The Reality of New Zealand Women and Art

Millie Galbraith


In light of Alabama’s controversial abortion bill, women across the globe are re-evaluating what it means to live in a modern and free society. Dystopian texts ‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ (1985) and ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ (1949) have become a strange reality in America’s state of Alabama.


Twenty-five white Republican men have stripped Alabama women of a basic human right: their right of choice. People have turned to social media to express their disgrace with the new law and in doing so have been sharing around various quotes: “If men could get pregnant, abortions would be available at the gas station” and “What surprised me most about becoming a parent was that I was forced to by the government”. These two quotes personally stuck with me. Why does the importance of women continue to be underestimated and undermined?


Alabama is a long way from New Zealand, but this doesn’t mean their situation can’t be related to. In times like these, a reflection on women’s historical standing in Western society helps us to understand the significance of what seems to be a step in the wrong direction. Many of the themes around women’s inequality and societal expectations carry through many aspects in a woman’s life. In this instance, I am looking at things from an art perspective.


Throughout New Zealand history women have had to fight to establish their presence as artists. Some of the country’s most celebrated female artists were operating during a time where their profession wasn’t socially accepted. This article focuses on how New Zealand woman have used art to express and highlight the negative constructs of society.


Throughout history a woman’s place in society has been constantly structured and restructured. Issues with inequality, social class and expectation have been created through a certain mechanical culture generated predominantly by men.


Twentieth century New Zealand saw a woman’s social and cultural identity centralise around her domestic duties and her family life. A professional career, cultural interests and education beyond this role had minor importance. This idea is crucial when understanding the implications and outcomes of early New Zealand female art and the reoccurring socio-economic factors that made the process different from male artists.


Kura Te Waru Rewiri is an important figure in New Zealand art and is greatly celebrated for her contribution to contemporary Māori art. Born in 1950, Rewiri began her career and love for art right in our in own backyard at the University of Canterbury, Ilam School of Fine Arts. She saw art as an opportunity to not only define her role as a woman but to explore her identity as a Maori woman. She was operating during a time where Māori women lacked societal sovereignty and presence.


In order to address this, she used art to directly acknowledge these issues, producing works that explored her social and artistic identity. Rewiri used weaving, Kōwhaiwhai and Tā moko patterns in her abstract paintings in order to represent her Māori heritage. Her use of technique is a representation of the intertwining nature of society and the significance of a Māori woman living in a European, contemporary environment.


Whenua/Wahine/Whenua is an artwork by Rewiri that uses simplified forms of traditional Māori art in conjunction with more contemporary and abstract forms. The dominant shapes in the work represent her Tupuna Wahine (female ancestors) and their relationship to the land. Rewiri is highlighting the strong nature of her female ancestors and the significant impact these women had on their people, and surroundings.


Kura Te Waru Rewiri, Whenua/Wahine/Whenua (Land/Women/Land), 1989, acrylic and kanuka on hardboard, Auckland Art Gallery.


Another important New Zealand female artist is Rita Angus. Like Rewiri, her artistic roots go back to the University of Canterbury where she studied from 1927 to 1933. She is widely considered to be a pioneer of New Zealand art and her paintings express the country’s unique national identity by focusing on the beauty of our landscape.


Living in a time where women had to choose between a profession or a family, Angus spent a large majority of her adult life solo, without children or a spouse. Choosing her artistic career over what was expected of her was a significant and extremely bold choice.


Angus was living in a society that didn’t necessarily accommodate socially or financially for self-employed, career-driven women. Her retaliation against these discriminative social constructs led to the creation of incredible artworks that are very significant to our nation’s cultural and individual distinctiveness.


An example of this is her painting Rutu. This work is a self-portrait that represents Angus’s own personal and national identity. The work dissolves the boundaries, expectations and appearance of the traditional New Zealand woman. Rutu is a representation of an ideal figure in an ideal society, she is a goddess with blonde European hair and dark Polynesian skin – a proud female that embodies two important New Zealand cultures. Rutu expresses themes of equality, peace and freedom, all of which are key ideas for a female artist attempting to establish her presence and position within an imbalanced society.


Rita Angus, Rutu, 1951, oil on canvas, 548 x 707 mm, Te Papa.


In many ways, New Zealand as a country is a pioneer – we pride ourselves as a nation on our ability to accept, challenge and adapt to change. It is a privilege to live in a country that practices this, but it is important not to disregard the past.


The treatment of women in Alabama is an example of a horrific societal construct, one that may seem so remote from anything in New Zealand. But the harsh reality of these events is that it really isn’t so distant from us. In fact, the passing of this law is a mere extension of pre-existing conventional, western issues that regard gender equality.


In order to improve the future, we must learn from the past. New Zealand’s previous treatment of women resulted in many strong and talented female artists being left unacknowledged and not represented.


Rita Angus and Kura Te Waru Rewiri’s artistic expression and self-worth was challenged by their social disadvantage. The extent of their work was limited due to their circumstance and to this day the New Zealand art world is at a loss.


Modern day society has since then fully accepted and celebrated Kiwi woman like Angus and Rewiri, yet at what cost? Many female artists during the same time period were never given the opportunity to explore the practice in a wider field. Their passion was not supported nor academically accepted by a male-led society, therefore unachievable for most.


Throughout history and throughout every country, women are faced with different limitations, regulations and laws. Equality and inequality are universal concepts and present in every society.