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The class of '66

Jonathan Mane-Wheoki on the pioneers of Māori modernism and the enduring influence of the late Ralph Hotere.


<P data-associrn="493601"></P> <P>In 2006, the veteran M&#257;ori sculptor Fred Graham reconvened at Waikato Museum the ‘class of ’66’ - a reference to the group of modernist M&#257;ori artists who featured in the exhibition mounted by Paratene Matchitt and Cliff Whiting at the festival of M&#257;ori arts held in Hamilton in 1966.</P> <P>I was at first astonished to find myself listed as a ‘foundation’ member of the group: I was not part of the Hamilton show. As a first-year student at the University of Canterbury’s School of Fine Arts, however, I had encountered the entrepreneurial M&#257;ori Chinese artist Buck Nin, a recent Canterbury graduate. He drew me into the reconstituted, scaled-down version of the exhibition he curated with Baden Pere (an officer with the Royal New Zealand Air Force) at the Canterbury Museum towards the end of the year. In this way, I scraped into the class of ’66 - and may perhaps count myself among those who were to lay the foundations of modern M&#257;ori art after all.</P> <P><STRONG>From ‘museum art’ to an emerging New Zealand style</STRONG></P> <P>In a 1961 interview published in <EM>Te Ao Hou</EM>, the journal of the Department of M&#257;ori Affairs, the artist Muru Walters observed that modern M&#257;ori art, or ‘the carving of the present day’, had not yet bridged the gap between old and new. ‘Some modern carvers seem content to repeat the old forms endlessly without considering how these apply to modern conditions’, he said: this was ‘museum art’.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> Just five years later, however, in the foreword to the Canterbury catalogue, Nin was able to argue that the presentation of M&#257;ori motifs ‘in the forms of to-day’ would give rise to a distinctive New Zealand contemporary art.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> Modern M&#257;ori art would develop from a merging of customary and modernist forms, styles, materials, and concepts, using modern technologies.</P> <P><STRONG>Tovey’s ‘disciples’ - the Auckland exhibition of 1958</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="413284"></P> <P>Nin described the ‘modern movement in Maori expression’ as ‘barely five years old’, but we can be a little more precise: its earliest manifestations appeared at an exhibition held at Auckland University College’s Adult Education Centre in 1958. Two of the featured artists, Arnold Manaaki Wilson and Selwyn Wilson (no relation) - the first and second M&#257;ori, respectively, to graduate from Elam School of Fine Arts - were secondary school teachers in Northland. Ralph Hotere, Katerina Mataira, and Muru Walters were also teaching in Northland: they had trained to serve as itinerant arts advisers to the region’s primary schools under the legendary Gordon Tovey, the Department of Education’s national supervisor of arts and crafts from 1946 to 1966. Most of the group had also worked on Tovey’s experimental Northern M&#257;ori Project.</P> <P>Tovey had encouraged his advisers to study European modernism, and in Auckland, Hotere, Mataira, and Walters all investigated aspects of proto-cubist ‘primitivism’, expressionism, and <EM>art brut</EM>. Arnold Wilson, meanwhile, was producing carved sculptures that drew on traditional forms but were devoid of customary surface patterning. Instead, he subjected them to the abstracted, biomorphic aesthetic of Constantin Brâncu&#351;i, Henry Moore, and Barbara Hepworth. </P> <P>The reporter for the <EM>Auckland Star</EM> observed ‘crudities’ in the exhibited works, but noted that ‘throughout are the strong lines and sweeping rhythms, the gusto and the naivete, that stamped the workmanship of the exhibitors’ forebears ... As part of the new look is a play of colours such as the old Maori did not know, and in the instance of Muru Walters, colour applied with fine perception.’ Arnold Wilson’s sculptures were ‘of exceptional interest ... for he has applied the elements of ancient symbolism with modern conceptions of the timeless.’