Sandy Adsett: Toi Koru
Reuben Friend on the master of contemporary kōwhaiwhai.
As long as what I’m saying isn’t ‘I this and I that’. I hate that! —Dr Sandy Adsett
In the history of ‘I statements’ made by Aotearoa New Zealand artists—from Colin McCahon to Michael Parekōwhai—this is my favourite. You can hear the artist’s voice when you read it, his grumpish tone and sense of humour. You get a real insight into his character, humble yet commanding. Adsett didn’t realise he was being recorded when he made this offhand remark in 1986, during an interview for the publication Seven Māori Artists. He was asking the interviewer to focus on the bigger project at hand at that time: establishing the contemporary Māori art movement and affecting wider structural changes for Māori achievement within government agencies and educational institutions.
‘I statements’ are not the concern of people attending to the needs of the collective.
Adsett’s name sits alongside our most celebrated artists, with his works being included in exhibitions that have shaped the nation’s art history, from Kohia ko Taikaka Anake at Wellington’s National Art Gallery in 1990 and Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art in 1992 to Toi Tū Toi Ora at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki in 2020. Despite his important position, there is not much written about Adsett’s work. Reading through the literature, we see his continual concern for collective wellbeing, always speaking to the politics of Māori success before celebrating his own work. While Adsett may have achieved a higher profile had he focused exclusively on his own practice, he was practising in a time when our art institutions largely excluded Māori. Māori artists like Ralph Hotere who made work centred on Western art paradigms that resonated with Pākehā curators were more readily accepted within the art canon of this country. Meanwhile, artists such as Adsett, who made work centred on Indigenous art histories and practices from here in Aotearoa New Zealand, were forced to develop strategies of insurgency to create space for Māori within our arts institutions, effecting change at all levels of our arts infrastructure.
This is the legacy of Dr Sandy Adsett, celebrated in the first major retrospective exhibition and publication of his career to date. Toi Koru: Sandy Adsett provides an in-depth analysis of his paintings, coupled with an exploration of the social conditions that drove him into other areas in his career, working in art education and governance roles to create inroads for future generations of Māori artists.
To unpick this story, we must first understand that Adsett is part of an elite group of artist–educators trained in the customary arts of the marae by renowned tohunga whakairo Pine Taiapa in the 1960s. Among this group are John Bevan Ford, Cath Brown, Fred Graham, Ralph Hotere, Arnold Manaaki Wilson, Kāterina Mataira, Para Matchitt, Marilynn Webb, and Cliff Whiting. This is the ‘Pine Taiapa generation’—the visionaries who founded the contemporary Maāori art movement.
Adsett’s paintings from the 1960s began with a directive from Taiapa to be in control of the form, not controlled by the form. His paintings deconstruct the central S-shaped manawa line of kōwhaiwhai patterns and the C-shape of an individual koru. There is an amoebic feeling to these paintings, reminiscent of the hei tiki or foetus. ‘Experts’ at the local art society struggled to understand them, as Adsett recalls: ‘The first painting I offered for exhibition at the old Gisborne Museum and Gallery in the 1960s, the director apologised to me at the opening, saying that my “Māori Abstract” had to be hung behind the doorway because it clashed with the other works … (flowers and landscapes) … I was polite in those days.’
It would be easy to misconstrue this dismissal as a conservative, provincial response to contemporary art, but this treatment of Māori artists was common practice, as exemplified by the 1964 exhibition Contemporary Painting in New Zealand at the Commonwealth Institute in London. Curated by Auckland City Art Gallery Director Peter Tomory, the exhibition boldly declared European New Zealand landscape painters to be the ‘Indigenous artists’ of New Zealand, while excluding any involvement from Māori.
Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, Adsett and his peers developed strategies for institutional change, working in solidarity and adopting rituals from the marae as a resolute component of the curatorial process, dictating the terms and conditions in which Māori would participate in museum and gallery exhibitions. In the 1970s, Adsett was among the fray when the national Māori artists and writers association Ngā Puna Waihanga came into existence, and he played a key role in the formation of the Māori and South Pacific Arts Council and in the subsequent development of Toi Māori Aotearoa—providing direct government support for Māori artists.
In Adsett’s words: ‘We gave a commitment to each other, that we would support any arts tāke that came from our whānau group. This ensured the strengthening of the contemporary arts image. We firstly exhibited mainly at marae, during the annual [Ngā Puna Waihanga] hui, then more and more in art galleries. The curators of the galleries said, “We want control of selection as we are the professionals”, implying “we don’t trust you”. We said, “You take what we give you. And, we will hang the works our way.” Big arguments, of course, followed, but we persevered. My argument was always that the viewing public should see our artwork within the context of our culture. Even today, this reasoning I still apply. Attending to aspects of our kawa and appropriate tikanga allows us to keep a measure of control in most instances with our exhibitions, or, at least, keep those questioning, difficult institutions at arm’s length … The continuing obligation to retain and strengthen our Māori arts identity is, for me, a perceived duty to maintain our cultural heritage.’
In the lead up to Toi Koru, I asked Adsett for his thoughts on Pākehā artists such as Theo Schoon and Gordon Walters who also utilised kōwhaiwhai. Adsett responded that he appreciated their work. I then asked him how he felt about the term ‘Māori modernism’. He replied by asking me to define ‘modern’. Western modernists pillaged Indigenous art, giving rise to the moniker ‘primitivist’, later sparking the debate around cultural appropriation. I paused for a moment, asking myself whose cultural worldview is amplified the most by framing Māori art within this Western paradigm? I resolved never to use the term again. I now refer to Adsett’s paintings as contemporary kōwhaiwhai.
Through his art, Adsett connects people with a history of painting in Aotearoa that predates the arrival of Europeans. This is not devaluing Western art, but centring Indigenous histories within the art canon of this nation. This is Adsett’s legacy, dictating the terms of engagement through a process of indigenisation, ensuring that Māori art is awarded the value, status, and recognition it deserves.
In 1992, Adsett became one of the founding tutors of Te Toihoukura School of Māori Art in Gisborne, alongside Tā Derek Lardelli and Steve Gibbs. During this period, he undertook several marae-restoration projects in Wairoa and the Tairāwhiti. The influence of these projects is seen in a series of paintings from the 1990s, most notably at Rongomaraeroa Marae at Te Papa. Adsett designed the wall panels, dividing the composition into large diamond pātiki and triangular niho shapes, enabling Toihoukura students to infill areas with various forms of tukutuku, kōwhaiwhai, and two-dimensional relief. Other students were fortunate to work with Cliff Whiting, sculpting the central marae tekoteko figures in lightweight MDF board. Rongomaraeroa demonstrates Adsett’s mastery of marae-based collaborative-design methodologies, allowing individuals to innovate within existing design principles that are shared by the collective. In 2003, Adsett returned to his Ngāti Kahungunu roots in Hawke’s Bay, establishing the Toimairangi School of Māori Art and the Iwi Toi Kahungunu artist collective.
This is Dr Sandy Adsett, an artist who has worked at the forefront of the contemporary-art movement and in the background, shaping our arts institutions and funding systems for six decades. Toi Koru pays tribute to these achievements and is accompanied by Ahi Toi, a group exhibition from former students of Toihoukura and Toimairangi, and Wero, a solo exhibition by painter and tā moko artist Victor Te Papa. The Toi Koru national tour begins at Pātaka Art+Museum, Porirua (31 July–7 November 2021). The Toi Koru publication will be launched at Te Papa in September, with an artist talk in Rongomaraeroa.