When we talk about the pioneering generation of modern Māori artists, the names most typically heard are men: Ralph Hotere, Sandy Adsett, Selwyn Wilson, Muru Walters or Para Matchitt.
Deserving more recognition is Marilynn Webb. Of Ngāpuhi, Te Roroa and Ngāti Kahu descent, Webb passed away in 2021. She is best known for prints that connect us to the landscape, considering the effects of environmental and human history.
Webb’s work is particularly identified with the south, but her career began as one of Gordon Tovey’s artist-educators working in schools in the far north in the 1950s and 60s alongside other key modern Māori artists.
In 2000 Webb was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for services to both art and education and in 2010 her services to conservation were also acknowledged in the awarding of a Doctor of Laws (honoris causa).
Her rich career, spanning more than six decades, is being examined in a major new exhibition and book from Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Folded in the Hills.
An artist also deeply concerned with indigenous landscape, Bridget Reweti (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) is co-curator of the exhibition, and co-author of the book alongside Lucy Hammonds and Lauren Gutsell.
Ōtepoti Dunedin based Bridget Reweti is a member of the acclaimed Mata Aho Collective and co editor of Ate, a journal of Māori art.
Speaking with Mark Amery on RNZ National’s Culture 101, Reweti notes that in 1974 Marilynn Webb was the first Māori woman to hold the prestigious Frances Hodgkins Fellowship at Otago University.
A single woman at the time, Webb welcomed the chance to focus on her work, Rewiti said.
“She was working really hard for maybe 15 years and could only work on her own practice on the weekends … and then having the fellowship where she had a whole year that was paid where she could explore her own practice and techniques.
“She came up with some amazing techniques at the time and was extremely kind of experimental and playful. It kind of set the course for 40 more years of making art.”
It is the only year-long fellowship in Aotearoa New Zealand to provide a studio and salary and, on the back of this, Webb made Ōtepoti her home, going on to be lecturer in printmaking at Dunedin School of Art.
Reweti also held the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship (2020 - 2021), and has stayed on in Ōtepoti. She met Webb when she arrived for the fellowship.
“I went and had a cup of tea and it was amazing. She would have been maybe 81 at the time.”
Webb was drawn to respond to our damage to the land and Reweti finds her protest works - responding to environmental and political issues during the National Government’s ‘Think Big’ era - particularly pertinent to today’s political tensions between environmental and industrial issues.
“Her works continually called for the recognition of whenua,” she writes in the lavish book that accompanies the exhibition.
Marilynn Webb: Folded in the Hills runs at Dunedin Public Art Gallery until 7 April.
Reweti’s own work connecting to the landscape appears in Folded Memory at Te Pātaka Toi Adam Art Gallery in Pōneke until 28 March. Reweti has printed photograms of native plants onto fragments of the Otago Harbour seawall - a wall built by prisoners from Parihaka.