Emily Karaka, DODPNZ – Death of Democratic Process in New Zealand (detail), 2020, mixed media on canvas. Image courtesy of Season. Copyright the artist.

Three large wood panels depict a body splayed across the pictorial plane. These bodies appear Christ-like, each laid across a crucifix. The panels form a triptych and echo early mediaeval religious painting traditions, but the paint is smeared and gestural. Each panel represents a different deed: the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi[1] (New Zealand’s founding agreement between the Crown and Māori); the 1952 ANZUS Treaty, a defence pact between Australia, New Zealand, and the US; and the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement opposing sporting contacts with apartheid‑era South Africa. These three documents are indicated at the top of each panel and were designed to ‘protect’, but are depicted as torn, smudged, and signed in blood. On a separate painting on hessian, a ‘nuclear mother’ confronts us in the far left of the panel. Around each cross is painted the famous 1864 battle cry of Māori leader Rewi Maniapoto (Ngāti Maniapoto), declared during the New Zealand land wars: ‘Ka whawhai tonu matou, ake, ake ake’, which roughly translates to: ‘We will fight against you forever’.

In the work described above, The Treaties (1984), Emily Karaka uses the concept of sacrifice, and the process of menstruation, to highlight the continuity and resilience of Māori women in spite of the way the whenua has been repeatedly desecrated through broken contracts. I often wonder what our tīpuna (ancestors) hoped they would be protecting—and whom they would be protecting—when they signed Te Tiriti o Waitangi in 1840. They couldn’t have imagined that within just one generation, Māori would move from a world in which they were totally in control, to one in which control was rapidly shifting into the hands of settlers.[2] Today only around 6% of Aotearoa’s total 26.9 million hectares is under Māori ownership and control.[3] When I think about significant artworks made in Aotearoa that reflect both the decisions of our tīpuna, which continue to affect the way we live and relate to one another as Māori and settlers, and the current dilemmas present in this moment of concurrent and multiple crises, I think of The Treaties.

Emily Karaka The Treaties, 1984 Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, purchased 1992 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board Funds Image courtesy of Te Papa © the artist

The work of Emily Karaka (Ngāi Tai, Ngāti Hine, Ngātiwai, Te Kawerau ā Maki, Ngāti Te Ahiwaru, Tamaoho, Waiohua) reveals the history of Aotearoa and complicates this idea of ‘progress’. It reminds us of what’s beneath our feet and the complexity of those histories when the wounds of the past are reopened in order to re-indigenise for the future, but also to tell the truth of the past to help us navigate the present. Karaka’s work is best described by the whakataukī (proverb), ‘ka mua ka muri’, ‘to walk backwards into the future’.

Karaka’s art and activism provides a counter narrative to our understanding of the Treaty of Waitangi and the settlement process, as well as reframing how we see Tāmaki Makaurau (Auckland) as a place and a city. This can alter our perception of linear time, through our relation to the land. Her work unabashedly exposes the trauma Māori have experienced, and the anger we feel, through our forced dispossession from our land and culture. In acknowledging the breadth of this trauma and in order ‘...to be truly visionary we have to root our imagination in our concrete reality while simultaneously imagining possibilities beyond that reality.’[4] Karaka’s work enables us to see and imagine the capacity to heal the mamae (hurt), which is represented by the scars across the land that act as metaphor for other acts of harm perpetrated through colonisation.

Karaka is a senior Māori artist who has been practising for five decades. Her work is chiefly concerned with, as she states, ‘the Treaty and its effects on my people…’[5] Karaka’s work reveals what the Treaty breaches made possible, the taking of land, its ‘development’, and the impoverishment and alienation of Māori from that land as a consequence. Like many other Indigenous people, Māori have an intrinsic relationship to the land. The spiritual and economic threads which bound Māori to the land and all it provides, can be demonstrated through this whakataukī:

Te oranga o te tangata, he whenua,
Te mārie o te tangata, he ngahere,
Te kōpū o te tangata, he kai.

The land ensures the welfare of the people,
The forest shade provides the peace,
And the food from both replenishes the body.

