The 6 Most Influential Artists In New Zealand History

New Zealand has been blessed to have produced a great number of talented artists – especially given our relatively small population. As an artist and art teacher myself, I like to study the noteworthy artists that form part of New Zealand’s history, as it’s their hard work that shapes the artistic landscape that we work in today. This helps me and my students create our own art.

So here is my list of the six most influential artists in New Zealand history:

  • Kura Te Waru Rewiri
  • Colin McCahon
  • Ralph Hotere
  • Sofia Minson
  • Rita Angus
  • Shane Cotton

Though the word artist encompasses a wide range of artistic endeavors, for this article I am using the word to mean visual artists, specifically painters. Also, this list is in no particular order.


Kura Te Waru Rewiri

Let’s start with an Indigenous New Zealander. Kura Te Waru Rewiri is one of the most influential artists in New Zealand in her own right and is the most celebrated Maori female artist. She was born in Kaeo in 1950 and grew up in traditional Maori culture. Rewiri was educated at Northland College and Bay of Islands College and later at the Ilam School of Fine Arts.

Her early career was as a teacher at various secondary schools in the North Island. During this time, Rewiri developed her own painting style, and in 1984, she decided to paint full time. From this time, Rewiri has exhibited, lectured, and taught art in various New Zealand art college programs.

Rewiri’s inspirational style uses traditional Maori artistic symbols and techniques from her native culture. A technique Rewiri uses is brush strokes that emulate the motions and textures common to carving and weaving, contrasting old and new. Many of her works also contain the cross.

Rewiri’s blending of contemporary and traditional styles has been an inspiration for other Maori artists. She has become a celebrated Maori female artist as well as an influential artist throughout New Zealand itself. A good example of Rewiri work is the “Five Maori Painters,” which can be viewed at the Auckland Art Gallery. Other examples of her work can be found at the Te Papa Tongarewa and in private collections.

Colin McCahon

Another Kiwi artist who has made a massive contribution to the New Zealand art world, and someone whom I’ve personally drawn much inspiration from is Colin McCahon. McCahon was born in Timaru in 1919. He attended the Maori Hill Primary School and the Otago Boys’ High School. As early as age 14, Colin started studying art at Russell Clark’s Saturday morning art classes. He later attended King Edward Technical College Art School.

As a young adult, McCahon lived in Christchurch, working as a gardener, while he painted as much as he could. He later moved to Auckland where he taught at the Elam School of Fine Arts. McCahon adopted a modernist style early in his career and was one of the influential artists to introduce modernism to a New Zealand audience.

McCahon often depicted biblical scenes and themes, overlaid with geographic features. Many of his landscapes were depicted in geometric shapes and designs. He is best known for his large works featuring dark backgrounds with overlaid biblical texts in white. Works of his such as “Victory Over Death 2,” “Gate III,” and “Necessary Protection,” can be seen at the Auckland City Art Gallery.

Colin McCahon died in 1987. He is widely considered New Zealand’s most influential artist and the nation’s most important modern artist.

Ralph Hotere

Another influential artist of Maori descent is Hone Papita Raukura Hotere, mostly commonly known as Ralph Hotere. Hotere was born in Mitimiti. He was homeschooled as a boy and received his secondary education at Hato Petera College. As a young man, he attended the Auckland Teacher’s Training College and the Dunedin School of Art and also at the Central School of Art and Design in London, UK. During the early 1960s, Hotere travelled around Europe and studied in France, where he was influenced by Pop Art and Op Art.

In 1969, Hotere became the Frances Hodgkins Fellow at the University of Otago, in Dunedin. During this time, he collaborated with prominent poets and other notable artists. These collaborations moved him in a direction for which he became best known. From the late ’60s, Hatere started a series of works known as the “Black Paintings,” These paintings feature dark backgrounds to which he applied strips of colour or simple black crosses.

Ralph’s work is distinctive for his use of unusual materials and tools in the creation of his paintings. Materials that he used include corrugated iron and steel, and wood. One of his most celebrated works is the “Black Phoenix,” when he used the burnt remains of a fishing boat. This monumental work is part of the Te Papa Tongarewa collection. Other examples of Hotere’s work include his series of paintings that were commentaries of political issues.

Ralph Hotere died in 2013. He is remembered as one of the most important of New Zealand’s artists.

