New Zealand's National Identity — Maori's Significant Role

Born of Lebanese, Pakeha and Ngati Tu Wharetoa descendants, I have always been fascinated by the ability of cultures to add richness and vitality to life experience. Invigorating cultures that add to a nation’s value rather than become the divisive force so often portrayed on the likes of CNN. At present, New Zealand is in something of a de-colonisation vacuum.

We are dangling a little awkwardly at the crossroads of our identity. 

As a nation, our Englishness is steadily shrinking away but what will we replace it with? How will we define the new emerging culture? What are the reference points for our unique cultural identity?

"Intrinsic to each series within my art practice, I honour tribal whakapapa or genealogy. In doing so, I move more freely between the genealogy of past, present and future to produce works that are linked to memories of recent and ancient past, that are tangible and intangible...I make works that talk about those spaces in-between, those spiritual spaces." — Lonnie Hutchinson

"Intrinsic to each series within my art practice, I honour tribal whakapapa or genealogy. In doing so, I move more freely between the genealogy of past, present and future to produce works that are linked to memories of recent and ancient past, that are tangible and intangible...I make works that talk about those spaces in-between, those spiritual spaces." — Lonnie Hutchinson

At present we are wallowing in self-congratulatory nostalgia as we anoint mediocrity in colouring competitions for flags as political distractions with little airtime being given to what kind of nation we want to become. 

National identity is all about why we are the way we are and what matters to us.

Maori and its origins of art and culture have an enormous contribution to make to this realisation of identity. The question is how. There appear to be two schools of thought. Hang on strenuously to that which is valuable — the heritage we all acknowledge. The other is to advance the culture of both Maori and the rest of New Zealand to an altogether new dimension.

Brett Graham, Rukuhia III (2011). Carved and painted MDF, 232cm x 102cm x 28cm.  

Brett Graham, Rukuhia III (2011). Carved and painted MDF, 232cm x 102cm x 28cm.
 

Maori scholars, business people, designers, film and music makers are now just beginning to emerge with a new sense of freedom and confidence. The opportunity to impact on not just Maori life but the broader, modern life of all New Zealand has never been more promising. With their strong sense of family and community, connection to the land, resilience, ingenuity, easy humour, openness, and compassion, Maori provide every New Zealander with the ultimate reference point for sustainable living. 

The contribution Maori already make to our New Zealand psyche often goes unnoticed. 

Even without a drop of Maori blood, a New Zealander standing in the middle of Trafalgar or Times Square is decidedly more Maori than he or she thinks. That's the effect Maori has had on New Zealand society.

Keisha Castle-Hughes performance as Kahu Paikea Apirana in the 2002 film adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's 'Whale Rider' saw her nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. She was thirteen — the youngest to ever be nominated at the time.

Keisha Castle-Hughes performance as Kahu Paikea Apirana in the 2002 film adaptation of Witi Ihimaera's 'Whale Rider' saw her nominated for an Academy Award as Best Actress. She was thirteen — the youngest to ever be nominated at the time.

To maximise Maori potential, leadership is required that dispenses with lecturing in favour of exhibiting the culture in a modern context in the medium of design, art, music, literature, language, education, and business. In short, showing how the Maori way is unique. How difficult is it to imagine being in a Tesco supermarket in UK looking at a food product which carries Maori sustainable values, is from a Maori-owned business, carries a unique Maori story and isn’t called Montana or Anchor? Maori can add value to New Zealand’s identity in such a significant way. 

It can influence the way we position our internal and external products, services and hospitality systems. 

It can heighten our point of difference — a critical factor in a world spoilt for choice. 

Many countries have capitalised on their cultural intellectual property in order to advance their distinctiveness and their competitive edge. A Frenchman, for instance, talking about his wine will almost certainly wax lyrical about the people of his village and their life. This is what people are buying — that evocative connection.

Detail of an ornate carving (whakairo) and woven wall panel (tukutuku) at Te Hahi O Te Whakapono (The Church of the Faith), Rotorua. Commonly known as St. Faith's, the first Christian church service in Rotorua was held here on October 30, 1831.

Detail of an ornate carving (whakairo) and woven wall panel (tukutuku) at Te Hahi O Te Whakapono (The Church of the Faith), Rotorua. Commonly known as St. Faith's, the first Christian church service in Rotorua was held here on October 30, 1831.

Consider the renewal of Ireland — its music, dance, movies, pubs and literature circling the globe in green and adding impetus to its economic growth. If you look at modern interpretations of things Maori, whether it’s a play or novel by Witi Ihimaera, a wonderful painting by Shane Cotton or Ralph Hotere, you can see that these are at the cutting edge of contemporary life and the world is beginning to notice.

How different is this really to the worldwide growth of Irishness? If you think of Maori dance, art, literature and cinema, there are so many Maori influences starting to register around the world.

Lisa Reihana will represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2017. Her vast video panorama titled 'in Pursuit of Venus [infected]' employs twenty-first century digital technologies to disrupt traditional notions of beauty, authenticity, history and myth.

Lisa Reihana will represent New Zealand at the Venice Biennale in 2017. Her vast video panorama titled 'in Pursuit of Venus [infected]' employs twenty-first century digital technologies to disrupt traditional notions of beauty, authenticity, history and myth.

Through progressive cultural attitudes and careful stewardship Maori will have greater ownership in the national identity. But they have to take up the challenge and advance the culture themselves. It won’t happen otherwise. Or worse, commercial interests outside New Zealand who clearly recognise the value of our cultural intellectual property will use it for their own ends. Recent IP ‘borrowers’ are Austrian ski makers Fischer’s usage of tikis and Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto. Other savvy marketers can see it but we can’t.

I believe Maori culture needs to be moved forward with modern interpretations and showcased in a way that the world has not seen before. 

I am confident that, given real impetus within Maoridom and a more enlightened view from the rest of New Zealand, this unique facet of our country can help move us to a new and exciting threshold as a nation.

I want us to move on from the Maori’s dominant image of a noble savage, so often depicted in the tourism experience.