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Salon to Marae: first glimmerings of a Maori Modernism


Salon to Marae: first glimmerings of a Maori Modernism & the Selwyn Te Ngareatua Wilson Collection – curated by Scott Pothan

Paintings, ceramics and drawings from the 1950’s and 60’s by Selwyn Wilson; Clive Arlidge and Ralph Hotere and a 1950’s salon installation.

Selwyn Wilson Seated Figure oil on board 1951 WAM Collection

11 November 2013 – 16 February 2014

Whangarei Art Museum has been immersed in an important ‘heritage rescue project’ over the past four years. This exhibition will document not only the remarkable story of these important works to our national history of art, but also their own journey of despair and desecration, now brought back to resplendent life. Found abandoned in an attic many of these works would have seemed beyond redemption to many but this exhibition will also highlight the science of art conservation and the generosity of sponsors. Several of the works including one drawing were almost savagely mistreated in an unknown past.

In another instance, two paintings have been separated where the artist had also painted on the reverse and an extra painting is now framed and revealed to the public. All the art works have been beautifully custom-framed and many will be accompanied by ‘before and after’ texts. Over $30,000 in grants was raised by the art museum to acquire the collection and begin the remedial treatment needed. Just this month, Webb’s have valued this collection now at $68,000 but it is the historical importance of these works which is set to grow exponentially.


Fourteen highly important paintings and drawings from the graduate exhibition of the late Selwyn Te Ngareatua Wilson (1929-2002) Ngati Manu, Ngati Hine – the first Maori graduate from a New Zealand fine art school - are on display in this collective exhibition. Showing again for the first time since they were exhibited at the National Art Gallery, Wellington in 1951 this exhibition is an historic event in itself.

Acquired by the art museum in 2009 in a very poor state of repair and neglect, all the works have since been acquired in toto, conserved and reframed thanks to the generous support of the Oxford Sports Trust and NZ Lottery Environment & Heritage grants. They are now part of the art museum collection in perpetuity and for ongoing research.

This small but extremely important body of work by the brilliantly talented young Northlander (who first entered Elam School of Fine Art immediately after WW2 in 1945) is supplemented with his early ceramic experimentation (equally important contextually with the concurrent Uku Rere Nga Kaihanga Uku exhibition) and two much earlier self portraits from the Wilson family estate collection. His self portrait as a teenager in the War Period displays his early suave self-assured style and painterly virtuosity.

There are early works from the 1950s and early 1960’s in the exhibition by some of those Northlanders who followed in his footsteps; Clive Arlidge and Ralph Hotere ONZ which expand on the creative whakapapa for which the late Selwyn Te Ngareatua Wilson is Matua – founding father of Maori Modernism.

I first met the modest and charming Selwyn Wilson late in his life in 1995 through Garth Tapper (who was instrumental in having me appointed to establish the art museum in Whangarei). Both Garth and Selwyn were enthusiastic supporters of WAM. Selwyn Wilson was so modest that even family members like former Member of Parliament, Kelvin Davis, were quite unaware of his importance to art history in his lifetime. To honour his support, late in 2008 the art museum featured a special ‘memorial wall’ to Selwyn Te Ngareatua Wilson as part of the Auckland Art Gallery touring exhibition Turuki Turuki Paneke! Paneke! curated by Ngahiraka Mason. She first discovered this cache of neglected early works of Selwyn Wilson.

The five featured artists in Turuki Turuki Paneke! Paneke! were Ralph Hotere; Dame Katerina Mataira; Muru Walters; Arnold Manaaki Wilson and Selwyn Wilson. We chose to separately honour this Northlander and ‘father of contemporary Maori art’ with a dedicated wall, and then purchase this important collection of his early work from a private Auckland collector. Ngahiraka Mason was not able to persuade the Auckland Art Gallery to acquire this collection entirely and so the option to purchase was passed onto the art museum. It was not until I was able to closely inspect all of the works in South Auckland that I was able to ascertain their quality and historical significance. They had been left in an attic in a decrepit state. This was to be an important heritage rescue project for the Whangarei Art Museum; to

negotiate the sale, raise the funds to purchase and conserve the paintings (some of which were severely, seemingly irreparably damaged) and to document and research their stories.