Sofia Minson

Born in Auckland, in 1984, Sofia has a mixed heritage of Maori, Swedish, English, and Irish ethnicities. She grew up in various places abroad as her father’s engineering project management work moved the family from place to place in Asia and the Pacific. Minson attended the Auckland University of Technology where she graduated with a BDes in Spatial Design.

Minson developed an artistic style that combines surrealism and realism. Her work includes street art, illustrations for a TV documentary, Maori portraits, and works depicting Maori mythology. In 2012, the Newmarket Business Association commissioned Minson to paint a 9 x 15 metre wheatpaste portrait of musician Tiki Taane. In 2010, Minson and other artists collaborated in the TV documentary Canvassing the Treaty, which was the filming of an art project depicting Waitangi Day. Two excellent examples of Minson’s style are her surreal self-portrait, “Effulgent Self” and the 2-metre wide black and white portrait, “The Other Sister.”

Her work can be seen in such places as the Parnell and McCarthy Galleries, both in Auckland, the Toi o Tahuna Gallery in Queenstown, Gallery Helena Bay Hill, Northland, and the Red Spot Gallery in Rotorua. In her thirty-seven years, Minson has already produced a significant volume of influential work.

Rita Angus

Born Henrietta Angus in Hastings, in 1908, Angus was the oldest of seven children. Her family moves to Palmerston North, where she grew up and where she attended school at Palmerston North Girl’s School. Angus studied at Canterbury College School of Art and Elam School of Fine Art, but never finished her degree. Her studies exposed her to Medieval and Renaissance art styles and she was trained in life drawing, still life, and landscape paintings.

Angus married Alfred Cook in 1930 but later divorced in 1939. She changed her name from Cook to McKenzie (her paternal grandmother’s name) after her ex-husband remarried. Due to her name changes, some of Angus’ paintings are signed Rita Cook, R. McKenzie, or R. Mackenzie, but most of her works are signed Rita Angus. She spent most of her working life in Christchurch during the 1930s and 40s. Angus suffered from mental illness and entered Sunnyside Mental Hospital in 1949. She convalesced in Waikanese and later settled in Wellington.

Rita Angus died from ovarian cancer in January 1970 at the age of 61. In her lifetime, she produced a huge volume of portraits and landscapes. Though influenced by Byzantine art and cubism, Angus developed her own style, mostly painting in oil and watercolour. Her style is characterized by sharply defined coloured edges in a way that reflects unusual depth.

Rita’s corpus includes fifty-five self-portraits and a mural at the Napier Girl’s High School. Much of her work can be viewed at the Museum of New Zealand.

Shane Cotton

Another Kiwi artist that’s worth mentioning is Shane Cotton. Cotton was born in Upper Hutt in 1964 and is of mixed Maori and European heritage. After his childhood education, Cotton studied at the Ilam School of Fine Arts, graduating in 1988. He later earned a Diploma of Education from the Christchurch College of Education. Cotton lectured at Massey University, Palmerston North as part of the Maori Visual Arts Program for nearly twenty years. In 2005, Cotton left teaching to concentrate on creating art full time.

Cotton’s work is influenced by his mixed heritage in that much of his work reflects both cultures through Maori iconography and European symbols. Cotton’s paintings often explore the issues of colonization, cultural identity, Maori spirituality, and questions concerning life and death. Indeed, these cultural and historical issues are interwoven and things like politics, culture, and societal living come out of that connection. An example of his work reflecting these themes is his painting entitled “Needlework.”

In his career, Cotton has received many awards and honors, such as the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship, the Laureate Award from the New Zealand Arts Foundation, the Seppelt Contemporary Art Award from the Sydney Museum of Contemporary Art. In 2012, Cotton was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for services in visual arts and in 2015, he was commissioned by the Australian War Memorial to make a print to commemorate the ANZAC Centenary.

Shane Cotton continues his work of creating thought provoking and stunning works of art that ensure his place as an influential New Zealand artist.


We have taken a look at some of the most influential artists in New Zealand history.

These artists have helped lay the foundation for the world we create in today. By studying the road these artists have undertaken, I believe we can all draw parallels to our own artistic journey. I have personally drawn much inspiration and motivation from these talented individual, and truly hope whomever is reading this can do the same.  

Of course, this brief look has been restricted to only painters and so has not touched on the many other talented artists of other mediums. Stay tuned for following post where I discuss these further.

Nga mihi.

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