Meet the driving forces behind the watershed Wairau Māori Art Gallery

When Friedensreich Hundertwasser made Aotearoa his home in the 1970s, buying property in the Bay of Islands, he was one of Austria’s most famous avant-garde artists and an architect considered “the Gaudi of Vienna”.

Visitors to the Austrian capital will have seen the Hundertwasser House, his most famous architectural work, with its organic, irregular structure and wavy lines that evoke the natural landscape. Here, many of us may have seen a mini-version: the Hundertwasser public toilets on Kawakawa’s main street, covered in the artist’s signature multicolored tile collages.

The toilets were completed in 1999 before his death in 2000. But six years earlier he had proposed plans for an art centre, which included a gallery dedicated to Maori art, which was an integral part of his vision of the last museum in his name. Today, 22 years after his death, the Wairau Māori Art Gallery, housed within the Hundertwasser Center in Whangārei, will open its doors on February 20.

Whangārei residents were eager to see and touch the new Hundertwasser Center for the Arts, whose grounds and restaurant are now open.

In Northland, Hundertwasser was known to locals as Freidrich or the Man with the Strange Socks. He envisioned a harmonious relationship between nature and humans, and therefore identified strongly with Maori values, particularly around environmental protection.

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“Hundertwasser was about land and landscape. He was interested in being authentic and having a meaningful dialogue with these things,” says Nigel Borell (Pirirakau, Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi and Te Whakatōhea), curator of Wairau’s inaugural exhibition.

“He reminds me of Gottfried Lindauer. They both came from another part of the world and did not have the same background as the European settlers who preceded them. They were both quite philosophical artists about their relationship with the land and in tune with what it could mean for Maori. Hundertwasser was not only respectful, he appreciated these things and considered them important.

Recognizing Hundertwasser’s vision, kaumātua Dr Patu Hohepa chose “wairau” as his name – the te reo Māori transliteration of Hundertwasser, or 100 waters. “In te ao Māori, the notion of multiple waters has deep symbolic meaning, with water being the basis of all living things,” says visual artist and chair of the gallery’s charity board of trustees Elizabeth Ellis ( Ngāpuhi Ngāti Kuta, Ngāti Porou Te Whanau a Takimoana, Ngai Tane).

The trust, an independent and autonomous entity of the Hundertwasser Art Centre, manages Wairau. Members include Whangārei hapu and iwi, experienced Maori artists, gallery directors (including Tim Melville), arts administrators, educators and curators including Borell, who made headlines last year for stepping down unexpectedly from his position as Chief Curator of Maori Art after creating Toi Tū. Toi Ora, Auckland Art Gallery The largest exhibition of Toi o Tāmaki in the gallery’s 132-year history, featuring over 300 pieces of Maori art.

A few months later, he was recognized for changing the landscape of New Zealand art with the inaugural He Momo – A Moment In Time Award from the Arts Foundation. Wairau will continue this legacy.

Curator Nigel Borell says he wants the gallery's inaugural exhibition


Curator Nigel Borell says he wants the gallery’s inaugural exhibition to “speak forcefully of the importance of the artists Te Tai Tokerau and NgÄ??puhi in the legacy of MÄ??ori art.”

“Maori have a human history that is distinctive and defines Aotearoa,” says Ellis.

“At the heart of any expression of Maori art is an affirmation of whakapapa, of genealogical connection, a connection to the land, a connection to the physical and metaphysical worlds that make up Maori knowledge and ontology. It is also inevitably shaped by the Maori colonial experience and how the culture has adapted to change and adversity with innovative and prophetic acts of resilience.

The inaugural exhibition, Puhi Ariki, will showcase Wairau’s intentions and aspirations, reassuring audiences and stakeholders that the space is there for them and to reflect the best of contemporary Maori art on offer.

“I wanted to present a strong and very Northland-centric opening message, a cross-generational exhibition starting with some of the iconic contemporary first generation Maori artists alongside some of our established and recent Maori art stars to talk with strength of the importance of Te Tai Tokerau and Ngāpuhi artists to the legacy of Maori art,” says Borell.

With the waterway adjacent to the gallery outside and the cultural significance of the site considered, the title plays on the ideas of navigation and charting future pathways.

“Puhi Ariki, a metaphor for balance, order, prosperity and growth, pays homage to the significance of the albatross plumes that adorn the sailing waka,” says Borell.

The Launch of Ngatokimatawhaorua 1974 by John Miller

John Miller

The Launch of Ngatokimatawhaorua 1974 by John Miller

“Puhi-maroke [the dry plume] sits above the puhi-mākū [the wet plume] at the tauihu [bow] waka. On the back found at the top of the taurapa [stern post] is the plume named puhi-ariki. It is said that when the waka moves through the water with ease and in unison, the plumage of the puhi-ariki glides along the water. Our artists are sitting in the waka to push forward this new beginning for arts and culture in Whangārei.

It is also a direct reference to Ngāpuhi’s ancestor, Puhi Ariki.

Where possible, Wairau supported the commissioning of new work, and where appropriate, Borell chose a moment that illustrates each artist’s connection to the North. The nine featured artists show a range of mediums. There are collectible works by Ralph Hotere (Te Aupōuri, Te Rarawa), Selwyn Muru (Te Aupōuri, Ngāti Kurī) and archival photos by John Miller (Ngāpuhi, Ngaitewake-ki-Uta) that feature the launch in 1974 of a very important waka in the north.

This is not Dying, 2010 (video again) by Nova Paul.


This is not Dying, 2010 (video again) by Nova Paul.

Meanwhile, “contemporary weaver Te Hemo Ata Henare (Ngāti Kahu, Ngāti Hine, Te Whakatōhea), the only Whangārei-based artist, is making a stunning new hanging installation,” says Borell.

While Wairau is starting with artists connected to the North, Borell says that with three shows a year, the gallery hopes to bring a mix of presentations, from group to solo shows that celebrate the breadth of contemporary Maori art.

“Our programming will be diverse, it will be rich and it will have the outlines of something creative and interesting to see every time.”

William E. Bennett