Māori art and spirit

In 1990, Māori people did have one major success to recall. In the decade prior to 1990, Māori art and performance had gone global, via the Te Māori exhibition, with stunning success.

By 1990, wrote Ngahuia Te Awekotuku, the connections between the Maāri art and spiritual worlds were making their presence felt, across the whole country. To a significant degree, the Sesquentenary had made this possible.

Te Māori exhibition

Te Māori had first been mooted as early as 1973, when, at the urging of Prime Minister Norman Kirk, the American Federation of Arts and The Metropolitan Museum of Art had commenced discussions with the New Zealand Government about a possible American tour and exhibition of Māori Art.

Discussions stalled after Kirk’s sudden death in office in 1974 but continued nonetheless throughout the next decade until 3 December 1981 when Te Māori was launched by Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon.

However, it would not be a further three years until shipments of precious tribal artefacts would leave New Zealand, bound for the USA, on June 12, 1984.

Te Māori in the USA

On 10 September 1984, Te Māori finally opened in New York, followed closely by openings in St Louis (February 21 1985) and San Francisco (July 9, 1985). On June 8, 1986, the Te Maori exhibition ended its American tour in Chicago before beginning the long journey home.

The success of Te Māori can be measured at many levels; attendance levels alone attested to the popularity of the exhibitions. A total of 621,000 American people viewed the exhibitions, spread through the four major American cities, with a further 66,500 people attending special promotional concerts.

When writing of the responses of American audiences to the Te Māori exhibitions in the United States, Professor Hirini Moko Mead wrote that Te Māori had demonstrated ‘a great interest among the museum-going public of the United States in our performing arts.’

We misjudged this interest in New York, wrote Mead, and allowed for only one full performance by our Te Maāri cultural team.

‘The result was that several hundred disappointed people were turned away. In addition, the team that toured the country on behalf of Tourist and Publicity also drew capacity houses. Obviously there was a message there to be read and understood by us.’

The state of Māori art

Mead reflected further on Te Māori, and its importance to New Zealand in the spirit of Sesquentenary. The state of Maāri arts, he wrote, provided a measure of the spirit and well-being of the culture and of the people. If the arts were neglected, chances were that the culture was in poor shape – ‘it is at war or has been defeated already, it has just suffered a disaster of some kind, or it is a minority that is invisible in the larger society.’

Māori arts and treasures were important to Māori and to the nation. They acted as ‘powerful links between our past and present. Many were revered as living beings and cherished for the mana they embodied.’ They reminded us of the centrality of things Māori in Aotearoa.

Art and spirit connected

Ngahuia Te Awekotuku agreed with Mead’s assessment. ‘The connections between the art and spirit’, she wrote, ‘permeate our world so profoundly that to isolate and analyse it is almost like threatening the very fabric itself.’ Spirituality and art making, she argued, had formed an integral part of the Māori world view from ancient times until the present, guiding the earliest ocean-going waka and ensuring their successful journey Aotearoa.

In 1990, during the Sesquentenary, a potent sense of the ‘power of Māori arts forms’ was evident and much celebrated.

But to Māori, these treasures – feather cloaks, canoe prows, pendants and multitude of other artefacts – were more than objects of art. ‘They were living entities which carried the mana of those who made them and passed them on to the generations of today.’

In a sense, said Te Awekotuku, these artefacts were ‘people’. They were revered as if they were the ancestors that they honoured. They were called taonga tuku iho, the treasurers handed down, and their history sometimes reached as far back as Hawaiki, the Polynesian homeland of the Māori.