19 Nov 2023

Dr Huhana Smith: the quiet revolution in Māori art

From Culture 101, 2:35 pm on 19 November 2023


Huhana Smith

Huhana Smith Photo: Jane Ussher

In the 1990s tertiary education in New Zealand changed radically, and no more so than in the visual arts. While it now seems almost colonial, there were then two arts schools considered the places to pitch for as a young aspiring artist in the modern era: Elam at the University of Auckland and Ilam at the University of Canterbury. Outside of the university was the place of so-called applied arts and craft and customary practice.  

The 1990s saw huge growth in polytechnics and wananga offering university degree training. A change that has arguably had a profound impact on the place of arts in our culture. 

It has led to a “quiet revolution in Māori art” - as curator and artist Nigel Borell puts it, in newly released book Ki Mua, Ki Muri, about the 25-year legacy of Toioho ki Apiti School of Māori art programme at Massey University. 

Robert Jahnke

Robert Jahnke Photo: Jane Ussher

While in the ‘90s institutions like Te Wananga o Aotearoa and Tairawhiti Polytechnic's Toihoukura art programme in Gisborne were transformational in their own right, it was a Bachelor of Maori Visual Arts programme at Massey University's Palmerston North campus that provided Maori artists with an  alternative to the ‘fine arts academy’. Led by Robert Jahnke and also taught by Shane Cotton and Kura Te Waru-Rewiri - artists themselves trained at Elam or Ilam - it was the first indigenous four-year fine arts degree programme of its kind in the world.

Small but powerful, the programme's legacy is now clear given the many notable artists and teachers it has generated. From Borell to the Walters Prize winning Mata Aho Collective 

The first graduate from Toioho ki Apiti with a Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts in 1998 was Huhana Smith (Ngāti Tukorehe). She now holds a PhD in Māori studies. 

Smith went on to become senior curator Māori art at Te Papa and since 2016 has headed Whiti o Rehua School of art at Massey University, based in Pōneke - the first woman with whakapapa Māori to head an art school in Aotearoa. 

She was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the environment in 2023. 

'Ata Hapara'

Ata hāpara, 2020, Ngataiharuru Taepa Photo: Ryan McCauley, Page Galleries

Shane Cotton

Te puāwai II, 2022, Shane Cotton Photo: Sam Hartnett