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New exhibition at Wairau Māori Art Gallery will feature the works of iconic Māori modernist artists

Wairau Maori Art Gallery te ringa hautu Toi / director Larissa Mcmillan (Ngāpuhi, Te Parawhau). Photo / Michael Cunningham / NZ Herald

Jodi Bryant talks to acclaimed Māori artist Elizabeth Ellis, one of a group of trailblazers whose work will be united in an exhibition in Whangārei next week.

A ground-breaking Māori art historian once referred to Northland as “the crucible of Māori art” and a local exhibition opening next week has set out to honour that notion.

Wairau Māori Art Gallery, based at Whangārei Town Basin as part of the Hundertwasser Art Centre, is hosting a special exhibition featuring the works of eight iconic Māori modernist artists who all had links to Northland.

The exhibition, Te Ao Hurihuri, pays homage to the legacy of these trailblazing artists who have shaped and influenced Māori art for generations, Wairau Māori Art Gallery te ringa hautu toi / director Larissa McMillan (Ngāpuhi, Te Parawhau) says.

Artist Elizabeth Ellis

“We believe this exhibition encapsulates the essence of Māori art history and represents a significant cultural narrative that deserves recognition. For Te Ao Hurihuri, which references the idea of an ever-changing world, Wairau Māori Art Gallery has partnered with Whangārei Art Museum (WAM) to utilise its significant collection. This collaboration underscores the positive relationships being fostered within Whangārei’s art sector, and we are sincerely grateful to the museumfor being kaitiaki (guardian) of these taonga (treasure).”

The archived paintings are by Ralph Hōtere, Dame Kāterina Mataira, Paratene Matchitt, Selwyn Muru, Buck Nin, Cliff Whiting, Pauline Kahurangi Yearbury with Elizabeth Ellis, chair of the Wairau Māori Art Gallery Trust, including a 1966 work from her own archives.

“I’m doing it because of the people who are associated with the exhibition. I’m really honoured to be with them,” says Ellis, who does not usually exhibit her work.

Elizabeth Ellis CNZM, (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Porou), 'Te Rawhiti Rakaumangamanga', 1966, oil on board. Courtesy of the Mountain Ellis whānau.

But this is not the first time their work has stood together. Back in the 1960s, Māori artists were scarce and, having arrived in the big city to pursue their passion, far from their tribal homeland, they banded together to create uncharted territory. Te Ao Hurihuri reflects this transformative period in Aotearoa’s art history and some of the visionaries of the modern Māori art movement who disrupted the creative scene, forging a pathway for the contemporary Māori art we know today.

“There were around 15 of us at the time in the early 1960s and we were all proud to be friends and some of us were related,” recalls Ellis. “Because there were so few people at that time who were artists, we stayed friends and all had exhibitions together.”

Though several members of the group are still around, the other seven members, whose art will be displayed in the exhibition, have died.

“Each one of those artists has a really rich story as well and they are my superiors and my teachers and I learnt from them,” Ellis says.

Their exhibited work dates from the 1950s-1990s and all have a thread referencing traditional Māori narratives consisting of Matchitt’s 1964 ink The Bull energetically bounding across a rough textured background. The simplified bovine resembles a familiar cave painting from more primitive times. Matchitt was known to draw inspiration from modernist art giant Pablo Picasso, who often used bulls in his work.

Yearbury was one of the first Māori women to attend the Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland. She returned to her hometown of Russell where she often collaborated with her husband, James, on commissions to create narrative-based murals recounting local history. Hatupatu and the Bird Woman, her exhibited painting created in 1966, showcases Yearbury’s distinctive artistic style and is a testament to her ability to blend traditional Māori narratives with modern artistic techniques, contributing to the evolution of Māori art in New Zealand.

Buck Nin, (Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa), 'Through the Mists of Time [Culture Survives]',1990, oil on board. Collection of Whangārei Art Museum.

Nin’s exhibited oil, Through the Mists of Time (Culture Survives), showcases his characteristic use of vibrant colours and traditional Māori motifs drawn from whakairo (carving), raranga (weaving) and rafter patterns.

Mataira was an art teacher at Northland College known for bridging the realms of education and art. Later in life, she emerged as a prominent leader in the revival of the Māori language. The multi-media impasto style of her exhibited piece Deep Water is echoed in the work of her student, Selwyn Muru, who is also featured in the exhibition.

Northlander Muru’s career began as a full-time artist in 1962, having been taught by Mataira, who he cited as a significant influence. His artwork Portrait of Christ, shows Jesus holding the nails from his crucifixion and wearing the crown of thorns that has become a potent symbol for Christians of Christ’s sacrifice.

Northland-born Hotere’s artistic journey took him to England and Europe during the 1960s, where he absorbed international art movements and returned to New Zealand with a radical new approach to painting and a strong social conscience. His work became a powerful platform to address issues like racism, human rights, and the environment.

His exhibited work is from a series of paintings that serves as a poignant elegy to Hotere’s friend and composer, Tony Watson, who tragically took his own life. In the Requiem Series, he publicly conveys his personal grief, intertwining cultural influences to create a compelling and introspective body of work.