To understand Karaka’s work and what happened in this country, it is necessary to face the reality of colonisation: to accept that the creation of ‘New Zealand’ into a capitalist economic system, based largely on pastoralism, was only possible through the dispossession of Māori.[6] For Māori, land and its produce are more than economic resources that require protection and conservation; the land is the source of all life. The land is the Earth mother Papatūānuku, and all Māori have a sacred reciprocal relationship, and thereby obligation of care to her. The kupu (word) for placenta—whenua—is also the kupu for land. In the exhibition Women paint the land (1993), Karaka described it as such, ‘As mana whenua (people of the land) we have a spiritual obligation to protect this land. This obligation transcends time and man-made laws…’[7]

Emily Karaka Matukutūruru, 2015 (Settlement No. 7) oil on kauri board Image courtesy of Season, Auckland © the artist

The historical impacts that Treaty breaches have had on Māori are very personal for Karaka, who spent decades navigating the web-like Waitangi claims process in working towards an adequate settlement for her tribe Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki. Karaka, along with her cousin Te Warena Taua were claimants for the Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki claims (Wai 432, Wai 357), which covers most of Tāmaki Makaurau.[8] From 2009 until 2014 Karaka had been a lead Ngāi Tai ki Tāmaki negotiator but was locked out of the process before the settlement was finalised. Just before Ngai Tai ki Tāmaki’s Treaty settlement in 2015, Karaka presented a body of work titled Settlement (2015). The series was originally exhibited at Orexart Gallery in Tāmaki Makaurau, before being reshown at Hastings City Art Gallery in Hawke’s Bay. Painted on heavy kauri board in oil, this body of work is a deeply personal reflection upon the Crown’s settlement process, previous land claims and the Turton Deeds transactions (largely responsible for the alienations of many lands and islands that belonged to the Tribes of Tāmaki). The Settlement series, like many of Karaka’s works, is ‘...laden with word and symbol’[9] and builds on previous bodies of work, including Claims WAI 423 and 357 (2001) at Te Tuhi. Characteristic of much of her work, Settlement and Claims WAI 423 and 357 use dynamic colour and radiate joyous expression.[10] The paint is always modulated, sensuous and passionate in application. It is embedded with love: love of the land and love for her people, those who have passed and those who are yet to come. They also speak to our collective obligations to protect the city environment and the waters of the Hauraki Gulf against commercial interests and further degradation.

Describing the joy she feels painting and her use of colour, Karaka says ‘...when I squeeze luscious lime against burnt orange I can almost taste the fruit. When I splash vermilion next to sunburst yellow in a bed of cobalt blue I feel freedom.’[11] This freedom of expression and dynamism comes from a place of love and grief, but also biting social critique. This is evident in Tiriti Settlement Process (2015), which features a snakes and ladders gameboard, many of the landing squares etched to describe the difficult and protracted ways in which treaty settlements are negotiated, such as ‘Mandate Strategy’ and ‘Deed of Mandate (DoM)’. Snakes and ladders evoke the difficulty in navigating a colonial system, a game where every step forward can feel like a step backwards. Although Karaka once described the claims as a ‘life raft’[12] for her people, it is interesting that the Settlement series includes the smallest of her works, but physically the heaviest material.[13]

Many of the other works in Settlement are representations of confiscations of maunga (mountains) from the Tāmaki Makaurau Collective Redress Deed (2012), which provides collective redress for the thirteen iwi (people/tribe/nation) and hapū (sub-tribe) of Ngā Mana Whenua o Tāmaki Makaurau, referred to as the Tāmaki Collective. These include Otahuhu, Rangitoto, Maungawhau, Maungakiekie and others. Ōhinerau (2015), reshown in Explicit (alongside Ngahuia Harrison) at Season Gallery in 2022, features two maunga at the centre of the painting, Ōhinerau (Ōhinerangi / Mount Hobson) and Te Kōpuke / St John. Above these maunga is a triangular tiered structure reminiscent of a hākari (feast) that took place in 1844. This structure was built primarily to house food, (but also tobacco) in order to feed many manuhiri (guests). Hākari are an exchange of food, but also a means of creating relationships based around reciprocity. Hākari play a valuable economic, political and social role in providing a space where different groups may meet and build relationships, and to solidify wider social alliances and facilitate policy.

Emily Karaka Top right: Maungawhau and Maungakiekie, 2015 (Settlement No. 14); Bottom right: Ōhinerau, 2015 (Settlement No. 13) Alongside Ngahuia Harrison, installation view, Explicit at Season, Auckland, 2022. Courtesy of Season

Hosted by Pōtatau Te Wherowhero (the first Māori King), the 1844 hākari was given by Waikato chiefs and Ngāti Whatua in Remuera, an area between Ōhinerau and Te Kōpuke. A lithograph by Joseph Jenner Merrett, Native [Māori] Feast at Remuera (1844), shows the historic meeting, which was attended by 4000 Māori, the New Zealand Governor Robert FitzRoy, Alexander Shepherd (the colonial Treasurer) and William Swainson (the Attorney-General).

