Open Access Te Herenga Waka-Victoria University of Wellington
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Contemporary Taonga: The Art Works of Brett Graham

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Version 2 2023-09-26, 23:59
Version 1 2021-12-08, 21:07
posted on 2023-09-26, 23:59 authored by Anna-Marie White

The production of taonga is a sovereign Māori tradition closely guarded in contemporary Māori society. Many Contemporary Māori Artists observe taonga principles in their work though these qualities are stifled within the New Zealand art system. In the 1990s these subjects were fiercely debated resulting in Contemporary Māori Art being defined differently to the ancestral tradition of taonga. This debate created a rupture, which disturbs the practice of Māori art and is a major concern in the emerging practice of Māori art history. Reviving earlier arguments for Contemporary Māori Art to be defined according to the principles of taonga, this thesis applies the concept of ‘contemporary taonga’ to the art works of Brett Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura), to argue that taonga production is active in contemporary Māori life and offers a new method to reconcile Māori art histories.  The practice of Kaupapa Māori research and theory enlivened the taonga principles of Brett Graham’s art works. Intensive accounts of two art works, produced a decade apart, reveal ‘contemporary taonga’ to be a collaborative process involving recognition and instrumentalisation by authoritative Māori viewers. Kahukura (1996), produced in response to the debates was, however, overwhelmed by competing interests of the time. Āniwaniwa (2006) undertook an arduous journey—to the centre of the Western art world in order to be shown within the artist’s tribal rohe—where Ngāti Koroki Kahukura kaumātua recognised Graham as a tohunga. Iwi leaders also employed Āniwaniwa in their Treaty of Waitangi claims process, functionalising the art work as taonga to support the advancement of their people. Āniwaniwa then left New Zealand to play a role in the formalisation of an international indigenous art network.   As a type for contemporary taonga, Āniwaniwa is an expansive model to introduce this concept to contemporary art discourse. The impact of this concept is yet to be realised though immediately reconciles long-standing issues in Māori art. ‘Contemporary taonga’ has the potential to radically reconcieve, and reorganise, Contemporary Māori Art practice and history according to the practice of ancestral Māori traditions and determined by the authority and agency of Māori people.


Copyright Date


Date of Award



Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Rights License


Degree Discipline

Art History

Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

Degree Level


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

ANZSRC Type Of Activity code


Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Doctoral Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Brunt, Peter; Barton, Christina