Modern jewellery in Aotearoa New Zealand involves a quest for identity as a South Pacific nation. But how do you reconcile the adornment traditions of the indigenous peoples with the European culture that came later?

By Kevin Murray

Being Pākeha

The term “Pākeha” was used by Māori to describe those of European descent. It's early use often had some derogatory overtones. The leader of the prophet movement, Te Kooti (c. 1832–1893), opposed “the Pakeha hiding of God in money”[1]

The term Pākeha began to receive a positive value in the 1980s, as non-Indigenous New Zealanders sought to distinguish themselves from the colonial centre. In Being Pākeha Now (1985), Michael King claimed a common ground for the two main peoples: "In the beginning we were all immigrants to these islands, our ancestors boat people who arrived by waka, ship or aeroplane. The ingredients of our indigenous cultures too were imported: the East Polynesian language that became Maori, and English; Papatuanuku, and the Bible; Maui and Tane Mahuta, Robin Hood and Horatio Nelson; the kumara and the kiwifruit . . . An understanding of our respective origins is the beginning of our present selves.” [2]

Being Pākeha had its parallel in the revival of bone carving in the 1970s. Many Pākeha created objects carved from bone that were influenced by Maori design and often had talismanic values. They began to appear for sale and exhibition.

At the Dowse Museum, James Mack championed Pākeha jewellers who sought to use indigenous designs in their work. As he wrote in 1985 about Warwick Freeman, “Beyond that intimate communication between maker and owner Freeman’s objects radiate an energy that is of this land.”

A key figure was the stone carver John Edgar, who saw his mission as “gaining a greater understanding of the stone age heritage on which we must draw to ensure continuity and sensible direction to our modern efforts to carve this unique stone.” In 1985, he curated Pakohe for the Dowse Museum, an exhibition that featured carvers working with argillite as an alternative to the precious pounamu.

Warwick Freeman’s “Tiki Face” (1992) referenced the iconic Māori hei tiki, while clearly deferring from any attempt to capture its authenticity. In the manner of Munich artists such as Herman Junger and Otto Künzli, Freeman instead abstracts the ornament into its minimal form.

© All Rights Reserved Warwick Freeman Te Papa, 2009-0014-3

Pacific outlook

This was followed in 1988 by the exhibition Bone Stone Shell: New Jewellery New Zealand, funded by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and co-ordinated by the Crafts Council of New Zealand. This exhibition represented the peak of this nativist push. Pākeha were seen to practice Pacific adornment alongside the Polynesian peoples. As Edgar put it: “This exhibition is about awareness – of our heritage of Western civilisation and our cultural environment in the South Pacific...”

Not so easy

After Bone Stone Shell, the assumption that Pākeha shared a sense of whenua (land) with Māori began to be questioned. To some, this was seen as a form of appropriation typical of primitivism, whereby the “noble savage” is celebrated for a lifestyle that is free from the corruption of civilisation. Despite elevating indigenous cultures, it is very much a Western perspective and doesn’t account for the ongoing benefits for settlers who reproduce that culture in their art and scholarship.

The dilemma then is to find a way of reflecting whenua without claiming any privileged ownership of it.

Areta Wilkinson also seeks to combine Pākeha and Māori worlds, though more often in a manner of mutual respect. Her 05 series of brooches (1996) employed a modernist triangular form that were self-consciously accessioned with a warning “Do not touch”. The materials of these brooches represent the distinctive whenua of Aoraki (Mount Cook) which is Wilkinson’s maunga tapu (tribal mountain). The Western museum laws echo the Māori codes for sacred objects.

Haru Sameshima © All Rights Reserved Areta Wilkinson Auckland Museum, 1996.215.1

Ironic distance

One path was to move away from the modernist emphasis on materials toward a postmodern focus on style. This renders a traditional object into a work of art which can circulate in the growing field of contemporary jewellery.

Another path forward is to find elements in settler culture that resemble Māori ornament. It is not about some deep understanding of the same materials shared by settler and indigenous craftspersons. It is a self-conscious matching which speaks to the desire for commonality while admitting its absence.

The works by Jason Hall, “Scroll Series” (2001) and “Gate Between” (2002), played on the likeness of the wrought-iron patterns found in New Zealand settler architecture and the curvilinear kōwhaiwhai patterns found in Māori meeting houses.No one would presume that this coincidence reflected an intrinsic affinity between Pākeha and Māori.

© All Rights Reserved, Jason Hall Te Papa, 2006-0002-2

Contemporary Māori whakanoa

Through postmodernism, a new path emerged for Māori jewellers. Rather than seeking to recover a pure authentic past, they could themselves appropriate Western symbols and consumer goods that were part of the living reality.

Niki Hastings-McFall, Computer KapKap (1997). Made from a computer disc with pierced brass overlay. Niki Hastings-McFall is seen to be creating a new identity that grapples with being a Pacific Islander born in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Auckland Museum, 1997.87.1

Header image: Gina Matchitt “Paua Smash Nike” (2001). All Rights Reserved, Te Papa,  2002-0001-1 

As part of her “Merchandise” series, Gina Matchitt’s “Paua Smash Nike” repurposed the hei matau fish hook pendant into a Nike swoosh logo. For Deidre Brown, this is a “counter globalisation” that performs a whakanoa on the modern world, freeing it from cultural restrictions.

Crafting Aotearoa 

This article is part of a collection of 52 essays that form an online companion to the book, Crafting Aotearoa. Spanning three centuries of making and thinking in Aotearoa New Zealand and the wider Moana (Pacific), this book looks at the artistic practices that, at different times and for different reasons, have been described by the term craft. Crafting Aotearoa tells previously untold stories of craft in Aotearoa New Zealand, so that the connections, as well as the differences and tensions, can be identified and explored. This book proposes a new idea of craft – one that acknowledges Pākehā, Māori and wider Moana histories of making, as well as diverse community perspectives towards objects and their uses and meanings.

Edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner

Hardcover book published by Te Papa Press

RRP $94.00

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Murray, Kevin. 'Adaptive Adornment', Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Published: 11 11 2019.


[1] (Binney 1995)

[2] (King 1985, 11)