The house is full
Dilohana Lekamge

The house is full is an exhibition showcasing a selection of artistic practices that could be considered on the fringes of anti-establishment art movements in Aotearoa from the 1970s onwards. Each of the featured artists explored different roots in this particular era of cultural transformation as their ancestral homes differed from Britain, the historical centre point of the western world.

Prior to this decade, New Zealanders believed they were an extension of the British Empire, albeit geographically located in the South Pacific. The 1970s marked a historically heightened time of cultural rigidity in Aotearoa, with many Māori land protests, including lesser-covered disputes like that of Ngāti Hine Forestry dispute, the Dawn Raids and the changes to the country’s racially charged immigration policies,[1] which made it difficult for those from marginalised cultural groups to live without experiencing discrimination in Aotearoa – especially if they were perceived as unlikely to assimilate into New Zealand culture. These disruptive forces prompted an urgency to challenge Anglocentric structures of power, which of course included confronting those same structures which formed the values of our national artistic landscape.

Various figures in Aotearoa’s art scene rejected the values of the traditional art establishment, making way for more experimental practices. Many of these newer methods sat in solidarity with those most greatly affected by political upheaval. Artists such as New Zealand modernist Colin McCahon (1919–1987) were recognised for alignment with values of cultural inclusivity and equality. Paintings such as Parihaka triptych (1972) and Uruwera triptych (1975) by McCahon were murals recognising these dark moments in New Zealand history. While these examples demonstrate an art scene full of political will, further attention needs to be given to artists that were more intimately affected by these political changes. The house is full showcases four artists: Emily Karaka, Parbhu Makan, John Miller and Teuane Tibbo (1895–1984), all of whom were directly affected by punitive political shifts yet contributed significantly to burgeoning artistic movements that were veering away from dominating cultural institutions. Their visions of home were not Britain, but of a home in Aotearoa and homes that were elsewhere.

Each of these four artists have, at some point in their careers, existed peripherally to the more prominent proponents of experimental practice. They focused on forms that rebelled against the values of previous generations and the authority of power that espoused discrimination. These artists were not necessarily market driven nor were they merely careerist. However, they were adjacent to those who were. Their perspectives and motivations did not always align with their peers, because of their cultural position during this time.

In a 1961 text introducing the New Zealand section of the international touring show Painting from the Pacific, P. A. Tomory, Director of Auckland City Art Gallery between ​​1956 to 1965, noted that:

“...the colonial seeks his stimuli from ‘Home’ – Britain in New Zealand’s case. However, when the colonial achieved his emancipation and became a New Zealander, there was a greater readiness to look more towards his neighbours in similar latitudes.”[2]

Tomory’s selection of artists in the exhibition were all Pākehā, a choice that he repeated in the Contemporary New Zealand Painting exhibition of 1963. His statement acknowledges the desire for New Zealand to be separate from Britain, but only recognises that the ‘colonial’ can become a New Zealander and therefore dismisses the remainder of the population. The neighbours he refers to here would be Australia and Japan, the other Asian-Pacific countries included in the exhibition, whose socio-political structures at this time were built to favour cultural homogeneity.[3] Tomory’s statement minimally recognises racial diversity, which of course overtly had an impact on the output of Auckland City Gallery, one of the largest public art institutions in New Zealand.

Historian James Mitchell identified that “by the late 1960s and early 1970s, the definition of the New Zealand nation had become rigid and left little room for cultural diversity and that this contributed to upheaval and debate over national identity.”[4] He argues that the 1970s was a decade that shifted New Zealand’s cultural national identity and challenged a very taut Pākehā nationalism.

