This ‘history’ of recent Maori art is based on Damian Skinner’s introduction to his PhD thesis, submitted to Victoria University of Wellington in 2005. While it is a pity to reduce a well researched piece to bullet points, this seems the best way to draw out the content as well as to illustrate the inadequacy of any summary. Much of the material in this thesis (and more) is available in ‘the Carver and the Artist‘ by the same author.
Damian has divided the thesis into four chapters, each chapter covering a phase of Maori art.
MAORITANGA: Ta Apirana Ngata (1920s to 1940s)
- massive land loss and rapid social and economic changes for the Maori tribes (Iwi/Hapu)
- in Ta Apirana’s words:
a) emphasis on the continuing individuality of the Maori people
b) maintenance of such Maori characteristics and such features of Maori culture as present day circumstances permit
c) inculcation of pride in Maori history and traditions
d) retention so far as possible of old-time ceremonial
e) the continuous attempt to interpret the Maori point of view to the pakeha in power.
- conservative renovation of customary culture
- drawing on Maori cultural traditions, while using modern functions and construction materials
- centered around the marae and the whare whakairo (carved meeting house)
- concentration on craftsmanship and preservation of traditional skills and techniques
Maoritanga: Hone Taiapa (1950s to 1960s)
- continuation of Ta Apirana’s philosophy
- whakairo (carving) becomes an internalised template, and operates without reference to originality and innovation
- new economic formations (e.g the tourist market) and new patrons (e.g the Mormon church)
- artist (head carver) as supervisor, and art piece (carving) as team/communal work
- Hone Taiapa, Pine Taiapa, Henare Toka, Piri Poutapu
Maori Modernism (1950s to 1960s)
- Maori artists emerging from Pakeha art schools
- Art educator Gordon Tovey’s (National Supervisor Art and Culture) encouragement of experimentation in Maori Art
- Department of Education’s patronage of Maori Modernists
- Artistic practice that was “individual, innovative and original”
- intentional positioning as different from the art of Maoritanga
- oriented away from ‘customary culture’ audience, and towards a Pakeha/International discourse
Contemporary Maori Art (1970s to 1980s)
- massive urbanisation of Maori in 50s and 60s
- Maori activist movements and increasing political consciousness among Maori
- attempts to bridge the critical distance (with Maoritanga) that Maori Modernism sought to establish
- a return to the marae as cultural centre
- an appeal to continuity with cultural forms older than Maoritanga
- articulation of Maori art as a tradition of change
Part of my interest in Maori art stems from a need to understand my own practice as a ‘tribal’ from North East India, with all the questions each of those terms beg to ask. In that context, here are some of the ideas that stood out.
a) ‘Tradition’ is as fluid an idea as ‘contemporary’. On the one hand, much of ‘traditional’ Maori art today goes back to the 1930s and Ta Apirana Ngata’s Maoritanga. On the other hand, Katerina Mataira’s 1984 essay appeals to a ‘tradition of change’ in Maori culture when speaking for the legitimacy of Contemporary Maori art. Question to self: Which of the many available traditions am I interested in? Does it matter?
b) While there are varying perspectives on tradition, there does seem to be a visual continuity in the motifs and images used, especially in sculpture. While I cannot substantiate this without detailed study, and the work of the Maori Modernist period may well have been influenced by western Primitivism, motifs such as the ‘koru‘ and the three fingered image seem to hold 20th century maori art together. Question to self: Are there common motifs in North East India I can use? Should I?
c) There are different ways to negotiate conflict and change. Ta Apirana chose to standardise some aspects of tradition, while allowing modernity in others. The Modernists defined themselves in their break from Ta Apirana’s Maoritanga, and the Contemporary artists seem to be trying to make peace with Maoritanga and Modernism. Each of these negotiations have elements of separation and assimilation from/with dominant Pakeha/European/International culture. Question to self: What do I want to separate from, and what do I want to assimilate with?
More questions than answers, really. Ah well, story of my life!
*This is NOT a comprehensive list of names associated with this period/movement.