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Artists draw on nature

Sandy Adsett

The bush fires in Australia hit home this week as the sepia toned hue that covered the top of the north island drifted across from New South Wales. With fires in Hawke’s Bay burning over 350 hectares of land across Fernhill and Tangoio, the week brought into sharp focus the preciousness of our remaining areas of bush, forest lands and habitat.

At MTG Hawke’s Bay, it gave us pause to reflect on just how of many of the objects made by artists in the Hawke’s Bay Museum’s Trust Collection are in celebration of, or inspired by, nature and just how much of art and design draws on an intimate relationship with nature. 

As a society, we expand our engagement with, and understanding of, the natural world by exploring ideas around it through art making and viewing. Art is a way of knowing.   

Whether it be fabulous waka hoe (paddles) embellished with curving designs of kowhaiwhai, Kosta Boda’s curious polar bear swimming in an iceberg of glass, or the hauntingly arid Summer Landscape Hawke’s Bay by Rita Angus, the Museum Trust’s collection is rich in creative responses to Te Ao Mārama.

Artists draw on their relationships with nature to produce unique visions of our natural environment and the museum has some superstar artists and designers in its collection who do this. 

One such extraordinary artist is Sandy Adsett (OBE). Ngāti Kahungunu’s Adsett, is a prominent artist and arts educator, and a number of his paintings are held in the Trust’s collection. This 1977 painting, Ruapehu, is a fine example of the kowhaiwhai based compositions that the artist is best known for.

While kowhaiwhai patterns such as in Ruapehu may appear abstract, in fact their shapes specifically derive from the flora and fauna of Aotearoa and are a unique representation of the natural world.  

The koru or elementary part of kowhaiwhai is drawn from the unfurling fern frond. The elaborations on the koru in its branching pattern designs, in Adsett’s painting, reference things such as the kaka flower, mango (shark) or patiki (flounder).  

Adsett’s exultant expression of kowhaiwhai as an art form, has an extraordinary range of forms integrated into its composition.

In this painting, it seems that Adsett’s kowhaiwhai bend and curve to sit in harmony with each other within the painting. Here he is expressing the interconnected nature of our ecosystems.

As if in a kind of suspended animation, the kowhaiwhai in this composition seem to be writhing and breathing, representing the mauri or life force of this natural world.

In these works Adsett is working within the bounds of traditional Kahungunu art making. His celebration of kowhaiwhai references the tradition of Ngāti Kahungunu artists practice - more focused on kowhaiwhai and raranga (weaving), rather than whakairo (carving).

In earlier times, Ngāti Porou whakairo artists travelled to the area to work on the magnificent carved houses in the Heretaunga area. 

As an arts educator, Adsett has shared with art students over many years, his knowledge of Ngāti Kahungunu tradition in painting. 

At MTG over the last year, we’ve had the work of artist collective Iwitoi Kahungunu on display in the foyer. This is a revolving presentation by a number of painters who trace their ancestry to Ngāti Kahungunu iwi or who are living in this area.

This latest iteration showcases artists working in a wide range of materials and is an articulate expression of contemporary Ngāti Kahungunu style.

Pop by and take a look. 


  • Chinese Traditional Cultures. Come along to the museum and experience an afternoon of traditional Chinese arts and culture. MTG, Saturday 18 January 2-5pm. Free Event
  • Chinese New Year Gala. Enjoy a colourful and spirited musical festival celebrating the coming of the Chinese New Year. MTG Century Theatre, Saturday 18 January 7.30pm. Tickets available through Ticketek.
  • Behind the Scenes – Collection Tour. Tuesday 21 January 12-1pm. FULLY BOOKED.
  • Project Prima Volta: Growing Opera Stars 2020. Once again, Festival Opera stars take time out of their rehearsal schedule to support Project Prima Volta students in this special, intimate event proudly brought to you by the Dame Malvina Major Foundation. MTG Century Theatre, Saturday 25 January 7.30pm. Tickets available through Ticketek.
  • Napier Hill Cemetery Tour. Discover tales of tragedy and bravery as the tour winds its way through the historic cemetery guided by MTG's Curator of Social History Gail Pope. Old Napier Cemetery, Sunday 26 January 2pm. Tickets available through Eventfinda.

Image Caption: Ruapehu, 1977 by Sandy Adsett 

12 January 2020

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