Carving

Carving was done in wood, bone, and stone. Wood carvings were used to decorate houses, fence poles, containers, and other objects. Both stone and bone were used to create jewelry such as the hei-tiki. The introduction of metal tools by Europeans allowed more intricacy and delicacy, causing stone and bone fish hooks and other tools to become purely decorative.

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Māori carving: Late 20th century red carved house post depicting the navigator Kupe. Although an essentially traditional style, this carving was created using metal tools and uses modern paints, creating a form distinct from that of pre-European times.

Ta moko

Ta moko is the art of traditional Māori tattooing, done with a chisel. Men were tattooed on many parts of their bodies, including faces, buttocks, and thighs. Women were usually tattooed only on the lips and chin. Moko conveyed a person’s ancestry. The art declined in the 19th century following the introduction of Christianity, but in recent decades it has undergone a revival.

Weaving

Weaving was used to create numerous things, including wall panels in meeting houses and other important buildings, as well as clothing and bags (known as kete). While many of these were purely functional, others were true works of art, taking hundreds of hours to complete and often given as gifts to important people. In pre-European times, the main medium for weaving was flax; however, following the arrival of Europeans, cotton, wool, and other textiles were also used.

Painting

In classical Māori art, painting was not an important art form. It was mainly used as a minor decoration in meeting houses, in stylized forms such as the koru. Europeans introduced Māori to their more figurative style of art, and in the 19th century, less stylized depictions of people and plants began to appear in place of traditional carvings and woven panels.

European Art in New Zealand

European contact with New Zealand heavily influenced traditional Māori art of the region.

Learning Objectives

Describe the influences of European art in New Zealand

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Europeans first made contact with New Zealand in 1642 CE, and the British and Irish invaders heavily influenced Māori culture and art, particularly with the introduction of Christianity.
  • Europeans began producing art in New Zealand as soon as they arrived, with landscape art and painting becoming very popular.
  • From the late 19th century, many Pākehā (New Zealanders not of Māori origin, usually of European ancestry) attempted to create a distinctive New Zealand style of art, sometimes appropriating Māori artistic styles.
  • From the early 20th century, politician Apirana Ngata fostered a renewal of traditional Māori art forms, establishing a school of Māori arts in Rotorua. Many Māori artists became highly successful in blending elements of Māori culture with European modernism.

Key Terms

  • koru: A spiral shape based on the shape of a new unfurling silver fern frond and symbolizing new life, growth, strength, and peace; an integral symbol in Māori art, carving, and tattoos.
  • Māori: The indigenous Polynesian people of New Zealand, originating with settlers from eastern Polynesia who arrived in New Zealand in several waves of canoe voyages some time between 1250 and 1300 CE.

Background: New Zealand Art

Because of its remoteness, New Zealand was one of the last lands to be settled by humans. Polynesians settled New Zealand in 1250–1300 CE and developed a distinctive Māori culture, and Europeans first made contact in 1642 CE. The British and Irish invaders brought aspects of their own culture to New Zealand and heavily influenced Māori culture, particularly with the introduction of Christianity. More recently, American, Australian, Asian, and other European cultures have exerted influence on New Zealand.

European Influence on Art

Early Landscapes and Portraiture

Europeans began producing art in New Zealand as soon as they arrived, with many exploration ships including an artist to record newly discovered places, people, flora, and fauna. Landscape art was popular among early invaders, with prints used to promote further settlement and invasion of New Zealand. Notable landscape artists included Augustus Earle and William Fox. However, the most successful artists of this period, Charles Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer, were noted primarily for their portraits of the indigenous Māori people.

This portrait shows Sydney Parkinson with feathers sticking out of his bun, a comb placed in his hair, long green earrings, and lines drawn or tattooed on his face.

Early European Portraits: Portrait of a New Zealand man, Sydney Parkinson, 1784, probably from a sketch made in 1769.

19th Century

From the late 19th century, many Pākehā (New Zealanders not of Māori origin, usually of European ancestry) attempted to create a distinctive New Zealand style of art. Many, such as Rita Angus, continued to work on landscapes, with attempts to depict New Zealand’s harsh light. Others appropriated Māori artistic styles; Gordon Walters created many paintings and prints based on the koru. New Zealand’s most highly regarded 20th century artist was Colin McCahon, who attempted to use international styles such as cubism in New Zealand contexts.

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Portrait of Hinepare of Ngāti Kahungunu by Gottfried Lindauer (1890), showing chin moko, pounamu hei-tiki, and woven cloak: Gottfried Lindauer was known for his portraits of the Māori people.

20th Century

From the early 20th century, politician Apirana Ngata fostered a renewal of traditional Māori art forms, establishing a school of Māori arts in Rotorua. The visual arts flourished in the later decades of the 20th century, with the increased cultural sophistication of many New Zealanders. Many Māori artists became highly successful in blending elements of Māori culture with European modernism. Ralph Hotere is New Zealand’s highest selling living artist. Others include Shane Cotton and Michael Parekowhai.