The rise of an impressive ceramics movement is one of the more striking developments in contemporary Māori art. Clay working and firing of pottery was an ancient Pacific practice, but the knowledge had largely been lost by the ancestors of Māori before they arrived in Aotearoa.
The first Māori artist to take up the artform in modern times was Selwyn Wilson, who studied ceramics in London in 1957. Baye Riddell and Manos Nathan founded the national clay workers’ association, Ngā Kaihanga Uku, in 1986. Other key figures included Colleen Waata-Urlich, Wi Taepa and Paerau Corneal. The new tradition of Māori ceramics has drawn much inspiration from the unbroken, living traditions of First Nations American clay workers and, in the case of Waata-Urlich, ancient Lapita pottery from across the Central Pacific islands.
International success stories
Thirty years after the first ground-breaking exhibition of contemporary Māori art, a new generation of university art-school-trained Māori artists began to make an impact. In its form, scale and technical sophistication and complexity, much of the art of this new generation of individualists sits more easily in the dealer gallery and public art gallery than the meeting house. Artists such as Shane Cotton, Michael Parekowhai, Lisa Reihana, Brett Graham and Peter Robinson have enjoyed phenomenal curatorial, critical and commercial success. They have achieved impressive international profiles and are regarded as being among New Zealand’s most significant artists.
All in the whānau
Contemporary Māori artists have been working long enough to form family dynasties, such as father-and-son artists Fred and Brett Graham, and Wi and Ngataiharuru Taepa. Ngatai Taepa has asserted, in acknowledgement of his father, ‘Toi tū te whakapapa’ (genealogy remains strong).1
The fourth wave
In the late 1980s and early 1990s a fourth wave of contemporary Māori artists appeared, including Rangi Kipa, Gina Matchitt, Chris Bryant, Natalie Robertson, Maureen Lander, Lonnie Hutchinson, John Walsh and Tina Wirihana, and photographers Fiona Pardington and Neil Pardington.
Five generations of Māori artists
Selwyn Muru, Robyn Kahukiwa and Robin White were among the artists who represented New Zealand in the inaugural Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in 1993. Contemporary Māori artists from across five generations, including Ralph Hotere, Michael Parekowhai, Brett Graham, Lisa Reihana and Reuben Paterson, appeared in subsequent triennials.
At the time of the first Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art in Brisbane in 1993, Lisa Reihana commented that ‘the indigenous world can be very close even though the distances are very far’.2 In 1995 Te Atinga, the Visual Arts Panel of Te Waka Toi, hosted an international symposium of indigenous artists in Rotorua. Connections between the Māori hosts and First Nations artists from Canada and the US were firmed up with strong relationships continuing into the 21st century. Along with Inuit and North Coast art, contemporary Māori art has a permanent outlet in the Spirit Wrestler Gallery, founded in 1995, in Vancouver, Canada. In 1996 an exhibition of 20th-century Native American painters and sculptors, Shared Visions, toured New Zealand.