Māori art at the Auckland Art Gallery – Aotea Store

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Māori art at the Auckland Art Gallery

The contemporary Māori art exhibition ‘Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art’ which can be seen at the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki illuminates many different facets of Māori mythology. Using a blend of modern and traditional art, it provides a visual bridge between Te Ira Atua (the world of the gods) with Te Ira Tangata (the world of people) and it is a cohesive exhibition that relates a beautiful, energised, vibrant culture with its mythology.

The ground floor re-imagines the beginnings of the world from a Māori worldview. Electrified neon in complete darkness represents Te Kore, the Nothingness before time and space when only the supreme god Io existed. Te Pō, the Night of Papatūānuku and Ranginui’s embrace is the beginning of time. When Tāne, their son, pushes apart his parents, he allows light into the world and life to flourish. There is an energizing electric energy to the art here which is front and foremost in Lisa Reihana’s 2020 work, Ihi, the most resplendent piece of the exhibition. A digital film, it shows the atua Tāne (played by Taane Mete) in the primordial darkness struggling to push apart his sky father and earth mother and then after his victory, surveying the world he has brought into life with the first woman, Hine-ahu-one (played by Nancy Wijohn) who was made from clay (kurawaka).

In the world of light which follows, te ao mārama, various Māori artists have highlighted Tāne’s many names: both god of the forest, Tāne Mahuta, and son of Ranginui, Tāne nui-a-Rangi, Tāne is also Tāne te-waiora, the bringer of stars, light and life, for his role in creation.


One beautiful portrait depicts Hine-tī-tama, the Dawn Maiden, the daughter and wife of Tāne, before she became Hinenuitepō. Another beautiful portrait ‘Mahuika’ depicts the goddess of fire, from whom Māui stole fire.


The Te Ira Atua story is approximately completed when Māui fails to achieve immortality for mankind. A row of long ceiling-height black veils with a tunnel of diamonds cut through them is one artist’s representation of the entrance to the Underworld governed by Hine-nui-te-pō, the goddess of death. 


Above the ground floor, we are exposed to Te Ira Tangata in various dimensions. Two colourful floor to ceiling maps hang on the mezzanine, one of the Tīkapa Moana (Hauraki Gulf) region, and the other of the northern Waikato, as far south as Te Kuiti, showing these whenua and wai moana in a fresh way. The Art Gallery’s own location over the Horotiu Stream in te pito o Tāmaki Makau Rau is referenced.

Through the next level, traditional art forms are explored such as kōwhaiwhai, the decorative koru motifs that traditionally adorn the prow of waka and the roofs of meeting houses, whare nui. They are an important part of many of the works, and among other uses, paint Tangaroa’s nature and his ocean realm which Māui traversed several times.


There is an impressive sculptural work of walking women (possibly welcoming guests (manuhiri) onto a marae), which emphasizes the value and beauty of women in a world in which men too often dominate. Cultural taonga and crafted objects display the worksmanship and beauty inherent in Māori life and share space on the first floor with the walking women.


The theme of water, kaitiakitanga and mauri is explored on the upper floor, with a photographic series about the economic benefits of the Whangarei Marsden Point Oil Refinery but also its environmental costs, and a video of bodies moving through water. New Zealand’s oceanic situation and its challenges and importance is underlined.

In many ways, the exhibition pays homage to the way Māori art has evolved over the decades. There is a modernist vibrancy to many of the works and digital media are very popular, but those works made using raw materials are no less important. And though the content is ever hearkening back to the same roots, it is presented in fresh ways in keeping with the times we live in. The exhibition certainly makes good on the promise that it is a ‘game-changing’ exhibition. Its portrayal of the Māori worldview will leave an imprint on the imagination and the heart.