<SUP><FONT size=2>3</FONT></SUP></P> <P><STRONG>Te ao hou - a new age for M&#257;ori arts</STRONG></P> <P>In 1960, Tovey and the great carver Pine Taiapa presided over a hui on customary M&#257;ori art and crafts at Ruatoria, convened in response to a directive from Prime Minister Walter Nash for M&#257;ori arts and culture to be ‘mainstreamed’ into the general education curriculum. I was too young, and ineligible, to attend the gathering, but I subsequently collected the Department of Education publications on M&#257;ori art and crafts, beginning with <EM>The Arts of the Maori</EM>, which appeared in 1961. By 1963, I was buying copies of <EM>Te Ao Hou</EM>, so I must have read about the M&#257;ori arts festival held at Ngaruawahia in that year, and seen the Ans Westra photograph of the Dutch-Javanese émigré Theo Schoon showing Para Matchitt examples of the hue (gourds) he had grown, dried, and decorated. I had already seen the gourds at Schoon’s house in Home Street in Arch Hill, Auckland, on a visit to the McCahons at 10 Partridge Street nearby.</P> <P>My personal encounters with the pioneers of modern M&#257;ori art began at this time as well. In 1962, I was a student in the evening class McCahon conducted in the attic of the Auckland City Art Gallery. The class was attended by another aspiring M&#257;ori artist, Buster Black (John Pihema). Buster painted textured black-on-black nightscapes that McCahon particularly admired, and which anticipate some of his own works: the <EM>Parihaka triptych</EM> of 1972, for example (Govett-Brewster Contemporary Art Museum, New Plymouth).</P> <P data-associrn="44471"></P> <P>I also remember the young Selwyn Muru, who had been one of Selwyn Wilson’s pupils at Northland College in Kaikohe, calling at the McCahon household in the early 1960s. In a 1947 article in the <EM>New Zealand Listener</EM>, Schoon had drawn the nation’s attention to ‘New Zealand’s oldest art galleries’ - the North Otago and Canterbury caves where he was recording M&#257;ori rock art for the Canterbury Museum.<SUP><FONT size=2>4</FONT></SUP> <EM>Kohatu</EM> (1965) is Muru’s response to this art form. Shown in both Hamilton and Christchurch, it was the first painting by a modern M&#257;ori artist to be acquired for the national art collection. (Nin’s <EM>The canoe prow</EM> and Arnold Wilson’s <EM>Mihaia te Tuatahi </EM>also date from 1965.)</P> <P><STRONG>The class of ’66</STRONG></P> <P>Along with those already mentioned, many who exhibited at Hamilton or Christchurch were to figure prominently as M&#257;ori artists: Clive Arlidge, John Bevan Ford, John Hovell, Pauline Yearbury, Elizabeth Mountain (Ellis), Mere Harrison (Lodge), Freda Rankin Kawharu, Cath Brown, Norman Lemon (Te Whata), and Sandy Adsett, the current head of Toimairangi, the school of contemporary M&#257;ori art in Hastings. (Important M&#257;ori artists who were not members of the class of ’66 but are of that generation include Buster Black, printmaker Marilynn Webb, ceramicist Colleen Urlich, documentary photographer John Miller, and Matt Pine, one of the most advanced abstract formalist New Zealand sculptors of his time.) A number of the group are now deceased, but most are still actively engaged in M&#257;ori arts, and many have been honoured for their contributions to art and education. </P> <P>On a spectrum of ‘M&#257;oriness’, most of the exhibitors can be regarded as being, to some degree, M&#257;ori artists. As the M&#257;ori journalist Harry Dansey remarked in his review of the Hamilton show, ‘It is obvious that the artist’s Maori background is of primary importance to some, of little importance to others.’<SUP><FONT size=2>5</FONT></SUP> In her 1968 essay ‘Modern Trends in Maori Art Forms’, Mataira noted the strong ‘Maori affiliations’ influencing the sculptures of Arnold Wilson and Matchitt, and the ‘wide use ... of Maori motifs and of carving and kowhaiwhai [painted rafter patterns]’ in the abstracts and designs of Muru, Matchitt, and Whiting.<SUP><FONT size=2>6</FONT></SUP> For Dansey, it was the ‘absence of surface decoration and the presence of a smooth, lustrous finish’ that marked out the modern development in contemporary M&#257;ori wood sculpture.</P> <P><STRONG>‘The most progressive work we have seen’: Ralph Hotere</STRONG></P> <P>Hardest to place as a M&#257;ori artist at the time, but easy to accommodate in hindsight, was Hotere. Dansey was baffled by his severe abstractions, writing that Hotere showed ‘no influence whatsoever of a Maori background, either in theme or execution’. (Matt Pine might have been regarded as an even more extreme formalist but for the fact that, following his graduation from Elam in 1962, he went to London to undertake postgraduate studies and to practise as an artist. When he returned to New Zealand in 1974, the foundations of the modern M&#257;ori art movement had been laid.)