Mau Āhua: Portraits by contemporary Maori artists


New Zealand Portrait Gallery

Start date: 

4 November 2016

End date: 

19 February 2017

Hours of admission: 

10.30 - 4.30

After Italy, 2016, John Walsh
After Italy, 2016, John Walsh

Portraits by: John Walsh, Darcy Nicholas, Star Gossage, Kelcy Taratoa, Ngataiharuru Taepa and Samantha McKay

Perhaps the oldest and most established art form, portraiture is found in all cultures, spanning the length of history. While its nature has changed throughout history, artists have always attempted to capture the image and spirit of human beings. The title of the exhibition, Mau Āhua, alludes to the way portraiture and photography were initially viewed by Maori: according to Darcy Nicholas, ‘the early Maori believed that ancestral images transcended the sacred journey between the physical and the ancestral world’. Therefore, the belief that portraiture could capture the spiritual essence of a person was so strongly held that when placed in a Maori cultural context, portraiture often became something highly spiritual. 

Early Maori portraiture was focused largely around carving and was invariably associated with the wharenui. Whare whakairo, carved meeting houses, represented the body of a famous ancestor and were therefore highly tapu. The stylised, carved images on the poupou (sculptures) lining the sides of the whare whakairo celebrated individual ancestors. In the 19th century photographs of ancestors were introduced to decorate the interior walls of wharenui, adding a figurative dimension to the ancestral house. With the emergence of the painted meeting house in the late 19th century, in the East Coast of the North Island, there was a flowering of figurative paintings, including portraits of ancestors, on the interior wall panels. 

Many early European explorer artists such as Sydney Parkinson and George French Angus painted portraits of Maori. Maori portraiture by European artists such as Goldie and Lindauer flourished again at the beginning of the 20th century. However, it is only more recently that the number of Maori artists tackling the subject of portraiture has proliferated.