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

Pacific Pottery

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 sherds, from Nenumbo, Solomon Islands. c. 1000 BC.

Courtesy of the Anthropology Photographic Archive, Department of Anthropology © All Rights Reserved The University of Auckland, 062/M_3_089_001 (5957)

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[1] 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.

Unknown maker, Ceramic vase made in Nasilai near Viti Levu, Fiji, 1983

© All Rights Reserved Te Papa, FE012732

Pacific Experiences

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.’[2]

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.”[3]

Barry Brickell, Anthropomorphic bowl, 1991

© All Rights Reserved Te Papa, 1996-0033-4

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.’[4]

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.[5]

Colleen Urlich, Ipu One (Lapita Series), 2002

© Colleen Urlich, All Rights Reserved Te Papa, 2003-0010-1

Header image: Manos Nathan, 'Te Mata o Matariki me Puanga Kai Rau' (2007). All Rights Reserved. Auckland Museum,  2007.61.4 

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

Buy now


McCahon-Jones, Finn. 'Pacific Influences on Pottery', Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. Published 11 11 2019


[1] Bruce Palmer originated from New Zealand and it was partly through this connection that Pacific pottery was brought to the attention of New Zealand Potters.

[2] Helen Mason, 'Pottery in Fiji'. New Zealand Potter 1966, Vol.9 No.1 pp.26-31

[3] Helen Mason, ‘A Visit of the Fijian Potters to New Zealand’, Arts and Community newspaper. Wellington: Harland Baker Publishing Ltd. Vol.5 No.4, May 1969

[4] Barry Brickell quoted in David Craig and Gregory O’Brien, 'His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell' (2012), p.86

[5] In 2013 Ngā Kaihanga Uku mounted a survey exhibition at Pataka Art + Museum ‘Uku Rere: Nga Kaihanga Uku and Beyond’. In 2017 the group has grown to around 10 members and in December 2017 they celebrated 30 years with an exhibition ‘Toru Tekau: Ngā Kaihanga Uku - Māori Clay Artists’ at Tairāwhiti Museum.

Further reading

Mereisi Sekinabou Tabualevu and Josefa Uluinaceva and Sereima Raimua, 'Traditional Handicrafts of Fiji'. University of The South Pacific, 1997

David Craig and Gregory O'Brian, 'His Own Steam: The Work of Barry Brickell.' Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2013

Moyra Elliott and Damian Skinner, 'Cone Ten Down: Studio Pottery in New Zealand, 1945-1980'. Auckland: David Bateman LTD, 2009

Carol Hogben, 'The Art of Bernard Leach'. London: Faber and Faber, 1978

Helen Mason, 'A Visit of the Fijian Potters to New Zealand'Arts and Community newspaper. Wellington: Harland Baker Publishing Ltd. Vol.5 No.4, May 1969

Bruce Palmer and Beth Dean, 'South Pacific: Pacific Islands Art and Dance'. Suva: Fiji Times & Herald Limited, 1972

Lapita culture, Te Ara -

Pataka Art + Museum, ‘Uku Rere: Nga Kaihanga Uku and Beyond’, exhibition catalogue. (2013)