New Zealand art is visual art created in New Zealand or by New Zealanders. It includes traditional Maori art, which was developed in New Zealand from Polynesian art forms, and more recent forms which take their inspiration from Maori, European and other traditions.
Traditional Maori Art
Maori visual art consists primarily of four forms: carving, tattoting (ta moko), weaving and painting. It was rare for any of these to be purely decorative; traditional Maori art was highly spiritual and in a pre-literate society conveyed information about spiritual matters, ancestry, and other culturally important topics. The creation of art was governed by the rules of tapu. Styles varied from region to region: the style now sometimes seen as ‘typical’ in fact originates from Te Arawa, who maintained a strong continuity in their artistic traditions thanks partly to early engagement with the tourist industry. Most traditional Maori art was highly stylised and featured motifs such as the spiral, the chevron and the koru. The colours black, white and red dominated.
Carving was done in three media: wood, bone, and stone. Arguably ta moko was another form of carving. Wood carvings were used to decorate houses, fencepoles, containers, taiaha and other objects. The most popular type of stone used in carving was pounamu (greenstone), a form of jade, but other kinds were also used, especially in the North Island, where punamu was not widely available. Both stone and bone were used to create jewelry such as the hei-tiki. Large scale stone face carvings were also sometimes created. The introduction of metal tools by Europeans allowed more intricacy and delicacy, and caused stone and bone fish hooks and other tools to become purely decorative. Carving was traditionally performed by men only.
Ta moko is the art of traditional Maori 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 nineteenth century following the introduction of Christianity, but in recent decades has undergone a revival. Although modern moko are in traditional styles, most are carried out using modern equipment. Body parts such as the arms, legs and back are popular locations for modern moko, although some are still on the face.
Weaving was used to create numerous things, including wall panels in meeting houses and other important buildings, as well as clothing and bags (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. Cloaks in particular could be decorated with feathers and were the mark of an important chief. In pre-European times the main medium for weaving was flax, but following the arrival of Europeans cotton, wool and other textiles were also used, especially in clothing. The extinction and endangerment of many New Zealand birds has made the feather cloak a more difficult item to produce. Weaving was primarily done by women.
Although the oldest forms of Maori art are rock paintings, in ‘classical’ Maori art, painting was not an important art form. It was mainly used as a minor decoration in meeting houses, in stylised forms such as the koru. Europeans introduced Maori to their more figurative style of art, and in the nineteenth century less stylised depictions of people and plants began to appear on the walls of meeting houses in place of traditional carvings and woven panels. The introduction of European paints also allowed traditional painting to flourish, as brighter and more distinct colours could be produced.
Eighteenth and nineteenth century Pakeha art
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. Sir Joseph Banks of Captain James Cook’s ship Endeavor produced the first realistic depictions of many of these. Landscape art was popular amongst early colonisers, with prints used to promote settlement in New Zealand. Notable landscape artists included Augustus Earle and Charles Fox. As colonisation developed a small but derivative art scene based mostly on landscapes. However the most successful artists of this period, Charles Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer were noted primarily for their portraits of Maori. Most notable Pakeha artists of their period worked in two dimensions; although there was some sculpture this was of limited notability.
Photography in New Zealand also began at this time and, like painting, initially concentrated mostly on landscape and Maori subjects.
The Twentieth century
Creation of a distinct New Zealand art
From the late nineteenth century, many Pakeha (white New Zealanders) attempted to create a distinctive New Zealand style of art. Many, such as Rita Angus, continued to work on landscapes, with attempts made to depict New Zealand’s harsh light. Others appropriate Maori artistic styles; for example Gordon Walters created many paintings and prints based on the koru. New Zealand’s most highly regarded twentieth century artist was Colin McCahon, who attempted to use international styles such as cubism in New Zealand contexts. His paintings depicted such things as the Angel Gabriel in the New Zealand countryside. Later works such as the Urewera triptych engaged with the contemporary Maori protest movement.
Maori cultural renaissance
From the early twentieth century, politician Apirana Ngata fostered a renewal of traditional Maori art forms, for example establishing a school of Maori arts in Rotorua.
Late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries: The visual arts flourished in the later decades of the twentieth century, with the increased cultural sophistication of many New Zealanders. Many Maori artists became highly successful blending elements of Maori culture with European modernism. Ralph Hotere is New Zealand’s highest selling living artist, but other such as Shane Cotton and Michael Parekowhai are also very successful.
New Zealand has two university-based fine art schools: Elam School of Fine Arts at the University of Auckland was founded in 1890, and the University of Canterbury school of fine arts founded in 1950. There are also several other tertiary level fine arts schools not affiliated to universities.