Te Maori exhibition opens in New York

10 September 1984

The Art Galleries and Museums Association of New Zealand, the American Federation of Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art (‘The Met’) discussed the idea of putting together an exhibition of Māori art in the United States as early as 1973.

But the cost of $500,000 (equivalent to nearly $6 million in 2014) daunted the New Zealand government and the impetus was lost. The Met invited discussions to resume in 1979, at which time the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council spearheaded a new proposal focused on artworks rather than artefacts. After $300,000 ($1.6 million) was secured from Mobil South, the idea was ‘pursued with great enthusiasm and determination’.

The following year Cabinet formally approved the proposal and the formation of a Te Maori management committee, chaired by the Secretary for Maori Affairs, Kara Puketapu. A Māori sub-committee was also formed, with the responsibility of determining ‘how the Maori people would participate in this exhibition of their artistic heritage, what part they would play in the opening ceremonies, and what they would consider as generally appropriate for their taonga’.

Māori artworks had left the country for exhibition purposes before, but this was the first time Māori had been actively involved in the process. The management committee’s policy, negotiated at the outset, was that tribal groups had the right to ‘exercise a veto over their taonga’. But Māori involvement went beyond ‘agreeing or disagreeing’ to participate. The management committee recommended that Māori accompany the exhibition as caretakers, ensured Māori were trained as guides, and assisted in ‘protracted negotiations’ for a dawn ceremony to open the exhibition at The Met in New York.

The dawn ceremony included traditional elements, such as karanga and karakia, that were familiar to the 90-strong New Zealand party of kaumātua, cultural performers, carvers, weavers and officials. The American party and others attending the event were less familiar with these elements but, like the New Zealanders, were reportedly moved by the experience. Barbara Goodman, who covered the event for Auckland’s Metro magazine, wrote:

I have always felt deprived that in my school days no one even thought to teach us any aspects of Maori culture, just history, history, more history. On that night, for the first time in my life, I was able, invited even, to join in. An amazing thing happened. After all these years I, who had been born in Auckland, knew that I was utterly, completely, a New Zealander.

The Met was the first stop on a tour of the United States. As Hirini Moko Mead observed in his book about Te Maori, the choice of venue was full of meaning:

The Metropolitan is synonymous with international art. It is the centre of the world of art. By taking our art to New York, we altered its status and changed overnight the perception of it by people at home and abroad. We brought Maori art out of the closet, out from obscurity, out from anonymity, and out of the cupboard of primitive contextualisation. In fact, we rescued it and freed it from the limiting intellectual climate of New Zealand, releasing it so it could be seen by the world.

Te Maori was subsequently exhibited at the Saint Louis Art Museum (February–May 1985), the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco (July–September 1985), and the Field Museum in Chicago (March–June 1986).

On its return to New Zealand in 1986 the exhibition was rebranded as Te Maori: te hokinga mai = the return home and exhibited in the four main centres. Following its closure in Auckland in September 1987, the taonga were returned to the institutions from which they had been borrowed. The profits from the exhibition are administered by the Te Māori Manaaki Taonga Trust, which was established to ‘encourage and provide for education and training of Māori in the skills required for the care and display of taonga Māori’.

Image: Te Maori exhibition (Te Ara