New Zealand Artists You Should Know

March 10, 2015

New Zealand’s art scene is quite an intriguing one. We decided to explore it and get to know New Zealand artists, because we didn't know much about them. This island(s) state developed a unique artistic history that includes traditional Māori art, often mixed with contemporary notions and inspired by the European influence. A recurring theme in the works of New Zealand artists is their beautiful landscape and a distinctive heritage, with artworks using carving, weaving, drawings, painting, sketching in traditional manner, while the contemporary art scene goes hand in hand with the rest of the world, producing talented artists in all fields. We present you with ten artists from New Zealand you should know, both contemporary and the ones who marked the 20th century art of the land of Kiwis.


Widely considered as one of the most important artists from New Zealand, Ralph Hotere was known for the use of unusual materials and tools in creating his works during the 1970s. He used power tools on corrugated iron and steel while creating two-dimensional art. His most famous series of works is titled the Black Paintings, minimalist pieces he started developing in 1968. On usually dark backgrounds, Ralph Hotere applied strips of color, or simple black crosses. From 1984 until 1988, he constructed Black Phoenix using burnt remains of a fishing boat, his trademark installation. This New Zealand artist was also involved in politics, and one of his works represents a reaction to the Middle-East crisis. He died in 2013, but his works continue to show regularly.


Peter Robinson was one of the artists who have represented New Zealand at the 2001 Venice Biennale. His sculptural work is minimalistic and conceptual, and it is full of contrasts and opposing forces - order and disorder, dense and light, dispersed and compressed, inspired by Māori abstraction and taonga (treasure) forms, exploring his biculturalism. For his works, he mostly uses polystyrene, felt and steel to create monumental, intensely political pieces. Peter Robinson has had numerous exhibitions in New Zealand, but also abroad, mostly in Europe. In 2008, he won the Walters Prize, New Zealand’s most prestigious contemporary art prize.


Michael Parekowhai is a name that will probably come up first if you google New Zealand artist. Although he hasn’t won many awards, his work is important, and has been featured at the 2011 Venice Biennale and at Art Basel. Michael Parekowhai’s art embodies references from New Zealand’s colonial history, using sculpture and photography, and sometimes it can be seen outdoors, like a monument to his country. His narratives are complex, handmade and humorous, at times even uncomfortable. He was awarded an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Laureate Award in 2001; currently he is currently Professor at Auckland University's Elam School of Fine Arts.


Another Walters Art Prize winner is Yvonne Todd, a commercial photographer who uses the medium in both advertising and conceptual fields. Her artistic photographs are an intriguing commentary on popular culture, in which her models are placed in a studio. They look disquieting, even fake, while posing as if in a corporate portrait. The images of Yvonne Todd are polished, shiny and gawky, in an ironic take on society. Her most famous series include Wall of Man (2009) and Seahorsel (2012). Seemingly artificial, her pictures are often inspired by literature, such as the novels of Virginia Andrews.


She is a well-known New Zealand artist, who also had a breakthrough on the international contemporary art scene. The list of exhibitions of works by Francis Upritchard is fairly long, and it belongs to many important collections, such as the Saatchi Gallery. Among the many artworks of her rich career, perhaps the best known are the colorful sculptures, draped in blankets, evoking hippies and the cultures of the 1960s and 1970s. These “models” seem lost in thoughts, looking for spirituality. Another famous work is an installation titled Save Yourself, featured at the 2009 Venice Biennale - a small mummy surrounded by funerary urns vibrating and moaning on the floor. Francis Upritchard currently resides in London.


One of the artists to introduce modernism to New Zealand was Colin McCahon. Starting in the early 20th century, this New Zealand artist is considered the country’s greatest painter. His art often depicted beaches, sea, sky, land, boats and kauri trees. While teaching at the University of Auckland’s Elam School of Fine Arts, he influenced many future artists. During his career, he was inspired by German Expressionism and the installations by Allan Kaprow. Colin McCahon is best known for his large paintings with dark backgrounds overlaid with religious texts in white; his contemporary New Zealand landscapes often host scenes from the Bible. He died in 1987.


Sofia Minson is a contemporary oil painter responsible for a series of portraits of prominent figures in Māori culture. But not only - she also depicts the land, the myths and the tradition of the people, in her often large and finely detailed paintings. Combining surrealism and realism, her scenery is mystical and sophisticated. Sofia Minson was also involved with street art. She did her first public piece in November 2012, a wheat paste of a print of her painting of musician Tiki Thane, 9 meters long and 15 meters tall. She also participated in a documentary called Canvassing the Treaty, together with 5 other New Zealand artists.


Straight from the books of New Zealand art comes Rita Angus, whose portraits and landscapes marked the art scene of the 20th century. Influenced by Byzantine art and cubism, she created a large number of portraits, including 55 self portraits, as well as New Zealand’s most loved painting: Cass, from 1936. She mostly worked in water color and oil, developing her own style, independent from whatever was going on in the art world at the time. Rita Angus’s works are sharply-refined, usually by colored edges, her colors are clear and appealing and her canvas reflects depth way beyond the surface of physical and metaphorical meaning. Rita Angus died in 1970.


A Māori painter, Kura Te Waru Rewiri uses symbols and techniques from traditional art and customs of the culture and translates them through the means of contemporary art. A contrast between new and old that has made her work distinctive and celebrated within New Zealand, where she has exhibited extensively since 1985. A recurring symbol of her art is the cross, set in different contexts and given mixed meanings. The paintings by Kura Te Waru Rewiri are characterized by colors and layers and examine current political and social trends of her people. This New Zealand artist also exhibited internationally.


Simon Denny is a New Zealand artist born in 1982 and he is his country’s latest artist for the Venice Biennale, in which he will be participating with a project titled Secret Power. He studied in Frankfurt, Germany, and now resides in Berlin. His art deals with digital media, science and popular culture, technology and communication. His installations mean to recontextualize and question globalization, economy and other social issues of today, establishing him as a force to be recon with in an ever-growing genre of art dedicated to the 21st century digitalization. The work of Simon Denny has been exhibited all over Europe and his homeland New Zealand too many times to count since 2003.