Fantastic scenery, an appreciation of beauty, and pride in their country seem to inspire many New Zealanders to become artists. Art comes in many media--painting, pottery, sculpture, glassware, spinning, weaving, and woodcarving. Music, theater, ballet, modern dance, literature, filmmaking, and architecture are also well represented.
Performing and Visual Arts
Drama is alive and well; the two most recognized theaters for professional live drama are the Mercury Theatre in Auckland and the Downstage Theatre in Wellington. Music flourishes through the internationally known National Symphony Orchestra and Brass Band. Government-funded support for the arts is provided by the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, which also trains promising dancers and musicians. Regional and community arts councils provide assistance to amateur groups and individuals and promote the arts throughout New Zealand. Since 1960 the visual arts have particularly flourished. Pottery, rapidly becoming an in-demand export, is the favorite, and woolcraft is also popular--as you'd expect from a country with more than 68 million sheep.
Display museums are found throughout New Zealand--many specialize in Maori arts and crafts, history, and culture. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington features Maori and Pacific exhibits; the Auckland Museum features zoology, botany, ethnology, and Maori exhibits; the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch displays New Zealand birds, a diorama of a historic Christchurch setting, and a planetarium; the Otago Museum in Dunedin features ethnology, pottery and sculpture, marinelife and skeletons, and local history.
New Zealand architecture generally reflects European and American influences of the appropriate time; however, many well-preserved pre-European Maori buildings are still extant, particularly in the north of the North Island. Some of New Zealand's most beautiful historic homes and buildings, restored and maintained by the New Zealand Historic Places Trust, are open to the public year-round; small admission charge.
The most important and sacred Maori art was sculpture, predominantly wood but also jade, ivory, and whalebone. Trained in the art from an early age, the best carvers of early Maori society became men of high rank. Only men could become carvers--women, regarded as inferior, were not even allowed to watch the carvers at work. The canoe (waka), meeting house (whare whakairo), and food storehouse (pataka) were the main vehicles for Maori relief sculpture. Enormous pieces of indigenous timber were deeply carved into highly decorative spiritual designs, both on the interior and exterior. Well-preserved woodcarvings, decorative interior panels of woven reed, and painted rafters are best seen in marae or meeting grounds throughout the country, and all the major museums feature Maori art. All useful items of the Maori were covered in abstract designs, inspired by plants (a fern design is fairly common) or symbols, and inset with abalone shell. The human body, in particular the sacred head, was the major figurative element. Profiles with birdlike heads were manaia or evil beings.
The tiki, a spiritual carving of human form representing the Maori conception of the beginning of life, was worn as a good luck pendant--it has been mass-produced in all mediums for tourists. Unfortunately, a lot of Maori art is now machine-made and you have to search for hand-carved original pieces. One of the best places to see hand-carved works is the New Zealand Maori Arts and Crafts Institute at Whakarewarewa, Rotorua, the home of Maori culture. Other areas where you can find carvers in action are the far north and the east coast of the North Island, and in the town of Hokitika on the west coast of the South Island.
The Maori also decorated their bodies, a custom that the earliest European visitors found particularly intriguing. Apart from wearing flax cloaks and kilts decorated with woven borders, tufts of colorful feathers, or dog hair, they adorned themselves with beautiful greenstone pendants, ear pendants, and combs; the men painfully carved intricate symmetrical designs (moku) into their faces and thighs with tiny chisels filled with paint, and the women tattooed their lower lips and chins. Nowadays you see few authentic tattoos (only on the very elderly), but they're still effectively painted on for ceremonial occasions.
Song and Dance
A cultural concert of Maori songs, chants, games, and graceful dances is a colorful spectacle that shouldn't be missed, especially when combined with a hangi (Maori feast). Men perform fierce war chants (haka) and women sing and perform graceful flowing dances, twirling poi. Rotorua is the best place to go to appreciate Maori culture in all its forms, past and present.