The Māori master of colour and kowhaiwhai, Toi Koru presents the first major survey exhibition of paintings by Dr Sandy Adsett. Sixty paintings created over six decades, Toi Koru tracks the trajectory of Adsett’s painting practice from the late 1960s to today. The exhibition features artworks from major public collections, including the National Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, as well as a new series of paintings created especially for the exhibition.
Born in 1939 on the family farm in Raupunga, a small Kahungunu (Ngāti Pahauwera) Māori community just north of Wairoa on the East Coast of the North Island, Adsett has had a hugely successful international career as an artist, but surprisingly he has only ever had two solo exhibitions of his own. Toi Koru will be his third solo exhibition, and his first major retrospective survey. Part of the rationale for this is, as artist and friend Elizabeth Ellis notes in her introduction to the exhibition publication:
“Adsett is one of the most significant and respected Māori artists of his generation. His mahi toi [art] is revered as taonga [treasure] of great significance by Māori across the motu [island], admired also by Indigenous artists internationally who seek him out for advice and camaraderie. Although his mana [reputation] precedes him within te ao Māori [the Māori world] and with iwi taketake [Indigenous peoples] across the world, he is nevertheless our best-kept secret, having never sought the spotlight for his own self-aggrandisement. His work as a Māori artist and educator has always been concerned with lifting the mana and wellbeing of his community. Now is our turn to acknowledge his mana and his accomplishments with this exhibition and publication of his artwork.”
Sandy Adsett received his formal art training from the renowned Ngāti Porou master carver Pine Taiapa [1901-1972] as part of the Education Department’s Art in Schools itinerant teachers training programme of the 1950s and 1960s. Many of the fantastic insights offered by the old master are shared by Adsett in Toi Koru, such as ‘Pine’s twinkle’, the secret ingredient needed to make the perfect koru.
Image below: Untitled, acrylic on board. Artist collection.
The influence of Western abstraction painters, such as Mondrian and Kandinsky, is equally apparent in many of Adsett’s early paintings, with the artist often choosing to work from a limited palette, or challenging himself to deconstruct the rigid structure of forms derived from the marae to create compositions concerned with line, shape, movement, colour and balance, but doing so without losing the cultural resonance and meaning behind the symbols, colours and patterns.
Many of Adsett’s peer group went on to become important figures in Aotearoa New Zealand art, such as Cath Brown, John Bevan Ford, Fred Graham, Ralph Hotere, Kāterina Mataira, Paratene Matchitt, Marilynn Webb, Cliff Whiting and Selwyn Wilson. From this group of artist-educators came a new generation of Māori painters that included Selwyn Muru, Buck Nin, Kura Te Waru Rewiri, Robert Jahnke, June Grant and many others. Adsett went on to become one of the co-founders of Te Toihoukura School of Māori Art and Design in Gisborne in the mid-1990s and has been the principal tutor at Toimairangi School of Māori Art in Hawkes Bay since 2003.
Toi Koru is significant for Sandy Adsett as an artist, and to recognise his influence as an educator. Adsett and his peers laid the foundation for subsequent generations of Māori artists, curators, educators and museum professionals to pursue a career in the arts industry.
At 82 years of age, Dr Adsett is set to retire from education in June this year but will continue to paint from his home studio and provide support for his extended family of artists and art educators. Toi Koru opens at Pātaka Art + Museum in Porirua at 10 am Saturday 31 July 2021, with a public blessing and art demonstrations and talks throughout the day. Alongside Toi Koru will be an exhibition of art made by past students of Adsett entitled Ahi Toi, a title that references the fires of Māori culture that have been kept alive through art.
Manu, 1985, acrylic on canvas. Artist collection.
Ao Riri, circa 1980. Artist collection.
Toi Koru artist talk with Dr Sandy Adsett and Pātaka Art+Museum Director Reuben David Friend. Held at Pātaka Art+Museum on Saturday 31 July 2021 as part of the Toi Koru exhibition and symposium. Adsett reflects on his painting practice, talking about his motivations as an artist and key bodies of work that he has created over an impressive six decades of art and painting practice.
This is the second interview Dr Sandy Adsett gave as part of the Toi Koru exhibition and symposium held on Saturday 31 July 2021 at Pātaka Art+Museum. After introductions, the talk begins at the 3min mark in the video, with a discussion on Māori Curatorial practice.
Joining Adsett is Dr David Butts, a museum professional who worked with Adsett on the 1986 exhibition 'Nga Tukumata o Kahungunu' at the MTG Museum in Napier. The exhibition was the first iwi-led exhibition in the country. Butts, who was curator at the museum at the time, was instructed by Ngāti Kahungunu leader Canon Wi Te Tau Huata to approach Adsett and ask him to curate the exhibition on behalf of the iwi. Not an easy task, but one that paved way for a fruitful relationship. On this panel discussion, Butts and Adsett look back at the exhibition, analysing the curatorial framework that Adsett had adopted from the Māori meeting house to provide an Indigenous framework for the presentation of taonga (treasured objects) from the museum collection. Some of the key points begin with the tono, the directive given by the iwi, anointing Adsett the mana and mandate to work and speak for the collective. The talk is both informative and humourous, as the two friends and colleagues go back and forth with insights, jokes and jive talk. It's an important record of a pivotal moment in Aotearoa NZ professional museum practice.
Toi Koru Symposium, Panel Three: The history of survey exhibitions of Māori art and curatorial practice. Talk starts at 1:20mins.
Hosted by Nigel Borell, with Megan Tamati-Quennell and Tim Walker, this talk began with the landmark 1990 exhibition 'Kohia ko Taikaka Anake' at the National Art Gallery of New Zealand - an exhibition that changed the way art gallery curators would engage with Māori art. The talk ends with some insightful thoughts on Borell's major 2020 exhibition 'Toi Tu Toi Ora' at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
We were fortunate to have both Megan and Tim sharing their thoughts, having both worked at the National Art Gallery on this and other similar projects at the time. There is a strong comparison to be made between 'Toi Tu Toi Ora' and 'Kohia ko Taikaka Anake' in terms of the presentation of Māori art as a 'collective project', and the break down of Western curatorial measures of art elitism that create institutional barriers for Māori audiences.
Sandy Adsett played an important role in both of these exhibitions, with his generation of peers working hard to create institutional change. It is a nuanced conversation that requires some bravery to delve into if we are going to truly understand the dynamics and significance of such shows.