Culture in New Zealand


Much of contemporary New Zealand culture is derived from British roots. It also includes significant influences from American, Australian, and Māori cultures, along with those of other European cultures and – more recently – non-Māori Polynesian and Asian cultures. Large festivals in celebration of Diwali and Chinese New Year are held in several of the larger centers. The world’s largest Polynesian festival, Pasifika, is an annual event in Auckland. Cultural links between New Zealand and the United Kingdom are maintained by a common language, sustained migration from the United Kingdom, and many young New Zealanders spending time in the United Kingdom on their “overseas experience” (OE). The music and cuisine of New Zealand are similar to that of Australia, Canada, UK, and the US, although both have distinct New Zealand and Pacific qualities.

Māori culture has undergone considerable change since the arrival of Europeans; in particular, the introduction of Christianity in the early 19th century brought about fundamental change in everyday life. Nonetheless, the perception that most Māori now live similar lifestyles to their Pākehā neighbours is a superficial one. In fact, Māori culture has significant differences, for instance, the important role which the marae and the extended family continue to play in communal and family life. As in traditional times, Māori habitually perform karakia to ensure the favorable outcome of important undertakings, but today the prayers used are generally Christian. Māori still regard their allegiance to tribal groups as a vital part of personal identity, and Māori kinship roles resemble those of other Polynesian peoples. As part of the resurgence of Māori culture that came to the fore in the late 20th century, the tradition-based arts of kapa haka (song and dance), carving, and weaving are now more widely practiced, and the architecture of the marae maintains strong links to traditional forms. Māori also value their connections to Polynesia, as attested by the increasing popularity of waka ama (outrigger canoe racing), which is now an international sport involving teams from all over the Pacific.

Visual Arts

Pre-European Māori visual art had two main forms: carving and weaving. Both recorded stories and legends and also had religious roles. When Europeans arrived they brought with them Western artistic traditions. Early Pākehā art focussed mainly on landscape painting, although some of the best known Pākehā artists of the nineteenth century (Charles Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer) specialized in Māori portraiture. Some Māori adopted Western styles and a number of nineteenth-century meeting houses feature walls painted with portraits and plant designs. From the early twentieth century, Apirana Ngata and others began a program of reviving traditional Māori arts, and many new meeting houses were built with traditional carving and tukutuku (woven wall panels) were built. A longstanding concern of Pākehā artists has been the creation of a distinctly New Zealand artistic style. Rita Angus and others used the landscape to try and achieve this while painters such as Gordon Walters used Māori motifs. A number of Māori artists, including Paratene Matchitt and Shane Cotton have combined Western modernism with traditional Māori art.

Performing Arts

Kapa haka, (kapa meaning ‘rank’ or ‘row’ and haka referring to a Māori dance), is the ‘cultural dance’ component of traditional Māori Performing Arts. Kapa haka is an avenue for Maori people to express their heritage and cultural identity through song and dance. It has undergone a renaissance, with national competitions held yearly and kapa haka used in many state occasions. The haka (often mistaken as always being a war dance or ritual challenge) has become part of wider New Zealand culture, being performed by the All Blacks as a group ritual before international games and by homesick New Zealanders of all races who want to express their ‘New Zealandness’.

New Zealand drama, both on stage and screen, has been plagued during much of its history by cost and lack of popular interest in New Zealand culture. Despite this Roger Hall and, more recently, Jacob Rajan are two playwrights to achieve considerable popular success. In recent decades New Zealand film has grown dramatically, with the films Once Were Warriors, The Piano and Heavenly Creatures doing well both locally and internationally, and Lord of the Rings trilogy director Peter Jackson becoming one of film’s most successful directors. New Zealand’s most popular comedian was the late Billy T. James.

New Zealand music takes most of the same forms as that of other ‘Western’ countries, with hip-hop being particularly popular amongst young Māori and Pacific Islanders. New Zealand hip-hop tends to be more humorous and much less violent and sexist than in other countries. There are small but thriving live music and dance party scenes. Classical music has less popular support, but New Zealand has produced several successful composers and an internationally famous opera singer (Kiri Te Kanawa).


New Zealand’s most successful early writers were expatriates such as Katherine Mansfield. From the 1950s, Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame and others had (non lucrative) writing careers while still living in New Zealand. Until about the 1980s, the main New Zealand literary form was the short story, but in recent decades novels such as Alan Duff’s Once Were Warriors, Elizabeth Knox’s The Vintner’s Luck and others have achieved critical and popular success. Māori culture is traditionally oral rather than literate, but in recent years Māori novelists such as Duff, Witi Ihimaera and Keri Hulme and poets such as Hone Tuwhare have shown their mastery of European-originated forms. Austin Mitchell wrote two “Pavlova Paradise” books about New Zealand. Barry Crump was a popular author who embodied and expounded the myth of the Kiwi larrikin and multi-skilled labourer. Sam Hunt and Gary McCormick are well-known poets. James K Baxter was an eccentric but admired author. Maurice Gee is also a household name for his novels about New Zealand life.

New Zealand cartoonist David Low became famous during World War II for his political satire. Gordon Minhinnick and Les Gibbard were also witty political observers. Murray Ball drew a widely popular syndicated daily strip Footrot Flats, about farm life.


Although films have been made in New Zealand since the 1920s, it was only from the 1970s that New Zealand films began to be produced in significant numbers. Films such as Sleeping Dogs and Goodbye Pork Pie achieved local success and launched the careers of actors and directors including Sam Neill, Geoff Murphy, and Roger Donaldson. In the early 1990s, New Zealand films such as Jane Campion’s Academy Award-winning film The Piano, Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors and Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures began to garner international acclaim. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Jackson filmed The Lord of the Rings film trilogy in New Zealand, using mostly New Zealand crew and extras. Whale Rider, originally a novel by Witi Ihimaera, was produced in 2002 and received recognition from various festivals and awards. New Zealand features as a primary or additional location for many international productions, examples include The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Bridge to Terabithia, and Kaho Naa…Pyaar Hai.



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