Tā Derek Lardelli, acclaimed Tai Rāwhiti artist, speaking at the Toi Ora hui in Wellington last month. (Photo: Te Kawa Robb)

It’s hard to make a living as an artist in Aotearoa, writes Tainui Stephens. Every artist aims to be the best they were destined to be — and for the Māori artist, that means to be of singular and selfless service to the people.


I recently went to see The Haka Party Incident. It was a night I’ll never forget.

This powerful play was written and directed by Katie Wolfe. It’s an example of verbatim theatre where the words are those that were actually spoken during the history that it reveals. The story of a three-minute stoush in 1979, between outraged Māori and engineering students who regularly bastardised the haka, is a challenging one.

The play was inspiring because the mirror it held up to our society made us consider the hard truths that were reflected back at us. But what thrilled me most was the response of the very full house.

When the play came to its dramatic conclusion, it was suddenly dark and suddenly silent. After a nanosecond, the entire audience in the Wellington Opera House sprang to their feet in loud acclaim and applause. The huge ovation stunned the cast as well.

I felt in that joyous moment an honest Kiwi acceptance of the way we really are. A sense of pride and relief that as a nation we can now embrace our own stories — and by doing so, heal the hurt.

Kua huri te tai o kūare, koia ka mimiti noa. The tide of ignorance has turned, and now ebbs away.

Ria Hall, a recording artist and Whakaata Māori presenter, recalls the words of her own toi tangata, Ngapo Wehi. (Photo: Te Kawa Robb)

In tough times, a society’s artists have always presented a vision of a better life. They often use music, literature, or sublime expressions of art and craft to do so. The recent huge success of the Matatini kapa haka festival shows how the art of Māori performance inspires vast swathes of the population.

But the arts are also private, and not always for public consumption.

I know a kaumātua who’d been forced to set aside his Māoriness in the unforgiving years of the middle of last century. As a mature adult, he had observed younger men building waka. It was his admiration for Māori art that drew him back to his culture and helped him to ensure his whānau would know it too. The koroua loves to draw horses. Each of his grandchildren has a special horse drawn just for them.

The word “toi” means art, but also the origins and pinnacle of our personal humanity.

I thought of those horses as we gathered for a Toi Ora hui of Māori artists, organised by Creative New Zealand to consider a new future for the arts. We were with some of our greatest current exponents, but only a small representation of the many artists in te ao Māori, let alone all the men and women who have art in their lives.

The data shows that, compared with Pākehā, more Māori feel the arts are important for their wellbeing. Interestingly, art has more value for Māori who have less money, than for those who have hefty pūtea.

In Aotearoa, nearly half of all artists take on other work to survive. Even then, their average annual income is only $37,000. (The median salary in New Zealand is $61,000.) A tā moko artist friend of mine believes our own Māori people need to appreciate them more, or rather the time that goes into their work. After a recent three-hour tattooing session, he was given an envelope with one $20 note inside.

It’s tough to make a living as an artist.

Creative New Zealand had responded to an arts sector call to send a message directly to the government and its agencies that they had to do better. Toi Ora would convene acknowledged and expert Māori artists, gather their views, and then share them with others. The hui would then address the government.

There are plenty of artists who’ve had applications for funding turned down. No one is a fan of bureaucracy, paperwork, and compliance. All of that consumes vast amounts of unpaid time for the artists — yet makes work for well-paid civil servants.

We gathered first at Te Rau Karamu marae, and then Te Papa Tongarewa. The purpose was to connect, talk deeply, and share a vision for the future. It was so moving to be at an arts hui with great artists — and to not talk about works of art. We talked about the innovation behind art, the enduring point of art, and the kinds of artistic collaborations we need in the new era.

In his keynote address, acclaimed Tai Rāwhiti artist Tā Derek Lardelli said the hui wasn’t just about funding, but our survival. He prodded everyone’s native minds and hearts and urged us to be Indigenous in our thinking. He said we need Indigenous wind in our sails to assert mana motuhake over ourselves.

The time is over for cursory nods of support from government. “Think of those who gave their lives for the kaupapa and went to their graves saying: ‘Keep going.’ They’re all in this room, looking at us, saying: ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to say to our children and to our tomorrow?'”

