The rise and rise of contemporary Māori art

Former director of Pātaka Helen Kedgley identifies a quiet revolution taking place within the New Zealand art world, with te ao Māori at centre stage.

Toi Kuru, Pātaka Art + Museum (credit Mark Tantrum).

It’s a clean sweep. For the first time ever, all of Wellington’s public art galleries have hosted exhibitions of contemporary Māori art. Shane Cotton: Te Puawai at The Dowse; Toi Koru at Pātaka; and Brett Graham: Tai Moana Tai Tangata at City Gallery Wellington. Following on from the inaugural Kiingi Tuheitia Portraiture Award held at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pukenga Whakaata, and Auckland Art Gallery Toi O Tāmaki’s ground-breaking exhibition Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art, there are signals of a sea-change in Aotearoa’s art landscape.


Toi Tū Toi Ora was the largest exhibition of Māori art ever staged, and a major critical and popular success, attracting over 200,000 visitors – the largest in the gallery’s history. Brilliantly organised and designed around the staging of Māori creation myths, the exhibition highlighted a Māori worldview as key to the understanding of Māori art.

Te Po, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

Nigel Borell, (Ngāti Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Whakatohea), curator of the exhibition, had a very clear decolonising agenda, which he emphasised in his many subsequent interviews: “Māori want to be at the centre of our story. We want to do it ourselves”.

Nigel Borrell

Importantly, Toi Tū Toi Ora, has shifted the country’s perspective on Māori Art. In recognition of the extraordinary impact of the exhibition, Nigel Borell was awarded the inaugural Arts Foundation’s He Momo – A Moment in Time Award, celebrating a game-changing moment. The judges described Borell as “a change maker who has had a significant impact on the cultural landscape”. Borell became the talk of the town when he resigned unexpectedly after the opening of the exhibition. He has since chosen to work outside of the main “colonial” institutions, as a freelance curator and trustee of the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, a “solely for Māori contemporary art gallery” in Whangārei. In the meantime, despite the Director of the Auckland Art Gallery stating in an interview in March that a new curator of Māori art would be appointed in the next few weeks, so far no appointment has been made.


Meanwhile Karl Chitham (Ngā Puhi), Director of The Dowse Art Musem, has curated an exhibition of new work by Shane Cotton (Ngāti Rangi, Ngāti Hine, Te Uri Taniwha) reflecting The Dowse’s recent focus on contemporary toi Māori. The exhibition, Shane Cotton: Te Puawai, was Cotton’s first public-gallery exhibition since 2013, and featured fifteen new paintings, a series of painted pou, and a hand-crafted kowhaiwhai-painted boat that was exhibited in Toi Tū Toi Ora. Cotton’s work also featured prominently in Auckland Art Gallery’s satellite exhibition at Britomart, where he was commissioned to create an epic permanent mural artwork, Maunga, that covers five storeys of a building. Inspired by the painted houses of the East Coast, Cotton’s work at The Dowse continues his focus on historical and contemporary exchange between Māori and Pākehā, with a suite of colourful, expressive paintings that juxtapose his familiar imagery of upoko tuhituhi (decorated human heads), manaia, native birds with pot motifs and sailing ships.


City Gallery Wellington is also beginning to refocus on toi Māori with its first major exhibition of contemporary Māori art in more than 10 years, Brett Graham: Toi Moana Tai Tangata. Curated by Anna-Marie White (Manukorihi, Te Āti Awa) for the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, the exhibition of monumental sculpture and video by 2021 Arts Foundation Laureate Brett Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui) challenges narratives around the New Zealand Wars through the architecture of warfare and war memorials. Reflecting on the colonisation process from a Māori perspective, Graham revisits key events and locations in the history of Taranaki and Tainui Māori, highlighting the widespread confiscation of land in both places. The Wellington iteration of this important and powerful exhibition, while smaller in scale, has the same emotionally-charged and dramatic effect. Chief Executive of Experience Wellington Sarah Rusholme has said that the rationale behind a controversial restructure of the City Gallery’s staff was to “enhance Te Ao Māori” at the gallery with the creation of a new Māori curatorial role. So far no Māori curator has been appointed.


At Pātaka, with its long-term focus on exhibitions of toi Māori, it is business as usual. Reuben Friend, a former student and current Director of Pātaka, has curated a retrospective survey exhibition of the work of distinguished Māori artist and educator Dr Sandy Adsett (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Pahauwera). The large-scale exhibition, Toi Koru, features sixty of his exquisitely coloured artworks painted over the past six decades. Sixty years ago Adsett was the first to use the customary kowhaiwhai painting of the meeting house as inspiration for his paintings. Ever since he has focussed almost exclusively on the koru motif of kowhawhai in his work. Adsett, who is revered within te ao Māori, was also commissioned to create a major installation Puhoro for the Auckland Art Gallery exhibition. Friend hopes that Adsett’s significant contribution to New Zealand art history will finally now be recognised.


Make no mistake what we are witnessing is the rise and rise of contemporary Māori art.