The day following the feast, Governor FitzRoy received a number of chiefs at Government House (now part of Auckland University). The hākari had been an important political summit, and FitzRoy listened to specific concerns and grievances concerning land, reiterating the reasons for the Treaty of Waitangi and what the British had promised: ‘...may we mutually assist one another by every means in our power; we are able to assist you in a most important manner, you are also able to assist us’.[14]

In Karaka’s Ōhinerau we see the memory of this hākari in the sky, with the land beneath the two maunga assessing the title deeds, what was sold, and for how much. This painted text incorporates terms such as ‘Turton Deeds’ and ‘500 acres,’ and occurs across Karaka’s work. There is also a marked reference back to Karaka’s landmark piece, Te Uri O Te Ao (1995), with the placement of a ruru (owl) at the bottom of the picture. The ruru is a kaitiaki (guardian), its arms outstretched as though trying to cloak the land in its protection, and it is a recurrent motif, along with text build over decades in Karaka’s work. These repeated aphorisms most elemental in ‘This is Māori land’, act as a karanga (a call) to remind us of the land that we stand on, and of the breaking of promises and deterioration of the relationship between Māori and the Crown. Although there is substantial evidence to state that both parties signed the Treaty of Waitangi in good faith, it was genuinely expected by Māori to be a partnership based around respect, reciprocity and care. This partnership continues to be flawed to this day. Ruru’s outstretched arms in Karaka’s paintings remind me of a korowai, a woven Māori cloak symbolic of leadership, prestige and honour which carries the obligation to care for the people and environment. Karaka has said ‘The issues that I’m always discussing are economic, social and environmental. Land rights tie back to the basis of justice in our country, the covenant of the country, the korowai of the country.’[15]

Joseph Jenner Merrett, 1815–1854 Māori feast at Remuera [1844] Star Steam Litho., Auckland. [Auckland, H Brett] 1890 Image courtesy of Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington

Whakapapa is a key concept in Māori culture, and the organising principle that defines our relationship to land and our struggle for sovereignty in the face of colonisation. A simple way of translating the word whakapapa would be ‘genealogy’, but it extends far beyond this definition. A better way of thinking is of layer upon layer —the word is made up of the causative prefix whaka and the stem word papa with a literal meaning of ground or layer, which calls to the Earth mother, Papatūānuku.[16] It embodies making ‘layers’, as ‘generative’ and describes a web or takarangi (double helix) of expanding connections between humans and non-humans.[17] When we as Māori recite our pepeha, which is how we communicate our whakapapa and identity, we acknowledge maunga as tīpuna and a living part of who we are. We are the descendants of these maunga, the mokopuna (grandchildren). A way of understanding the etymology of mokopuna is to think about the word puna which, for Māori, is a fresh clear spring of water and the only mirror we ever knew. Moko refers to the lines tattooed across our bodies which represent our whakapapa. So as mokopuna of these maunga we are their living, embodied reflection.[18] So, when Karaka paints maunga (mountains), such as Rangitoto, she is painting a part of herself, one of her tīpuna, her ancestral mountain.

Ko au te maunga, ko te maunga te au.
I am the mountain and the mountain is me.

The city of Tāmaki Makaurau / Auckland where Karaka has lived all her life, is the most volcanic city in the world. It floats atop a lake of active magma—the whare (house) of the atua (god) of volcanoes, Rūaumoko. There are fifty-three volcanoes spread over an area of 1,000 square kilometres. Much of the city is built over the volcanic field, but also out of its craters, cones and slopes, with much of the city’s infrastructure—its buildings and roads—made from the scoria cones and lava flows.[19] Human settlement of Tāmaki Makaurau can be traced back roughly 1000 years when tīpuna from across the Pacific arrived on waka (canoe) and settled on the shore of the Manukau and Waitematā harbours. These maunga provided ideal locations for defendable pā (Māori village or defensive settlement) and were sloped into tūāpapa (terraces) providing surfaces for the building of whare, kāuta (cooking shelters) and rua (food pits). The violence of destroying many of these maunga is not invisible. For instance, you can see Te Tātua a Riukiuta (Big King) / Three Kings. It is now only one king.