An event that challenged this nationalistic inflexibility was the Ngātihine Land Dispute, in the Far North near Kawakawa, which began in 1974. The forestry company Carter Holt Farms and Forests Ltd attempted to lease the land, initially for 99 years, to afforest the 5500 hectares of iwi land. Graham Alexander, the only elected member of the Ngātihine Forestry Trust to refute the lease, which required a unanimous vote. He insisted that there should be a transparent tender process, instead of preferentially dealing with one company, which led to his removal from the trust. This brought on years of legal proceedings, which gained the attention of other land activists, unions and Ngātihine block shareholders. It was settled through court action; there was no sit-in, or marches, nor police intervention. For this reason, this dispute did not receive the same amount of media attention as other land protests in this decade like Bastion Point occupation, Raglan Golf Course protest, or 1975 Land March. The Ngāti Hine land was already possessed by a Māori ownership group, unlike these other examples. The difficulties the owners of Ngati Hine faced can be traced back to the 1865 establishment of the Native Land Court, which made it easier for Pākehā land companies and individuals to lease and purchase iwi land. Local forestry companies still take advantage of these same mechanisms and vulnerable ownership structures to freely avail themselves of Māori land. Despite not being the most conspicuous event, this dispute echoes those that have occurred in our recent history. The Ihumātao protests, for example, involved construction companies attempting to develop confiscated ancestral land they had purchased from Pākehā, resulting in varying levels of disagreement.

John Miller was present at several of these protests, taking photographs at the Bastion Point occupation site, in 1977 and capturing the images of the 1975 Māori Land March as it passed through the Wellington streets and entered Parliament Grounds. Many of these images are widely circulated, often appearing to commemorate these historically defining events, however, the photographers who captured these Māori subjects were from a European immigrant perspective such as Ans Westra and Marti Friedlander. Miller’s interest in documenting these significant acts of resistance, did not focus solely on creating photographic reflections. He was also invested as an individual as part of the cause. As the nephew of Graham Alexander, Miller helped to rally support, and assist in creating the Ngātihine Block Objection Committee, for which Miller became the Secretary of the Auckland branch. Miller kept an in-depth diary and collated the print coverage which he has kept as an archive. His photographs record these proceedings as an explorative timeline of this land. He captures the crowd gathered around the courthouse, committee meetings, the wide-reaching land and forests, families who lived in and around this land, and the planting of seedlings which marked the resolution of the dispute. His investment into a less damaging and more sustainable outcome for that land is illustrated by the breath of his documentation. He shows what was distinctively at stake, and all that could have been lost, if there was no resistance. A change of officials in the Māori Affairs bureaucracy enabled the dispute to be settled, and the lease shortened down to 33 years, which ended in 2013. It has been back in the control of the Trust since. Miller continues to highlight this largely overlooked dispute of Aotearoa’s long history of land sovereignty, revisiting the land to document its progression, demonstrating that this is a history that continues to have new chapters.

Nga mihi nui ki te hau kainga o Matawaia. Ki nga pukepukerau o Ngati Hine. Tena koutou. Ka maharatia nga kaumatua, nga kuia, nga tini whanaunga kua mene ki te po. Takoto mai ra ki te ahurewa o te iwi moe roa. E moe, e okioki. Ki a koutou o Te Kau I Mua. Tena koutou Tena koutou Tena koutou katoa.

Another artist who was known for their response to the land disputes and protests of the 1970s is Emily Karaka. In the Mixing Bowl (1977) is a painting that responds directly to the loss of her father while the artist was pregnant and expresses her connection to her whakapapa.[5] This was the first painting the Karaka exhibited publicly and was first shown in the Pakuranga Community Festival in 1977. This piece drew the attention of McCahon, who is considered the outstanding figure in New Zealand visual art of the 20th century.[6] He commented that she showed skill and could have a career as a painter.[7] Karaka’s art is aesthetically influenced by the Abstract Expressionists, a Modernist movement that has been historicised as a response to the tragedies of World War II. Within the Abstract Expressionist movement, there was a latent interest in exploring “primitive” art. In 1950s and 60s New Zealand, according to art historian Damien Skinner, “while Pākehā primitivists appealed to Māori art as a way to escape the perceived limitations of Western art, Māori modernists appealed to modernist Western art as a way to escape the perceived limitations of Māori art.”[8] The 1970s brought about the “Māori Renaissance”, which in creative fields prompted allegiance to political and social movements for the sovereignty of land, coinciding with the formation of the Waitangi Tribunal and the aforementioned land protests and disputes.

