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Colin McCahon Centenary

Issue date: 
Thursday, 1 August 2019
The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy, GNZM, CVO, QSO

E ngā mana e pae nei, i tēnei po nui

Nau mai, haere mai.

Ina te whakatauki

“He toi whakairo, he mana tangata”

Nā reira,

Mauriora ki a tatou katoa o Aotearoa.


And in translation…

To our distinguished guests, gathered here on this important evening


There is a proverb , “He toi whakairo, he mana tangata” which means –

“Where there is artistic excellence, there is human dignity”.

And so,

May we indeed thrive, All of us here in Aotearoa.



A couple of weeks ago, David and I joined in the celebrations for the centenary of Sir Edmund Hillary’s birth at a dinner hosted by the Himalayan Trust.


Tonight we honour another New Zealander who towers in our collective imagination: Colin McCahon – who was also born in 1919, 100 years ago. 


It is our privilege to launch the centenary commemorations here at Government House, in conjunction with the McCahon House Trust and Te Papa, and to reflect on McCahon’s enduring impact on the visual arts in Aotearoa New Zealand.


The distinguished audience we have here tonight is an indicator of the high regard for Colin McCahon’s cultural legacy to our nation.


This centenary of his birth invites us to look back and revisit his work and to speculate about whether, 100 years hence, he will occupy the same space in the national imagination as he does today.


Only time will tell, but it seems highly likely, as McCahon’s great works are timeless. 

Hamish Keith has described his Northland Panels as “a watershed in New Zealand art … in one grand gesture breaking through the traditional confines of past New Zealand painting and opening it up to a more spacious future.  Both a summary of where New Zealand art had been and a powerful pointer to where it was going.”


Like Sir Ed, Colin McCahon contributed to the development of a more confident and nuanced sense of identity for New Zealanders – so that we all could – in the words of Alan Curnow – discover ‘the trick of standing upright here’.


Through his work as a painter, curator, teacher and writer, Colin McCahon helped shape the way that we have thought about art in this country.

He responded to the challenges and possibilities of international modernism by making work that was entirely new and specific to this place, drawing on different bodies of knowledge, including religious texts, Māori beliefs and history, poetry, geology and art history.

In his view, art consists of ‘signs and symbols for people to live by’.

He wanted his work to have a meaningful place in the contemporary world and to engage people with questions about life, faith, and place.

He took a daring approach to painting, changing his practice frequently, and moving between landscape and figurative paintings, abstract work, and word and number paintings.

In his later work in particular, he challenged conventions by painting at a vast scale, often using un-stretched canvasses and working in series.

I vividly remember my first encounter with a McCahon.

I was 17, a first-year student at Victoria University, newly arrived from Hamilton – with no prior experience of contemporary art or much art at all.


I remember the day when I encountered a massive and confronting declaration of “I AM”. It hit me like a visual sledgehammer.


Seeing McCahon’s Gate III at Victoria University was a life-changing experience, the beginning of my journey into the world of contemporary art of Aotearoa New Zealand – and it has been a joyous experience.


The works we have acquired are certainly significant ‘signs and symbols’ in our life – so much so that David and I would be bereft had we not brought some of them with us for the five years we are spending at Government House.


While we are here at Government House, we are capitalising on the opportunity to showcase the art of Aotearoa New Zealand to the thousands of visitors who come here each year.


We are very grateful to Te Papa for the loan of Shane Cotton’s work ‘Whakapiri atu te whenua’, that introduces, for the first time, a bold contemporary New Zealand element to our hitherto very monarchist ballroom


And for allowing us to display, just for this evening’s reception, works by Colin McCahon, Dame Robin White and Eve Armstrong. 


It is a great privilege to have Dame Robin, Shane and Eve join us here tonight. I am curious to learn about their artistic journey, in the context of McCahon’s influence as a painter, teacher and writer.


We could not have asked for a more fitting and insightful way to consider the impact of his legacy.


Kia ora huihui tātou katoa



Last updated: 
Friday, 2 August 2019

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