Much of the work Karaka does honours the sacredness of these maunga, not only as they relate to her whakapapa, but also their importance and connection to all people who live in this city. In an interview in 1993 with Mana magazine, she confirmed ‘My work… has been centred around the Treaty of Waitangi as the founding document as the base of legislation and government in this country. I depict that through self-portraiture… It’s to do with rangatiratanga, our atua, our taonga, land rights, living rights, art and cultural rights, which were guaranteed in that foundation document. It’s inevitable that I should continue the work that our tīpuna did.’[20]

Emily Karaka Ōhinerau, 2015 (Settlement No. 13), Explicit at Season, Auckland, 2022 Courtesy of Season

In her NIRIN series, commissioned for NIRIN, the 22nd Biennale of Sydney, (2020), Karaka presented a selection of paintings depicting the contested land at Ihumātao in South Auckland. Again, it is her whakapapa that connects her to Ihumātao, through her Ngāti Te Ahi Waru bloodlines to Puketāpapa and Ihumātao from her father John Mita Karaka, named after his grandfather Mita Karaka. Ihumātao contains the nationally important Ōtuataua Stonefields and is a significant ancestral site that represents the continuous historical connections Māori communities have had to this land over centuries. The Stonefields feature Māori stone garden mounds and Māori and European dry-stone walls. These visible histories of Ihumātao are interwoven with the history of Tāmaki Makaurau, as it can trace the history of human presence in Auckland from initial Māori settlement to the arrival of Europeans in the 1860s with their pastoral farming techniques. The first Māori King, Pōtatau Te Wherowhero lived at Ihumātao and was elected at meetings held at Mangere and throughout Aotearoa, before being installed as King at Ngaruawahia in 1858. During the Invasion of the Waikato in 1863, the local Māori had their land confiscated by the New Zealand Government as punishment for supporting the Kīngitanga movement.[21]

After the invasion of the Waikato in 1863 and subsequent land confiscations afterwards, which were cloaked in legitimacy by the New Zealand Settlements Act 186, much of the land once occupied was slowly being taken by Pākehā (European) settlement. The confiscated land at Ihumātao was largely used for farming until late 2016 when Fletcher Building acquired the site as part of a housing development project. The Māori activist group ‘Save Our Unique Landscape’ (SOUL) opposed Fletchers’ proposed housing development. SOUL has occupied the site and staged protests since 2016. In July 2019 SOUL were evicted from the site by authorities, sparking a much larger occupation of several hundred people at Ihumātao. In November 2020, the site was purchased by Jacinda Ardern’s labour government to hand it back to the local iwi.

Emily Karaka Nga Tapuwae o Mataoho, 2020, installation view, 22nd Biennale of Sydney: NIRIN (2020), Art Gallery of New South Wales Commissioned by the Biennale of Sydney with assistance from Creative New Zealand. Photo: Zan Wimberley

In NIRIN Karaka has again deployed vivid colours that fuse neo-expressionist style and kaupapa Māori figurations, such as toi whakairo (Māori carving) and the Taniwha Kaiwhare.[22] In DODPNZ – Death of Democratic Process in New Zealand (2020) we see what looks like the face of the land in red and orange hues with piercing green eyes, shown in koru-like form. The title refers to the unjust confiscation of Ihumātao, further emphasised by the words ‘compensation’, ‘colonisation’, ‘desecration’, ‘marginalisation’, and others, marked along the bottom of the painting. There is also phrasing around how it was taken, so ‘raupatu’— to confiscate or conquer, sits alongside the word ‘stolen’. These words punctuate an amalgamation of electric colour, alongside three tino rangatiratanga flags, often referred to as the Māori flag which represents self-determination. The flag’s black, white and red refer to the Māori creation story. At the top of DODPNZ is written ‘Ihumaatao was never WASTE LAND’, where Karaka quotes her great-grandfather Mita Karaka who fought to retain land for his iwi following the Auckland Waste Land Act of 1858. He was also part of a delegation to London in 1914 accompanying the Māori king, Kiingi Te Rata Mahuta, to petition the British Crown for the restoration of confiscated Waikato lands. Mita Karaka was incensed by the Auckland Waste Land Act that decreed land titles be extinguished so the Crown could take ‘waste land’. In a speech he said, ‘Maumau tangata, maumau whenua’, ‘Waste the man and you waste the land.’[23]

Colonisation and capitalism are based on assimilating and extracting. Land is seen as resource, rather than as sacred ancestors with histories embedded deep within their soils. Through various legislation and breaches to the Treaty of Waitangi, the extractionist imperative of the Crown sought to remove the relationships that give the land meaning.[24] The alternative to this kind of extractivism is not only in artists telling these stories of the whenua, but in acts of deep reciprocity and kaitiakitanga (guardianship).[25] For five decades Emily Karaka’s work has sought ways we can show each other and all living beings respect, build relationships with each other and the local whenua, although it relates to international land struggles too. Karaka speaks with ferocity about the traumas inflicted on and into this land, and the truth of how that has and continues to affect Māori. Her art and activism have helped us to make sense of the past, so that we can begin to move forward.

