Blazing a trail for Maori art

A LEGACY: Awataha Marae kaumatua Arnold Wilson with the Awataha Marae waka.
A LEGACY: Awataha Marae kaumatua Arnold Wilson with the Awataha Marae waka.

The death of a distinguished kaumatua, known as a pioneer of contemporary Maori art, is being mourned by many.

Arnold Manaaki Wilson, 83, died on May 1 after a long battle with cancer and was farewelled by hundreds at a tangi in his hometown of Ruatoki in the Bay of Plenty on May 6.

Mr Wilson, a kaumatua of Awataha Marae, played a pivotal role in its establishment in the 1980s.

Son Anthony Wilson says his father has provided a fantastic launch pad for Awataha Marae to become a space dedicated to Maori innovation and education.

"His legacy does come with a heavy responsibility," he says. "Our task is to continue his vision and that will be reflected in the design of our buildings and in our educational programmes."

Mr Wilson was the first Maori student to graduate from the Elam School of Fine Arts in 1955, gaining first class honours in sculpture.

He went on to lead what many have described as a cultural revival of Maori art featuring in exhibitions both here and abroad.

In 1991 he was awarded a Queen's Service Medal for services to Maori and the arts and in 2010 he became a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit.

Mr Wilson drove many community projects on the Shore that centred around his passion for Maori education and the arts.

"He became a trailblazer, paving the way for artists and educators," Anthony says.

"He was always trying to bring out the best in people.

"There is a saying, `ngawari', to be gentle and caring.

"He had that way about him and was quite a giver in his time," he says.

In 1996 Mr Wilson was diagnosed with bowel cancer but Anthony says his incredibly strong will carried him forward.

He says his father used art to step outside the square, and naturally came up against opposition.

"He was a pioneer of art," Anthony says. "And when you push boundaries and you have an outward and progressive look, challenging the norms, then often you can be misunderstood.

"He always said to me `not everyone has vision, to have vision you've got to get past what's here and now and look forward to the future, chasing what you would like it to be'."

Anthony says there is now an emptiness about the marae, but with that a sense of responsibility to carry forward Mr Wilson's dream.

"No one remembers the people who did ordinary things, they remember people who did great things," Anthony says.

North Shore Times