Derek answered his own questions in a way the whole hui understood.

E moko                                              Oh my child

Kauria te puna toiora                      Swim in the wellspring of excellence

Ki toinuku ki toirangi                      Of all that is of earth and sky

Kia toitū mai                                     Stand firm

Tōu na toi tangata                           Be the best of you

Ki te whai ao                                     Seek the day

Ki te ao mārama                              Seek enlightenment

Tanea Heke, Ngāpuhi actor and leader of Toi Whakaari. (Photo: Te Kawa Robb)

Tanea Heke, a renowned actor who now heads Toi Whakaari, took up the theme of asserting mana motuhake over every decision we make. This includes breaking out of our safe Māori spaces where we all work together. She said we’ll never make change unless we move sideways and step into Pākehā spaces, even if that make us uneasy.

“My kids and their grandchildren are going to have to put up with their BS — unless we make some positive changes. So here we go, my darlings. As uncomfortable though it is, it’s time to get up, put on our big girl’s frock — and off we go!”

At the conclusion of the hui, Bernard Makoare, Libby Hakaraia, Ria Hall, Ngataiharuru Taepa and Tā Derek presented a powerful and overwhelmingly cogent statement of the hui’s expectations of government. This included four priorities:

  • To ensure that iwi, hapū and Māori arts communities themselves control the resources and the values of arts and education.
  • To establish regional hubs of holistic connection, authenticity, innovation, excellence, and sustainability.
  • To secure the wellbeing of future generations. To protect the environment and ensure a balance with the digital world.
  • To create an independent Māori Arts Agency: for funding, archiving, and resourcing the sustainable growth of Toi Māori.

Ngāpuhi artist Bernard Makoare addressing Crown agencies at the Toi Ora hui. (Photo: Te Kawa Robb)

One of the first documentaries I made was a profile on tohunga whakairo Pākāriki Harrison. He was the first Māori artist to impress me, not because of his work alone but because of his character, and the way he communicated his knowledge.

I had filmed his stunning carvings at marae around the country and knew that a master carver doesn’t work alone in the creation of a whare tūpuna. I asked him how he chose the carvers he worked with. I expected him to describe what he looked for in their work. I expected insight into the value he placed on talent, or a unique creative vision, or a reliable work ethic.

But all he said was: “I look at their tools.”

The simplicity of that statement floored me. When I thought about it, he was right. Pāki’s smart insight was typical of an artist at the top of his game.

Te Arawa tā moko artist Hōhua Mohi deep in discussions to create a shared vision at the Toi Ora hui in Wellington last month. (Photo: Te Kawa Robb)

Our hui was full of artists at the top of their game. They knew how to articulate their vision for a better future for Māori art, and for us all. They’d all done the hard yards and had nothing left to prove. They’d gathered in Wellington at the invitation of Crown agencies to speak their mind to those same agencies.

As he did so, Derek urged the government to consider the logo of the Toi Ora hui. He drew attention to the image of a lens at its centre. He amused all with comment on the aperture, and then encouraged officials to look through that lens and into the future.

“Put your pens down and look with your eyes, and with your heart. See what we can see!”

He said that if they dared to see, they would see the mighty pou of the whare kōrero that was speaking to them now. “Put courage in your spine and be bold in your decision making. Every one of these pou know how to bend, but none of them have snapped because they know how to carry the weight of the nation.”

The long-held vision of these Māori arts leaders is of enduring change by connecting with the toi tangata within yourself and others. When we study ourselves in the mirror, we can see things the way they are. When we study the future through the lens of enlightenment, we can see things the way they must be.

Kia purapura whetū ō tātou whakaaro. Mānawatia a Matariki.


Tainui Stephens, of Te Rarawa, has been fully engaged in the film and television industry since 1984, working with a range of genre and content. He is particularly attracted to compelling Indigenous stories that critique and celebrate the human condition. Tainui lives in Ōtaki with his wife and fellow filmmaker Libby Hakaraia. Together they and a small whānau team run the Māoriland Film Festival.

© E-Tangata, 2023

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