Art in New Zealand can be divided into two parts- Visual Arts and Plastic Arts (includes textiles, architecture, ceramic and woodwork). It can be dated as far back as the 16th century when Abel Tasman’s men clashed with Maori locals at Murderer’s Bay (Now Golden Bay) which was later illustrated by an unknown artist. Over the centuries, different forms and traditions of art had emerged from the Maori, Asians and Pekehas (European settlers) and some settlers from the Pacific. Due to the difficult geographical terrains in New Zealand, many art makers migrated to several other places to eke a living but the 20th century brought a new light as New Zealanders became more culturally conscious, thus the visual art industry blossomed.

Background on Traditional Maori Art

Visual art in Traditional Maori included tattooing (ta moko), painting, and carving. Due to the spirituality and ancestral colourations most of the finished arts had, it was very rare to find a finely decorated art done in traditional Maori settings. Another factor that contributed to this was the pre-literacy of the Maori society in the early 18th – late 19thth century. Most Maori traditional arts were dominated by red, white and black colours and featured some highly styled motifs like the koru, spiral and chevron. These styles vary from regions to regions. The three forms of traditional Maori art are outlined below:

Ta Moko (Tattooing): One of the earliest forms of Maori art where tattooing was done with a chisel. Women had the tattoos on their chins and lips while men on the other hand had them on their thighs, buttocks, faces and several other parts of their body. Before the advent of Christianity in the 19th century, a person’s ancestry can easily be dictated with his or her Moko (Tattoo) but this art slowly faded after the influx of the Missionaries. The art started re-emerging in decades that followed but in a more modern style unlike the old traditional pattern.

Painting: Even though it was not a dominant form of art in traditional Maori, painting was the oldest form of Maori art. They were mostly done on rocks and used for minor decoration on meeting houses. Around the mid 19th century, traditional paintings declined as they were being replaced with the figurative style of art introduced by the Europeans. This innovation aided the Maori improve on their painting art by discerning difference in colours.

Carving: The most mediums through which carving was done in traditional Maori art included: stone, bone and wood. Wood carving served several purposes such as decoration of houses and containers, taiaha and fencepoles. A jewelry known as hei-tiki was being made from stones and bones and they were made purely decorative by the metal tools the Europeans introduced.

List of Some Arts Organisations and Institutions in Present Day New Zealand

Organizations –
  • Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa (Formerly National Art Gallery of New Zealand)
  • Waikato Museum
  • Te Whare Taonga O Waikato Gallery
  • Auckland Art Gallery
Institutions –
  • University Of Canterbury
  • University Of Otago
  • Victoria University Of Wellington
  • University Of Auckland


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