forbidden tunes in forbidden places

A historically logical starting point for studying art in Aotearoa New Zealand is the rock art of the South Island. Maori came to Aotearoa New Zealand sometime around 900 A.D (Keith, 2007) though the majority of rock drawings found is thought to date about 500 years ago (Thompson, 1989). The carved rock art of the North Island is thought to have been made at a latter date, and does not have the stylistic unity of the South Island drawings (Dunn, 1972). There were a few fanciful theories advanced for their origin, from human sacrifice rituals to shipwrecked Tamil sailors (Keith, 2007), but there is little doubt now that these drawings were done by Maori tribes. Though tempting, it has been pointed out that comparisons with the rock art of Australia, Africa and Europe are unhelpful, unless done within the context of each particular culture (McCulloch).

The rock drawings were originally done in charcoal or in red ochre that was brought to the site. According to the Ngai Tahu Maori Rock Art Trust, “the rock art paint was made from animal or bird fat mixed with vegetable gum and soot or kokowai i.e. red ochre to make black or red paint. The pigment created was known to be particularly long-lasting, and was referred to as, ‘an ink that would stand forever'” (Ngāi Tahu Māori Rock Art Trust, 2009). Over the years, they have been the target of vandals, some of whom were well meaning if foolish. Apart from vandals, though, not much attention was paid to these drawings, and they do not appear to have been considered ‘art’. While there were intermittent (and ‘unscientific’) records of these drawings, it was only in the 1940s that Theo Schoon first recorded and studied these paintings. Schoon, however, could not keep reproduction and intepretation apart, and it was only in the 1960s, with the work of Anthony Fomison, that there were accurate drawings made (McCulloch). While Schoon was probably one of the first persons to truly appreciate the artistic value of these drawings *, he was also guilty of vandalism, tracing over the existing drawings to make them clearer (Thompson, 1989).

Earlier intepreted as having ritualistic or religious origins, these paintings are currently interpreted as being the work of ‘hunter-gatherers’ of the pre-european moa hunter period. The objects drawn are primarilly animals, birds and humans, and range from scrawls to well executed figures (McCulloch).

While there have been few references to these drawings in ‘serious’ New Zealand art, Schoon’s contemporary, A.R.D. Fairburn used almost literal transcriptions onto furnishing fabric (Thompson, 1989) refering to this period as “my year long struggle on behalf of culture” (Randerson, 1995). Also in the 1950s Louise Tilsley used designs derived from the cave drawings for placemats (Randerson, 1995). The Taniwha image from the Opihi river has been used on a (now withdrawn) New Zealand stamp, though it appears to be interpreted in the more clear cut style image of latter Maori carving. While other historical Maori motifs are commonly in use by contemporary artists (and the tourist industry), I am yet to come across the use of any of these cave drawing motifs being recycled or intepreted in contemporary art. Many of these sites are left woefully unprotected, even though the tribes try their best with the limited resources they have. While tribes like the Ngai Tahu have trusts to take care of these treasures, they need more support, as blogger Marty Mars has pointed out.

And finally to the question I have been dying to ask. Is there, really, any difference between this rock ‘art’ and the much maligned graffiti today? While a lot of the graffiti we see seems to come from an adolescent desire to leave a mark, there is also a large body of work that employs artistic principles, if on a different canvas, with different tools. Banksy, arguably one of the most well known contemporary graffiti artists, has done brilliant and incisive work, using the streets of Bristol for his canvas. My favourite piece (pictured here) was secretly installed at the British Museum, and was undetected for 3 days! A large part of graffiti art has to do with Hip-hop culture, and many ‘taggers’ have now moved beyond the hastily scrawled four letter poem of Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘A Poem on the Underground Wall’, often speaking of “protest and marginalised identities (Zemke-White, 2007).” If art is for the purpose of our coming to terms with the world (Keith, 2007), the cave drawings and the graffiti of today seems to me art of the purest vision-art for its own sake, without thought for commercial potential.

Photographer Adrienne Rewi has documented Maori/Pacific inspired graffiti art on her blog, but this seems yet to widely catch on, and probably as she points out, for deeper cultural reasons. As Auckland street artist 2Tone laments, people do not “[attempt] to create something that is true to themselves and our local scene”(2Tone, 2007). Maybe an uniquely Aotearoa New Zealand style will emerge, just as an unique Maori art did. Maybe the ancient rock artists are spiritually connected to the taggers today. Too tenuous a link? Probably. But hey. Who knows?


*”Schoon [was] able to see [these drawings] as art because European modernists opened their eyes to what was then called by the Europeans the ‘Primitive’. Miro, Klee, Picasso and most other European artists who shaped 20th century art were able to make the art they made because in part their imagination had been freed by looking at the tribal art of Africa” (Keith, 2007).

1. 2Tone. (2007). InForm: New Zealand Graffiti Artists Discuss Their Work. (E. O’Donnell, Interviewer)
2. Dunn, M. (1972). Mori Rock Art. A.H.&A.W.Reed.
3. Keith, H. (2007). The Big Picture: A history of New Zealand art from 1642. Godwit.
4. McCulloch, B. (n.d.). Maori Rock Drawings: A matter of Intepretation. Maori Rock Drawings-The Theo Schoon Intepretations . Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch City Council.
5. Randerson, J. (1995). When Rock Art met the Placemat. The Modern World Conference (p. 2). Wellington: UNITEC School of Design.
6. Thompson, P. (1989). Maori Rock Art-An Ink That Will Stand Forever. GP Books.
7. Zemke-White, D. K. (2007). Inform: New Aealand Graffiti Artists Discuss their Work. Reed.
10. for the Taniwha picture
11. for the Banksy picture

12. for the Opihi rock drawing

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