Whiting embarked on a mission to restore and construct marae, developing a unique kaupapa Māori approach to heritage preservation over five decades. In Tangaroa, painted in 1982, Whiting’s mastery shines as he re-imagines a Māori ancestor who helped to shape the world.

Cliff Whiting, (Te Whānau-ā-Apanui), 'Tangaroa', 1982, acrylic on board. Collection of Whangārei Art Museum.

Born and raised in Kawakawa before setting off for Auckland to pursue her career in the arts in the 1960s, Ellis was also one of the first Māori women to graduate from The University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts.

Her artworks explore the importance of one’s tribal kāinga (village) through expressive painted surfaces that recall landscapes and landmarks of her people. The influence of whakapapa (genealogy) and wahine Māori (Māori womanhood) in shaping identity is also present in her artworks. These days, around her art and education administrative roles, Ellis still draws landscapes of her beloved north for her family collection “and for pure enjoyment and satisfaction”.

Her exhibiting piece Te Rawhiti Rakaumangamanga is one of a series she did in 1966 on the separation of Rangi and Papa depicting the Bay of Islands landscape around her marae and mountain. The acrylic and oil painting reflects the urban migration undertaken by her generation as Māori left their rural roots to pursue higher education or employment opportunities in distant cities and portrays her own movement at that time.

“It was at a time when things were happening all over the country for Māori who found that they couldn’t find work in the country, so were forced to move to the cities to find work and some of them never returned,” says Ellis who, with husband Robert, a fellow artist and lecturer at Elam School of Fine arts, built their home on the North Shore in 1970.

“It reflects what was going on with Māori at that time moving away from their tribal homeland to a different area. The connection is never lost but many of us built in the city and stayed in the city.”

But home is still Northland, says Ellis, who returns often for both whānau and the arts. Ellis chairs the Wairau (Māori for one hundred waters) Māori Art Gallery Trust which opened in 2021 as part of the Hundertwasser Art Museum and it’s still the only indigenous public art gallery in the country.

“It is what we envisaged and, because we’ve got trustees who have a mixture of professional art skills, it works well. We’ve got three directors; the director of the Hundertwasser, the director of Whangārei Art Museum and our director of Wairau Māori Art Gallery, who are really strong professional people and that’s why the three galleries do well together. We’ve got a wonderful group of artists who are enthusiastic about showing with us and we have supporters so it’s a combination of people and talents and enthusiasm that make the gallery work.”

However, like many galleries and museums, there is a constant struggle for finance.

“While we’re a public gallery, we don’t sell the work of artists. We’re not a dealer or commercial gallery, we’re a public gallery and we don’t get money nationally or from the council or government. We’ve learnt that you have to be proactive and you have to make things work, so that is where a lot of our time is spent,” she explains adding that all the trustees recently donated artwork for auction.

Running alongside its three exhibitions a year, is a tuakana/teina (teacher/mentor) mentorship programme where established Māori artists and curators work with developing ones to support the next generation of Māori arts professionals.

“It’s for the elder and younger generations to learn about the skills of curating, writing, and they learn how to put an exhibition on. It’s really good for us as well and we try to have younger people on the board so that it’s intergenerational. We’re just a small part of the Hundertwasser Art Centre but are really proud of what we do and we’re proud of the artists that we’ve helped coming through. While based in Whangārei, it actually serves Māori artists in all iwi across the country.”

Dame Kāterina Te Hei Koko Mataira, (Ngāti Porou), 'Deep Water', 1957, mixed media. Collection of Whangārei Art Museum.

It was ground-breaking Māori art historian Professor Jonathan Mane-Wheoki who once referred to Te Tai Tokerau as “the crucible of Māori Art” and Ellis adds that all areas of Māori art are thriving.

“Māori art is burgeoning at the moment – it’s in such good health. There are so many good exhibitions, musicians are performing well; our actors and film directors and authors are top of the game at the moment, and we want to help that surge. It’s just wonderful what they are doing nationally and internationally. It’s not just the visual art, but across all the arts.”

She is hoping viewers will take away from the exhibition another understanding of the beginnings of contemporary Māori art and who was involved, as well as what it means for our country and the new arts curriculum.

“Schools should come and see the show as it will help students understand the history of Māori art and it will help teachers therefore if they bring students,” says the former secondary school art teacher. “The new curriculum is about students learning more about Māori history and this is perfect for that theme and students would enjoy learning Māori history through the images.”

Says McMillan, “We’re particularly excited to share insights into this crucial and important period for Māori art, especially considering the recent passing of Selwyn Muru, which underscores the urgency of preserving and sharing these stories.”

Back when the group of artist friends would gather in the ‘60s, they’d discuss their various views on Māori art.

Ellis recalls: “We had different views about what is a Māori artist. My definition is Māori art is art made by Māori, it’s quite simple really,” she laughs. “But Ralph used to say he was born Māori,, he is Māori, but his work was everything and other people believed that their work was deliberately referencing and being part of Māori. That was just an interesting conversation we used to have.”

The exhibition will be open to the public from April 13-July 28 and Ellis, along with trustee Tim Melville, will be on site for an ‘in-conversation’ artist talk on opening day at 10.30am.