In the desire to make a naturalised pot, influenced by the teaching of Bernard Leach and Shoji Hamada, many Pākehā potters looked to the Pacific for inspiration.
In 1987 Nga Kaihunga Uku, a Māori potters' collective, established clay-work as part of the Māori arts, establishing a Māori framework, or kaupapa, to work with.
By Finn McCahon-Jones
The earliest pottery that can be found in the Pacific came with people that migrated from Taiwan and merged with cultures near the Solomon Islands around 1500BC, and a new culture known as Lapita emerged.
From here, Lapita people moved into the Pacific bringing with them their distinctive form of pottery decoration. Lapita pottery has been found around the Solomon Islands, down to Vanuatu and New Caledonia and east to Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.
Lapita Pottery, Fiji
Fiji has some of the best Lapita pottery deposits in the Pacific, and still has an extremely strong pottery culture. Director of the Fiji Museum, Bruce Palmer states that ‘[Fijians] are the survivors of one of the most distinguished ceramic traditions known in the South Pacific.’
In 1965 the Fiji Museum along with other scholars and locals worked to revive pottery in Fiji, awakening a new appreciation for the craft. Old clay pits were re-allocated and production opened again. The museum started dialogues and promoted workshops, and started amassing a ceramic collection for the museum.
In 1966 Helen Mason, editor of New Zealand Potter Magazine visited Fiji to observe techniques and processes. ‘Fiji is for New Zealanders our most accessible contact point for the rich warm island life of the Pacific.’ She wrote, ‘It is therefore exciting to find that primitive methods of pottery making are still surviving there in a natural environment.’
Helen Mason recorded the details of collecting and processing clay, and the method of making vessels with the ‘paddle and anvil’ technique. All this information was presented to inform New Zealand potters about other ways of working and and the context of claywork in the Pacific region. In 1969 Fijian potter Amele Nacewa came to New Zealand and toured many centres demonstrating traditional techniques. Reporting on the tour Helen Mason writes “We are only at the beginning of a realisation of the worth of the area in which we live. The basket-makers, the carvers, the potters of the Pacific all around us can teach us so much, not only in skills but in general understanding of what life is all about.”
Potter Barry Brickell was heavily influenced by the forms of Pacific pottery he encountered at the Auckland Museum. Pacific Ethnologist Terence Barrow gave Brickell access to the Pacific collections at Auckland Museum where Barry closely studied pots from the Sepik River, Papua New Guinea, and Fiji. ‘So impressed did I become with many of these artefacts that they introduced a new sculptural language for me in terms of a variety of forms and lively decoration.’
In 1982 Brickell traveled to Vanuatu to teach a pottery workshop, and in return a group of potters from Vanuatu and Fiji spent extended time at Driving Creek Railway. Brickell’s embrace of Melanesia had a profound and lasting effect on his practice teaching him about form, scale and surface decoration, such as the Fijian citrus shaped saqa moli with their multi lobed bodies, raised decoration and sprouting arms and lips.
It is easy to see how desirable the ceramic history of the Pacific would be to the burgeoning studio pottery scene in Aotearoa. New Zealand didn’t have a ceramic heritage other than what was brought here by European settlers and through the primary industries of the brickworks. These were mostly seen as domestic or industrial product, compared to the Pacific crafts which are central and essential to everyday life.
Ngā Kaihanga Uku
Māori potter collective Ngā Kaihanga Uku have taken handbuilding to a new level in New Zealand ceramics, concerned primarily with kaupapa Māori. Nga Kaihanga Uku was co-founded in 1986 by Baye Riddell & Manos Nathan; potters Colleen Urlich, Paerau Corneal and Wi Taepa joined Riddell and Nathan to form a new movement in ceramics and to provide support and encouragement for Maori potters.
At the first hui in 1987 they drafted three simple attributes for the group: to approach working with clay from a Maori perspective, to share their collective knowledge and resources, and to engage other indigenous cultures with clay traditions.
Ngā Kaihanga Uku are not concerned with trying to find a New Zealand identity or grapple with ideas of how to be, or have a craft practice – they are already deeply rooted in concepts of Mātauranga Māori. Clay, or uku, has been appreciated and used by Maori for many generations - although ceramics didn’t come to Aotearoa on one of the first waka, clay is deep in Maori whakapapa.
Header image: Manos Nathan, 'Te Mata o Matariki me Puanga Kai Rau' (2007). All Rights Reserved. Auckland Museum,