The vision of Maori art shapes the nation

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arts foundation

For Nigel Borell, Maori art is an integral part of understanding this country, Aotearoa.

For Nigel Borell, Maori art is integral to understanding this country, Aotearoa – and his New Year honor shows that many others have similar thoughts.

The artist and former Maori curator of the Toi o Tāmaki Auckland City Art Gallery has been made a Member of the Order of New Zealand for his services to Maori.

“It was a surprise for me and a lesson in humility,” says Nigel Borell. “It’s also an opportunity to reflect on the work you do in the sector.

This work of around five years has collected Toi Tū Toi Ora, an extensive survey of contemporary Maori art which attracted 191,000 visitors in its four months.

The catalog in book format should be released in March.

“It was timely, the exhibition and the reflection that went with it. Looking back, I was thrilled and surprised at how widely it was embraced by Maori and Pākehā.

“Art inspires us to understand the land we live on. People have grasped the meaning of this in their own experience.

When Toi Tū Toi Ora opened in late 2020, Borell had put his mind to it with reports later emerging of his frustration with gallery management who still thought they could dictate the terms of Maori engagement.

It took a year to replace him, including an additional step of creating a middle management position of kaupapa Māori manager.

Nigel Borell says big institutions need Maori curators and the fact that Auckland had none before 1999 meant there was a lot of catching up to do.

Maori artists were under-represented in exhibitions and public collections, and it was left to the Maori Writers Association, Ngā Puna Waihanga, and artists like the late Para Matchitt, Cliff Whiting and Sandy Adsett to try to carve out a place.

The fact that almost all Maori artists of the modernist generation were also educators means that they were also able to practice outdoors.

Nigel Borell, of Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui and Te Whakatōhea, had a hands-on introduction to Maori arts, working on three meeting house projects under tohunga whakairo Pakariki Harrison from 1995 to 2000.

He was Associate Curator of Maori Art at the Auckland War Memorial Museum in 2015 when the job came up across the city. He was immediately featured in the screening of “The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand” which toured San Francisco in 2017.

Since leaving Toi o Tāmaki, Nigel Borell has exhibited his own work and continued to curate, including the opening exhibition of the Wairau Māori Art Galley at the Hundertwasser Center in Whangārei, which opens in February.

He also begins 2022 with a new role as curator of taonga Māori at the Auckland War Memorial Museum.


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