Selwyn Wilson; Ralph Hotere; Katerina Mataira; Muru Walters and Arnold Wilson were among a new-wave of significant Maori new graduate artists involved in the groundbreaking Northern Maori Project in the 1950’s. All are now revered ‘vanguard artists’ of the so-called Maori Renaissance. It is difficult to imagine then that Maori modernism was once so novel and controversial. Contemporary Maori art is now considered ‘mainstream’ and exhibited in the most prestigious museums and galleries all over the world.

Selwyn Wilson, of Kawakawa in the Bay of Islands, is distinguished beyond these pioneers, for having been the first Maori student in New Zealand to enrol for study at Elam School of Art Auckland in 1945. Prior to this era, young Maori had viewed only traditional crafts and the Rotorua Institute of Art as a pathway to creative self expression. In 1945 Selwyn Wilson and Sir Hirini Moko Mead were the first brave (and naïve) young men to enter this pakeha bastion of mono-culture. Those that followed their leadership into art schools in the early 1950’s including Arnold Manaaki Wilson and Ralph Hotere, changed not only the institutionalised outlook of art schools nationally, but through their involvement in the experimental Department of Education Tovey Scheme changed the role and focus of arts curricula in schools forever. Attitudinally explicit, this was highlighted when Arnold Wilson was told by the director of Elam (founded in 1890) Archie Fisher, that if he wanted to study ‘Maori art forms’ in his class he should ‘wear a grass skirt and live in a hut’!

Selwyn Wilson (no relation of Arnold) too, became very disillusioned and left Elam early. He chose to teach art to inmates at Mount Eden prison. Wilson was totally dedicated to the transformational role art could have on wayward Maori youth. In the 1950’s this was a highly prescient worldview, as we look back on it now. He later re-entered Elam to complete his Diploma in Fine Arts majoring in painting in 1952. This entire collection of 12 paintings and two drawings are from his graduate years work in 1951, many bearing a National Art Gallery label on the reverse from his graduate exhibition there. Arnold Manaaki Wilson graduated two years later in 1954 making Selwyn Wilson the first ever Maori university graduate in Fine Arts in Aotearoa.

As Professor Jonathan Mane-Wheoki has remarked ‘From these two absolutely foundational figures the whakapapa of the contemporary Maori art movement unfolded to become the significant strand in New Zealand life and culture that it is today’.

Like lifelong Elam friend Garth Tapper, Wilson was a truly brilliant student, each winning overseas scholarships to study in London (a Carnegie Scholarship and the Sir Apirana Ngata Scholarship respectively).

Two of Selwyn Wilson’s paintings were acquired by the Auckland Art Gallery in 1948 and 1950 – an unprecedented honour for a student who had yet to graduate! These two works were also the first paintings by a contemporary Maori artist to be acquired by a metropolitan public art gallery in New Zealand.

Successive young Maori artists collectively changed the face of New Zealand art. They challenged inherent ideologies of their traditional Maori cultural values, created an entirely new Maori Modernism and brought a fresh Pacific voice to the world stage. Here, Selwyn Wilson was the keystone to a pivotal moment in our history, not only as an artist and ceramicist, but also as an inspiring teacher. He was a mentor and friend to artists like Ralph Hotere and Clive Arlidge; in Northland he taught art to Buck Nin, Kura Te Waru Rewiri and Chris Booth among many others. In 1957 he was awarded the Sir Apirana Ngata scholarship to study at the Central School of Art in London where he studied ceramics. His work with prison inmates, his inspiring teaching methods and his early developmental work with ceramics make him the true patriarch of the arts in Kawakawa and Northland.

The paintings and two drawings in this collection all date from 1951 and comprise studio figure studies, still life, portraiture and the nude, as well as some yet to be identified personalities of the period.

Also acquired at the time was a painting by Dame Katerina Mataira, and 2 years later, a portrait of Selwyn Wilson 1951 by Garth Tapper from a South Island collection. All of these will be on show for the first time together next month as part of the Salon to Marae – first glimmerings of a Maori Modernism exhibition.

We are grateful to the Oxford Sports Trust and the New Zealand Lottery Environment & Heritage Grants board for assistance in acquiring and conserving this collection in perpetuity.

Scott Pothan



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