Karaka’s artwork stems from both eras – of Māori Modernism and the Māori Renaissance. Her career currently spans over five decades and her role in political activism earned her a place as a pillar in Aoteaora’s art history. However, regarding the stylistic method of abstract expressionism in New Zealand, those aligned with this movement are predominantly Pākehā men: Pat Hanly (1932–2004), Phillip Clairmont (1949–1984), Allen Maddox (1984–2000) and Colin McCahon (1919–1987), many of whom were colleagues of Karaka and working within the 1970s. Conversely, Karaka’s practice echoes this expressionist style of painting however, as someone whose whakapapa was deeply affected by British colonisation. The subsequent violence and injustices that colonisation continued to cause required persistent crusades for Māori land ownership, which Karaka actively engaged in. Karaka uses painting as a form to reflect specific hardships of mana whenua. Her artistic oeuvre has been considered politically driven protest art, whereas her significance as a figure that contributed greatly to the abstract expressionist movement in Aotearoa is downplayed in comparison. This could be largely due to the racialised and politicised ideas of Māori art, in comparison to the apolitical lens that Pākehā men have historically been afforded. Despite this, her presence as a figure in the Māori Renaissance is significant. Though this movement took place in conjunction with Pākehā Modernism, the effects of the Māori Renaissance have continued to flourish into a long thread of Māori art movements that have been brought to the forefront of Aotearoa's art landscape.

The work of Teuane Tibbo sits alongside a similar generation of painters such as Tony Fomison (1939-1990), Hanly and Michael Illingworth (1932-1988). Ironically, it was through an introduction to Peter Tomory that Tibbo’s artwork was brought to the attention of the contemporary art scene in Auckland, only when the artist was well into her 70s. Initially, she created paintings to give as gifts to members of her family, but this changed once she became noticed by the art scene in Tāmaki Makaurau. Her artwork was subsequently shown at Barry Lett Galleries, where many of her pieces were sold. As art historian Bronwyn Fletcher has suggested, folk art was in vogue, which explained that the Auckland artists’ community made space for Tibbo, because her artwork “in all its unpretentious, unlearned splendour, fed directly into the anti-establishment, anti-capitalist mood of the times.”[9]

The recognition that Tibbo received by critics reiterated Tomory’s perspective of principally valuing artists of British lineage, which simultaneously depreciates all other artistic heritage. Her paintings were described as “genuine dyed-in-the-wool primitive,”[10] in a belittling manner. Playing with form and dimension, Tibbo created a different world, one that was reminiscent of home but, ultimately, was a version of it that she had imagined. The selection in this exhibition is from private collections and has not been as widely presented as others in her oeuvre. They showcase particularly uncommon subjects and painting techniques that deviate slightly from pieces in her larger body-of-work – focusing on animals as the main subjects instead of people and using three-dimensional elements. Fletcher notes that Tibbo’s paintings present a “skewed perspective,”[11] one that does not show a photorealistic view, nor one that is scientifically sound. Her forms are playful and dreamlike, often serving as visualisations of her memories – drifting away from fact and into an imagined realm that is parallel to reality.

The reception of Tibbo’s paintings prompts us to question why the Pākehā interpretation of primitivism is considered an expressionist art form, whereas non-European artists who explore similar visual forms create art that is “primitive”. The penchant to miscategorise artists such as Tibbo and other Pasifika artists of this time was placed in the context of a turbulent cultural moment with the The Dawn Raids, taking place in the mid-1970s. This government-driven persecution demonstrated that Pasifika communities were not a welcome part of New Zealand’s population. Their deportation and severe policing articulated that their presence was undesirable in the national identity. The undervaluing and ghettoising of Tibbo’s practice in the Auckland art scene at this time was a reflection of wider racial partitioning. Though many of her paintings were recollections of Samoa that she created from her home in Tāmaki Makaurau as a Samoan New Zealander, her work was considered through a racially biased lens. Critics described her painting as “colourful, childlike, simple, and without fine detail,”[12] using charged descriptions that described her work as lacking complexity and sophistication. The distance placed between her output and those of her Pākehā peers removed her paintings from the prestigiousness that was granted to those colleagues. Pākehā artists were inherently connected to New Zealand’s output of contemporary art, whereas critics aimed to connect Tibbo to Samoa. This perspective of Tibbo’s paintings is further evidence of a discourse that disconnects Pasifika communities from the national New Zealand identity.

