First Māori art gallery opens in Whangarei in 2022

By Marena Mane

The Wairau Māori Art Gallery in Whangārei, was set up in 2016, aiming to profile the best of Māori art, and provide New Zealand with its first public Māori art gallery, solely dedicated to profiling Māori artists, and curators.

Now the gallery, housed in a remarkable remake of the old Northland Harbour Board Building into a Hundertwasser artwork, is close to its official opening and inaugural exhibition, Puhi Ariki, curated by Nigel Borell, which will take place in the new year.

Wairau Māori Arts Gallery chair Elizabeth Ellis of Ngāti Porou and Ngāpuhi said organisers had wanted to open on December 15, the birthday of Austrian Friedensreich Hundertwasser but, owing to Covid constraints, chose another historic date, February 13th, the day Hundertwasser died.

“We consider it to be a time that we could look at his birth, death, and the rebirth through this renaissance of the gallery, these two galleries together,” she says.

Hundertwasser, an Austrian visual artist, and architect who also worked in environmental protection worked closely with local hapū when he lived in the Bay of Islands, including involving Ngāti Hine in his now-famous Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa, built before his death in 2000, Ellis says.

Hundertwasser had offered to redesign the harbour board building but, at the time, the Whangarei District Council turned it down because of costs. The idea was revived after Hundertwasser's birth and funded by local businesses, charitable donations and local body and government finance.

“It just seemed right and proper that Māori were involved in the gallery in the Hundertwasser Art Centre, which is a stunning building. It is fantastic. Quirky, no straight lines, but beautiful.”

According to Ellis, the Hundertwasser Foundation in Vienna stipulated the concept of a Māori art gallery in 2009, when the organisation first agreed the late Austrian artist's design could be used for the Whangārei centre.

“There was a condition there that Māori art had to be part of any gallery in the Hundertwasser art centre.”

Ellis says she and others were part of an advisory group that made an agreement with the Hundertwasser Foundation based in Vienna to become a charitable trust.

“We had decided that we would be independent and autonomous and we would make our own decisions and not be influenced by any other group. We became the Wairau Māori Art Gallery Charitable Trust Board.”