Emily Karaka Waste the man, Maumau whenua, Maumau tangata Wasteland, wasteman, 1986, acrylic on board, relief wooden carvings with suspended volcanic rock. Collection and image courtesy University of Auckland (c) the artist


  1. ^ The Treaty of Waitangi is the founding constitutional document in Aotearoa. It was first signed on 6 February 1840 by Captain William Hobson as consul for the British Crown and by 500 Māori rangatira (chiefs) from the North Island. However these rangatira signed the version in Te reo Māori, which has a different translation and meaning from the English translation signed by the Crown representatives. Rangatira never ceded sovereignty or fealty to the then-monarch of the British Empire, Queen Victoria
  2. ^ Robert Mahuta, “ ‘Tāwhiao’, The Kīngitanga: the People of the Māori King Movement”, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, (Auckland University Press & Bridget Williams Books: Auckland, New Zealand, 1997), 55–56
  3. ^ The Auditor General, “Māori Land Administration: Client Service Performance of the Māori Land Court Unit and the Māori Trustee, Part 2: Māori Land – What Is It and How Is It Administered?”, 2004 https://oag.parliament.nz/2004/maori-land-court
  4. ^ bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics. (Routledge: London, 2014), 110
  5. ^ Women Paint the Land. exh. cat., (Lopdell House: Titirangi, 1993)
  6. ^ Moana Jackson, “Land Loss and the Treaty of Waitangi”, Te ao marama 2: Regaining Aotearoa: Maori writers speak out. ed. Witi Ihimaera, (Reed Books, 1993), 70
  7. ^ Women Paint the Land
  8. ^ Morgan Godfery and Hana Pera Aoake, “Whānaungatanga will restore you: An interview with Emily Karaka”, Te Kotahitanga broadsheet, Kei te pai Press in association with City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, for Matarau, curated by Shannon Te Ao, Wellington, 2022
  9. ^ Bob Jahnke, “Kohia ko taikaka anake”, CRAFT New Zealand. ed. Peter Gibbs. Anchor Press, Nelson, New Zealand, 36, (Winter 1991): 34
  10. ^ Nanette Norris, “Emily Karaka Claims WAI 423 and 357”, curated by Rhoda Fowler. exh. cat. (Te Tuhi – The Mark: Auckland, 2001), 7
  11. ^ Norris, 7
  12. ^ Norris, 6
  13. ^ Godfery and Aoake
  14. ^ Sue Cooper and Tony Batistich, “The Great Māori Feast at Remuera, May 1844: A StoryMap of the history, culture and site of the feast”, 10 November 2020 https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/3c321dd72e36436d91277ef4ca381228
  15. ^ The University of Auckland Art Collection notes, Waste Land https://artcollection.auckland.ac.nz/record/69263?query=emily%20karaka&index=2&filters=YTowOnt9
  16. ^ Georgina Tuari Stewart, “Māori Philosophy: Indigenous Thinking from Aotearoa”, (Bloomsbury: Great Britain, 2021), 85
  17. ^ Georgina Tuari Stewart, 85–86
  18. ^ Mahuta, vii
  19. ^ Bruce W. Hayward. Volcanoes of Auckland: A Field Guide, (Auckland University Press: Auckland, 2019), 1
  20. ^ Carol Archie, “A fierce mix of Art & Politics”, Mana : the Maori news magazine for all New Zealanders, Auckland, (Nov/Dec 1993): 19–21
  21. ^ One of New Zealand’s most enduring political institutions, the Kīngitanga (Māori King movement) was founded in 1858 with the aim of uniting Māori under a single sovereign. Its intention was to establish a role similar in status to that of the monarch of the British colonists, as a way of halting the alienation of Māori land that has started to increase after the signing of The Treaty of Waitangi in 1840
  22. ^ A supernatural creature who in the Māori tradition took many forms, although they are in many ways similar to stories of serpents and dragons in other cultures
  23. ^ Waste Land, The University of Auckland Art Collection notes
  24. ^ Leanne Betasamosake Simpson and Naomi Klein, “Nishnaabeg Anticapitalism” interview in Leanne Betasamosake Simpson As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance, (University of Minnesota Press: Minneapolis, MN, 2017), 75
  25. ^ Simpson and Klein, 75