Other Tauiwi communities faced different but significant challenges within this cultural climate. The 1920 Immigration Restriction Amendment Act was enacted to predominantly restrict Asian immigration to New Zealand. In an overt act of preference, prospective immigrants who were not of British birth or parentage had to apply for permanent residence prior to their arrival to New Zealand. Photographer Parbhu Makan recalls how his grandfather immigrated to Aotearoa from India around 1914–18.[13] The policies in the Immigration Restriction Amendment Act remained unchanged until the mid-1970s, when economic stressors felt by the New Zealand government meant that there was a greater need for more workers, resulting in immigration policies granting residency based on merit and skill instead of race or nationality. The Immigration Restriction Amendment Act remained in place until 1987. The number of Indian immigrants expanded which was unfortunately accompanied by an anti-Indian hysteria within New Zealand. For instance, when a small number of refugees of Indian heritage were going to relocate to New Zealand from Uganda after mass expulsion under the reign of Idi Amin, a slew of letters in opposition were sent to newspapers voicing concern. This was in direct contrast to the widespread acceptance of white Rhodesian refugees seeking residence in New Zealand after the war.

New Zealanders were reluctant to accept Indians because they were deemed unassimilable, even though they also hailed from Commonwealth countries. However, because of this Commonwealth connection (which New Zealand desperately desired to be associated with), they could not be rejected. Sekhar Banyopadhyay considers this rejection as a contribution to the relative erasure of Indian-New Zealanders in our national dialogue, as he explains Indians have remained representatives of diaspora instead of being considered social citizens of this nation.[14]

There are odd parallels between this predicament and the photographic practice of Parbhu Makan. He remains a largely invisible figure now but featured prominently in the 1970s experimental art scene. Art became temporary and garish to combat institutional ownership and the permanence of the art object. New media and performance art became prominent, which intentionally strayed from the confines of more traditional forms of painting and sculpture. Several artist-run initiatives opened that expanded the local art scene. One of these spaces was the now-defunct Real Pictures Gallery, active between 1979 and 1990, where Makan exhibited and documented many performance artworks. Makan’s photographs that garnered the widest recognition were those of experimental performance artwork including Bruce Barber’s Bucket Action (1974) and photographs of Fiona Clark’s various performances.

The circulation of photographs Makan captured in relation to his peers have been shown throughout galleries in New Zealand, such as the Govett-Brewster and Auckland City Art Gallery. However, Makan did not pursue a career as an artist. Aside from a handful of exhibitions,[15] a decent majority of his photographic archive has not been exhibited. The photographs he took of his family in India and here in Aotearoa provide a glimpse into his observations of his familial line, as an individual of two homes – a cultural hybrid. In 1976, he visited his family’s village in India for the first time. Being born in Aotearoa, the photographs from this trip capture moments of introduction and unfamiliarity, despite their intrinsic familial connection. In contrast, the images taken in Aotearoa taken between 1973 and 1981 are vastly more candid and intimate. In both locations, these images don’t just exist as documents but present moments of affection and attachment between the subjects and the photographer. The limited recognition of Makan’s practice in the context of the performance art scene highlights Makan as a largely invisible figure in what was a very outlandish artistic medium. He is mostly only visible presently through image credits. His absence mirrors the recurrent issue of the omission of South Asian narratives and experiences in our national discourse.

