In the 2000s the work of Māori sculptors receives considerable attention. It is inaccurate, though, to refer to ‘Māori sculpture’. Like the sculptors of European origin, Māori practitioners do not form a coherent movement – still less a style. They are diverse individuals, taking as much or as little of their ancestral culture as they see fit.
Arnold Manaaki Wilson
Arnold Manaaki Wilson, who died in 2012, devoted much of his life to art teaching and education. He was one of the first Māori to graduate from an art school – Elam, in 1953. His work drew extensively on Māori woodcarving traditions in its materials, notching, verticality and, in later instances, colour, but he also responded intensely to modern sculpture. This interplay between traditional carving and western modernism was also evident in the work of his near contemporaries, notably Fred Graham, Paratene Matchitt and Cliff Whiting. Wilson’s ‘He tangata, he tangata’ (1956) is evocative of pedestal carvings by early 20th-century Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi, but applied to a very different context and place.
The next generation of Māori artists, born in the 1950s and 1960s, interpreted cultural traditions with still greater latitude. Jacqueline Fraser, like Neil Dawson, used wire and plastic, but there the similarity ended. The delicate spirals and curves of her late-20th-century work subtly evoke Māori tiki motifs, and her materials suggest traditional fibres and threads. Yet Fraser’s work looks more at home in the contemporary gallery space than on the marae. Fraser was selected as an official representative of New Zealand at the Venice Biennale of 2001.
Brett Graham’s sculpture draws on a diversity of Māori, Pākehā and wider Pacific (including Japanese) sources, using predominantly traditional wood and stone materials. His figure- and disk-like forms have a monolithic quality. Prominent public art works include ‘Manu tawhiowhio’ (1996) at the Auckland University of Technology and ‘Kaiwhakatere – the navigator’ (2000) in Bowen Street, Wellington.
Like most contemporary art, the work of Māori artist Michael Parekowhai is primarily intended for the gallery or installation space. His objects and installations are meticulously crafted according to his specifications and range from ‘Ten guitars’ (1999) to a restored 1962 VW Kombi in the middle of a synthetic pine plantation for ‘The big OE’ (2006). The works reference words, ideas, jokes, art history and critical theory, as well as Māori and Pacific location and identity. Their glossy visual beauty and recognisability give Parekowhai’s works popular appeal.
Parekowhai pays tribute to, but also teases, New Zealand art ‘greats’, notably Colin McCahon and Gordon Walters. He also responds to the pioneering conceptual and ‘readymade’ art of French artist Marcel Duchamp in the early 20th century. Parekowhai enjoys considerable kudos in the contemporary art world and is the New Zealand equivalent of English artist Damien Hirst (if lacking the latter’s shock value). This was shown not only in his selection as New Zealand’s official representative at the 2011 Venice Biennale but in Te Papa’s subsequent acquisition of a carved grand piano, ‘He kōrero pūrākau mo te awanui o te motu: story of a New Zealand river’, which had been part of his exhibit ‘On first looking into Chapman’s Homer’.