Adam Gifford looks at an exhibition of Maori art that emphasises cultural connections

'Treaty issues and Treaty settlements are the landscape of my painting," says Emily Karaka. Fighting for a settlement for Ngai Tai ki Tamaki is also the reason Karaka's painted output has been limited in recent years, as she battled not just the Crown but members of her own tribe.

Her inclusion in Five Maori Painters at the Auckland City Gallery is a reminder of what a powerful voice she is in New Zealand painting. In the transition from the original Maori modernists to the younger generation making ironic references to post-colonial Aotearoa, she has steered her waka on a different course.

Karaka is shaped by history, not as a passive victim but as a passionate participant. She carries the legacy of her ancestor Nuku, who signed the Treaty of Waitangi at Karaka Bay at the head of the Tamaki River under his baptism name Anaru. Another tupuna was Mita Karaka, secretary to King Te Rata who accompanied Te Rata to England in 1914 to petition King George V to return confiscated lands.

It was a Maori wordsmith who inspired her to incorporate words into her painting. "I heard Hone Tuwhare recite No Ordinary Sun in the meeting house at Te Kaha during a Nga Puna Waihanga (the national body of Maori artists and writers) hui.


"That's when words became significant, that's when I did the work in 1984, the black and white of the Treaty ... Words are valid, words are trade exchange. When you are living in an urban Maori context you are bombarded by propaganda words everywhere - billboards, shops, the written language is there."

Artist Saffronn Te Ratana with part of her installation. Photo / Chris Loufte
Artist Saffronn Te Ratana with part of her installation. Photo / Chris Loufte

She also remembers looking at the tukutuku panels in the house at Te Kaha and the ambience of the marae. "I hadn't had exposure to marae very much. We were pretty bereft of marae out here in the Tamaki area. We were bereft of artistic and cultural stimulus."

Karaka credits her father, John Karaka, with her introduction to art. He had studied briefly at the Elam School of Fine Arts before dropping out to support his young family.

"Greer Twiss was my teacher at intermediate school, and I met Colin McCahon at Greer's house when I was 12. They became my kaitiaki. They steered me away from Tamaki College because they didn't consider the arts curriculum there was sufficient, and steered me to Auckland Girls' Grammar.

"That was great because I had people like Liz Mountain [Elizabeth Ellis]. She'd just come out of training school so she had a lot of energy and the commitment to keep to your cultural landscape and develop it."

Karaka became pregnant at 16, had her children, and about the time they were starting school she was hit by a marriage breakdown and the death of her father. "That's when I picked up the brush, just trying to deal with what I was confronting."

She was on the fringes of Maori rights group Nga Tamatoa and later the Waitangi Action Committee, and also took part in movements like the 1970s Bastion Point occupation to protest forced land alienation. Inclusion in the show 12 New Zealand Painters at the Pakuranga Arts Society brought her into a study group of women painters organised by Gretchen Albrecht. She was also getting support from her father's old Elam friend Arnold Wilson. The introduction to Philip Clairmont, Tony Fomison and Allan Maddox that confirmed her direction as an artist. "That was the zenith, when I fell in love with painting. They were the epitome of artists. They knew they were on the edge ... Without Phil encouraging me I would never have got there. "He said: If you are an artist you have to pick up your cross and carry it. I often think about that when I want to paint and I've got no paint, because I live on $100 a week." Karaka's near-contemporary Kura Te Waru Rewiri grew up around marae in Kaeo and Waitangi. She also credits teachers like Selwyn Wilson at Northland College and Buck Nin at Bay of Islands College with setting her on the art path, encouraging her to "go overseas" to study at the Ilam art school in Christchurch in the late 1960s.

She has moved through many influences and is now drawn back to kowhaiwhai, the patterns painted on wharenui rafters.

"Kowhaiwhai lends itself to being able to interweave the social, political and economic forces we face today in Aotearoa, so I look to them to symbolise that."

The exhibition spans generations with Robyn Kahukiwa a decade older than Karaka and Rewiri, and Star Gossage and Saffronn Te Ratana more than 20 years younger. Te Ratana is exhibiting an installation rather than paintings, but "I see it in the same whakapapa. All those women are my role models in a way."

Trees made of paintbrushes grow out of two upholstered mountains. Birds made of carved paint sit on the branches, and the words of waiata by Hirini Melbourne hang from the tree.

"It's a hihi to my kids' kohanga, Mana Tamariki in Palmerston North, for helping us get the reo back into our whanau, and to all the teachers there and the whanau who have supported us to learn the language. It's also a mihi to Hirini for providing those great resources for us all." Five Maori Painters is clearly not the comprehensive overview of contemporary Maori art that needs to be done by a curator bold enough, but the show, along with a tribute exhibition of work by the late Arnold Wilson, is an effort by the gallery to have Maori work on its walls when the major show My Country: Contemporary Art from Black Australia opens next month.

Ngahiraka Mason, the gallery's curator of indigenous art, said she wanted to highlight a tradition of painting in Maori culture going back to rock art, the decoration of artefacts and marae, and even body adornment. That's why the exhibition also includes taonga borrowed from the museum, such as a painted canoe paddle.

"The artists have diverse approaches but I'm saying something about what connects them to being Maori," Mason says.

"Everything in the Maori world is related to land and people, ko te whenua te tuatahi, ko te tangata te tuarua. The other concepts - turangawaewae (a place to stand), wairua (spirit) and te ao turoa (the physical world) - these are touchstones in the culture, so artists are making connections to those conceptual frameworks and identifying them in the present day."

What: Five Maori Painters: Kura Te Waru Rewiri, Saffronn Te Ratana, Robyn Kahukiwa, Emily Karaka and Star Gossage.

Where: Auckland City Art Gallery, Toi o Tamaki until June 20.