The Anglocentric sentiment behind the statement made by Tomory in 1961 contextualises the cultural uniformity that was considered desirable for New Zealand. The events and policies that framed the social and cultural context of Aotearoa in the 1970’s happened in direct response to this context. Furthermore, the social upheaval of this period, which took place as a result of structures orchestrated by the New Zealand government, would cement the idea that this country was not a welcome home to those who did not have British colonial ancestry. Non-European countries seemed exotic, too personal, and too divisive to speak to the large audiences in Aotearoa.

These disparities continue to occur. Despite more consistent occurrences of conversations around the existence of racial discrimination, the issues that Aotearoa faced in the 1970s still echo now. In 2019, the Ihumātao protest took place. Māori and Pasifika communities continue to be policed more than other cultural demographics. The government also continues to adapt its immigration policy to prevent many non-European immigrants from being granted residence.[16] Although New Zealand is seen by many as a favourable cultural melting pot, the patterns that repeat in our history indicate otherwise. These artists took a subjective approach, favouring their personal perspectives of their ancestry over the larger social expectation to feed the misconception of New Zealand’s non-prejudicial culture. The house is full celebrates these varied lineages and the willingness to present them where they may not be ideally embraced – an even more remarkable gesture in the reality of a continuously repeating history.

[1] The Immigration Restriction Amendment Act 1920 stated that no person other than a person of British birth and parentage shall enter into New Zealand unless they are in possession of a permit to enter. In 1974, this act was amended to repeal this clause, which increased immigration and simultaneously increased anti-immigration rhetoric.

[2] Auckland City Art Gallery, “Painting from the Pacific: Japan, America, Australia, New Zealand.” Auckland, N.Z.: The Gallery (1961).

[3] Farquharson, Karen, and Maho Omori. "Cultural homogeneity in Australia and Japan." Swinburne Research Bank (2009).

[4] Mitchell, James. Immigration and national identity in 1970s New Zealand. Diss. University of Otago, 2003. pg. 2

[5] “Five Māori Painters: Emily Karaka”, Youtube, uploaded by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-EHMTuy-8Bc&ab_channel=AucklandArtGalleryToioT%C4%81maki.

[6] “Biography of Colin McCahon”, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa,https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/topic/947.

[7] Karaka, Emily. “Tangi. Muriwai”, McCahon House, McCahon House Trust, https://mccahonhouse.org.nz/100/emily-karaka/.

[8] Skinner, Damian. "Indigenous primitivists: The challenge of Māori modernism." World Art 4.1 (2014): 67-87.

[9] Fletcher, Bronwyn. “Between Fine and Folk: The Paintings of Teuane Tibbo.” (2002). Art New Zealand, 105 (Summer 2002-03).

[10] Keith, Hamish. “From Samoa with Joy”. Auckland Star [Auckland], 15 December. 1973, p. 7. Weekender.

[11] Fletcher, Bronwyn.

[12] G. Fletcher, The Painted Life of Teuane Tibbo, (Manuscript held at Hector Library, Museum of New Zealand, 1996), p2.

[13] Andrew, Clark. “Intimate Portraits: The Familial Archive of Parbhu Makan.'' Art New Zealand, vol 167, Spring 2018-19, pp. 90-93.

[14] Bandyopadhyay, Sekhar. "A History of Small Numbers INDIANS IN NEW ZEALAND, c. 1890s-1930s." New Zealand Journal of History 43.2 (2009): 150-168.

[15] Makan was featured in a group exhibition alongside Juliette Blightman, Kate Newby and Henrik Olesen at Michael Lett in 2018 and a solo exhibition of his self-portraits in 2020 at Pah Homestead. A longer list of exhibitions he has been featured in are noted in his biography.

[16] An example of this is the 2019 policy that prevented couples in arranged marriages to be granted residency, as it required couples to have lived together for at least 12 months to be eligible. This policy was repealed after widespread backlash claiming that it targeted immigrants of Indian heritage. To be eligible for a skilled migrant visa, requirements exist that directly address class and race – requiring applicants to receive a high income and meet specific levels of proficiency in English.

back to top