</P> <P>In 1961, Hotere had been awarded a New Zealand Art Societies Fellowship to study in Europe. He studied at London’s Central School of Art and, in 1962, travelled on a Karolyi International Fellowship to Vence in the south of France, returning to New Zealand and to his job as a schools arts adviser in 1965. Mataira - an extraordinarily forward-thinking champion of Hotere’s work - observed that before his overseas study, Hotere’s paintings were ‘significantly free in execution’. (See, for example, the Sam Cairncross-like <EM>Still life </EM>of 1959.) ‘By contrast,’ she continued, ‘his work is now thoroughly disciplined.’<SUP><FONT size=2>7</FONT></SUP> </P> <P>In Hamilton, Hotere exhibited four paintings from his ‘Human Rights’ series: reductivist, geometrical abstract works - with content. At this point, his compositions were evincing affinities with the works of the Russian suprematist Kasimir Malevich, the American abstractionists Ad Reinhardt and Ellsworth Kelly, the British constructionist Victor Pasmore, and Pasmore’s New Zealand disciple, Don Peebles - and tending towards minimalism. According to Mataira, he was producing ‘some of the most progressive work we have seen from our contemporary painters’. </P> <P><STRONG>An artist of stature</STRONG></P> <P>In the entry on ‘Art in New Zealand’ in the 1966 <EM>Encyclopaedia of New Zealand</EM>, Stewart Maclennan, the director of the National Art Gallery, asserted that ‘No Maori artist of stature has yet arrived. The process of integration has isolated the Maori of today from the living meaning of the arts of his forefathers, and his culture must, from now on, be one with that of his European neighbours.’<SUP><FONT size=2>8</FONT></SUP> Just a few years later, Peter Tomory, Hamish Keith, and Mark Young illustrated their brisk survey <EM>New Zealand Art: Painting 1827-1967</EM> with two of Hotere’s works. Indeed, the book’s final plate reproduces one of Hotere’s shaped canvases as the latest manifestation of reductivist abstraction in New Zealand art.</P> <P>Hotere was the first modernist M&#257;ori painter to be wholly embraced by New Zealand’s mainstream art establishment and he was to become one of New Zealand’s most revered and honoured artists. Although he remained ambivalent about identifying as a M&#257;ori artist, in 1973 he attended the inaugural hui of the national body of M&#257;ori artists and writers (later Ng&#257; Puna Waihanga) hosted at Te Kaha by his friend and fellow Dunedin resident, the poet Hone T&#363;whare. When he died in February this year, Hotere was mourned by M&#257;ori and P&#257;keh&#257; alike as one of our greatest artists.</P> <P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>‘Personality Study - Muru Walters’,<EM>Te Ao Hou</EM>, no. 35, June 1961, pp. 28-29.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Buck Nin and Baden Pere, <EM>New Zealand Maori Culture and the Contemporary Scene 1966: An exhibition of painting and sculpture derived from Maori culture</EM>, exhibition catalogue, Canterbury Museum, Christchurch, 1966.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>‘HM’, ‘Maori fullback goes in for abstract painting’, <EM>Auckland Star</EM>, 10 June 1958.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>T Schoon, ‘New Zealand’s Oldest Art Galleries’, <EM>New Zealand Listener</EM>, September 12 1947, pp. 6-7.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Harry Dansey, ‘Maori artists make mark as professionals’, <EM>Auckland Star</EM>, 3 September 1966.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Katerina Mataira, ‘Modern Trends in Maori Art Forms’, in Erik Schwimmer (ed), <EM>The Maori People in the Nineteen-Sixties</EM>, Blackwood &amp; Janet Paul, Auckland, 1968, p. 213.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2><EM>Ibid</EM>., p. 214.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Stewart Bell Maclennan, ‘Art in New Zealand: Survey, trends, and influences, 1938 to present’, <EM>An Encyclopaedia of New Zealand,</EM> Government Printer, Wellington, 1966, vol. 1, p. 87.<BR></FONT></LI></OL>
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Buck Nin, The canoe prow, 1965, oil on board,
Purchased 2000 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Arnold Wilson, Mihaia te Tuatahi, 1965, wood (püriri),
Purchased 1999 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Selwyn Muru, Kohatu, 1965, oil on hardboard,
Purchased 1965.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz