Enhancing mana through visual art

Mana is a significant concept in Aotearoa and the Pacific region. It has often been translated as ‘power’, ‘prestige’, and ‘authority’. Unlike the word ‘power’ though, mana as a concept has more quickly evolved away from associations with ‘domination’, ‘manipulation’ and ‘control’.

I like to use the word mana as a way to talk about the inherent spiritual integrity latent within each and every person regardless of our background. Our sense of mana can be strengthened and enhanced, or it can be diminished by our own actions and the actions of others. From my perspective, a person with a lot of mana is someone with a big heart, and a great deal of moral courage – and someone who can foster harmony in the community.

Throughout my life I have been fortunate to have had many teachers who exemplify this type of mana. And I have learned a lot about the role that visual arts can play in enhancing communities, by being on marae.

One of the functions of visual art is to communicate values and knowledge, in a language that speaks to our spirit. When I wake up inside a whare tipuna, for example, looking at the heke rafters adorned with kōwhaiwhai, I am reminded of a physical and spiritual connection between the deceased and the living; our ancestors and their current and future descendants; the natural world and humanity. I also contemplate processes of growth and transformation happening in our lives. The beauty of it uplifts my spirit – and these sentiments are felt by everyone sharing that space, even more so when the kōwhaiwhai is activated through conversations that include them in stories.

This is an example of what I consider to be mana-enhancing art. It enhances the mana of the hapū, or the community that the whare serves. The whare has a function of shelter, but it also imparts knowledge and values that contribute to collective empowerment. It tells stories about our collective identity, the relationships that we should have, and our spiritual reality.

I have experienced some of these mana-enhancing characteristics in other art forms around the Pacific, too. Such as in hand-woven fine mats often made communally and exchanged as gifts. An art that serves a practical function within everyday life, but is also embedded with uplifting values, aimed at strengthening our sense of integrity.

And then there’s China, the home of my paternal great-grandparents, which remains a distant and mystical land that I have yet to set foot on. My connection with it, as genuine as it feels, is experienced tangibly in Aotearoa through little porcelain vases and sculptures, delicate shell carvings and wooden ornaments, painted silk, incense, and red paper envelopes. These items are not connected with my immediate community or everyday life, but I know at some point, somewhere in Southern China, they were. And in these quiet moments of examining these intricate and beautiful ornaments, I can also experience art that enhances mana. Our ancestors were truly wonderful craftsmen. They were inspired by lofty sentiments that seem to be similar, whether they were expressed through the art of kōwhaiwhai or the art of shan shui hua 山水画, Chinese landscape painting.

Artist unknown, The Beautiful Sights of Guilin. Te Hotu Manawa Marae, Palmerston North. Photo by Tessa Ma'auga

Artist unknown, The Beautiful Sights of Guilin. Te Hotu Manawa Marae, Palmerston North. Photo by Tessa Ma’auga

When visiting Te Hotu Manawa Marae around the corner from our home in Palmerston North, I was surprised to learn of two shan shui hua paintings hung inside the wharenui, gifted on behalf of the Chinese community by Mr Chan who had financially supported the construction of the marae complex. Although the art of shan shui hua was originally created by elite academic or government officials and in a context quite separated from community, the placement of these paintings in the context of a marae brings on new meaning. Not only does it represent a mutual friendship between two peoples, but it enables the community to access the themes of shan shui hua. Such Chinese paintings can often be found in many humble homes today, and their influence has reached many contemporary New Zealand artists.

Placed alongside each other, it is apparent that both kōwhaiwhai and shan shui hua painting traditions, convey the notion of a life force flowing throughout and connecting all natural life: mauri (in te reo Māori), qi (in Mandarin). They do this through the juxtaposition and  interplay between positive and negative space, as well as through continuous and organic line o r mark-making.

Rather than focusing on the individual, these art forms emphasise our organic relationship with the heavens and earth, and encourage us to follow the ways of nature in our lives. To be as detached and free as the clouds, or as humble as the sea, for instance. Dual elements are often emphasised, spiritual/material, female/male, heaven/earth, light/dark.1

Guo Xi, Early Spring, 1072. National Palace Museum, Taiwan. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

Guo Xi, Early Spring, 1072. National Palace Museum, Taiwan. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

The beauty is found in the simplicity too: shan shui hua, paintings of land and water, were made with three simple treasures: silk, ink, and a brush, while kōwhaiwhai were customarily made with wood, pigment, clay or soot. While today, our treatment of these art forms is becoming more complex and refined, aspects of simplicity help us to convey our messages clearly.

From my perspective, the art of shan shui hua was about enhancing the mana of land, using nature as a guide to enhance the mana of the individual, while kōwhaiwhai also enhanced the mana of the community. These art forms encourage us to foster harmonious relationships in our lives and remind us of the life force flowing within the natural world, connecting us with it.

I perceive these same philosophical themes in the little Chinese ornaments on my dad’s bedroom dresser. Although I don’t know much about the art history of such ornaments that travelled across the seas from Southern China with my great grandparents to the United States and Canada, eventually making it to our family home in Aotearoa, items such as the intricately carved shell, cradled in a lacquered tree root, demonstrates a high regard for the natural environment, and its underlying oneness, animated by a flowing and living qi force.

Photo by Tessa Ma'auga

Photo by Tessa Ma’auga

These are a few simple cases of mana-enhancing art. And while they seem quite connected with the everyday life of individuals and communities, something changes when they enter the realm of contemporary visual art in Aotearoa which is situated in galleries, museums, and art education institutions.

When the fine mat is placed within the white walls of a gallery, it is a very different community that engages with the artwork, and the way in which individuals interact with it changes too. The handwoven fine mat, is meant to be touched, sat on, slept on, or even worn. It should be shared. Perhaps, placed in the centre of the room, weaving together a shared experience for individuals who sit around it. When hung on the white walls of a gallery, perhaps framed behind glass, it is examined briefly by a stranger’s gaze, who quietly admires its beauty, and perhaps more often than not, moves on without ever uttering a word about it with anyone else. This type of experience could be valuable too, if it activates conversation within a community, or inspires action and the generation of more beautiful ideas and art.

I can think of a lot of contemporary artwork exhibited in galleries and museums that, in my opinion, do not enhance the spiritual integrity of any individual, community, or institution. Take for example, the work of the Young British Artists, a group of London artists who came together in the late 1980’s, known for their wild partying, departure from traditional art mediums, perceived overstepping of the bounds of decency, and their approach to ‘shock’ audiences with use of grotesque, violent and pornographic imagery. Some of the Young British Artists are now considered to be the richest artists in the world.2 No doubt, their artwork has influenced contemporary New Zealand artists who toil with ‘shocking’, ‘pornographic’ and ‘grotesque’ imagery to reinforce a debased side of human culture.

But do we really need anyone to restate the obvious social ills afflicting society? Perhaps it would be beneficial to analyse the racism, injustice, pollution, and depression afflicting our generation. But to merely dwell on the degraded state we are trying to rise above would surely prove a fruitless exercise. My plea is for artists and institutions to present artwork that uplifts us out of these conditions – artwork that enhances our individual and collective mana.

There is no simple formula for creating mana-enhancing art in a contemporary New Zealand context, and surprisingly, it’s not something that my art education in New Zealand has really considered with its students. Perhaps there are insights we can glean from our ancestors’ approach to art that we can use to direct our contemporary efforts. There are a number of individual artists who do just this, drawing upon Chinese and Māori philosophy and values to inform contemporary art practice.

Buck Nin’s (1942-1996, Ngāti Raukawa, Ngāti Toa) paintings speak about the land, our intimate connection with it, and the life force existing within it. He also appears to be discussing our relationship with the land in a contemporary context, and the shifts and tensions that are taking place in society and the landscape through the mixing of cityscapes, and organic forms. Nin uses conventions also found in kowhaiwhai and shan shui hua to depict the mauri force flowing in the sky and earth. The organic lines, juxtaposition of positive and negative form, and the continuous flowing of form around a space are among these conventions. Figure forms are also found within the painting, personifying the landscape and reinforcing the connection between humanity and the environment. Some of his paintings are more obviously political than others, with works such as This Land is Ours, which depicts a mob of passionate protestors marching out of the belly of the land.

Dion Hitchens (Ngāi Tuhoe, Ngāti Porou) has been sculpting reusable materials to allude to the organic nature of human beings and the universe, while drawing inspiration from cultural and philosophical values that inform our relationship with the natural environment. The values conveyed through his work, in simple but profound visual language, promote positive messages about our capacity live in harmony with nature. Hitchens also uses rhythmic pattern, continuous line, and organic forms in his artwork. He has extensive experience in collaborative public artwork that enhances the mana of a place or community, by using the artwork to tell local stories and narratives and promote unseen values that are needed in  communities today. To me, Hitchen’s work is all about enhancing mana. His work promotes values that uplift the individual viewers, the collective community, and indigenous peoples. His work doesn’t seem to be about him, but rather he is willing to collaborate, learn alongside others and try to share their stories to add value to everyday spaces.

Simon Kaan (Ngāi Tahu) alludes to notions of journey, land, spirit, and belonging in his paintings. They speak to me about the quiet peacefulness of the natural world. They are calming, simple, yet well crafted. They also accentuate a duality through positive and negative space that conveys a notion of a spiritual plane of existence, history, and future. Kaan speaks of the similarity in Chinese and Māori art that expresses the spiritual reality of the landscape. In this sense, his works are also about enhancing the mana of the land, portraying its rhythms, spirit and life force, and enhancing the mana of individuals, by connecting people with the landscape, enabling them to find peacefulness and solitude within it.

Simon Kaan, Untitled 16-17, 2017. Photo by Sam Hartnett. Courtesy of Sanderson Contemporary

Simon Kaan, Untitled 16-17, 2017. Photo by Sam Hartnett. Courtesy of Sanderson Contemporary

I can perceive elements of our forbearer’s art in these works: the simplicity of colour, materials, positive and negative space, and an emphasis on the natural landscape and our relationship with it. These artists are also conscious about the values and philosophies they are exploring in their work and how these might benefit others.

Imparting positive messages through our art is not the only step in creating mana-enhancing art. We also have to look beyond the approach of the individual artist and focus on the values our contemporary art culture is promoting.

In my high school and university we studied Renaissance paintings – an art form which felt very culturally distant from my immediate life. It has been argued by some authors, that it was during this Renaissance period that the notion of the individual changed and became more significant. Portraiture began to emphasise individual uniqueness and temperaments, when in previous times the human figure was merely used to depict stories, religious symbols or the notion of royalty. It is argued that not only did painting the unique individual become important, but so did the name and identity of individual artists. The craftsman, commissioned to create functional art in an apprenticeship system, became a famous, egotistical and eccentric individual artist facing the public, who placed the highest value on manifesting their creative genius.3

This emphasis on the individual has no doubt influenced the Western art history that our contemporary art institutions are founded on. The contemporary art education and funding opportunities in New Zealand promote competition, individual artists’ practice, the private collecting of artworks, and gaining artistic reputation through gallery and museum exhibitions. This not only has implications for how artists approach their work, but it even affects the way communities engage with and access the arts.

The research publications put out by Creative New Zealand such as New Zealanders and the Arts: Attitudes, attendance and participation in 2017, reveal that the main “audience” for the arts, who are most likely to “attend” and “consume” the arts, particularly for “entertainment”, to “feel good” and to “have fun” are highly educated, Pākeha females over the age of 45 years. These documents describe an art culture where we have to travel to engage with art and where we need spare time for the leisurely pastime of the arts.4

Te Hau ki Turanga Kowhaiwhai at Te Papa Museum. Mangatu Incorporation Collection

Te Hau ki Turanga Kowhaiwhai at Te Papa Museum. Courtesy of Mangatu Incorporation Collection

This type of individualistic approach to art does not seem mana-enhancing, for the “consumer” or for the community at large. It does not reflect the function of the art of a whare whakairo, or a Chinese ancestral home, adorned with carvings, paintings, and ornaments that are accessible in everyday life, intended to uplift our interactions and collective identity.

The artworks of our ancestors convey the notion that the individual is organic with the community and the environment. Can an individual really find success without enhancing the mana of their community? If an individual artist finds fame through an artwork that takes a stab at the weaknesses of someone or some institution of society, is it really bringing mana to the artist or to the community? What if an artist creates a work that the general public browses over, impressed briefly by its uniqueness, but not considering its deeper meaning?

It would be a useful exercise for us as contributors to contemporary art culture to think about how the notion of the individual is conceived of and portrayed in customary art practices of different cultures. There are numerous contemporary authors, artists, teachers and curators in Aotearoa who are talking about the need to create conditions where the diverse cultural heritages can contribute equally to weaving new patterns of contemporary art. New patterns that create spaces for collective conversation and cohesion, so that artwork can be created and shared by the community, enrich our conversations and strengthen our collective identity.

There’s still a long way to go before we can refine new patterns in our contemporary art world, but the ways that our ancestors from the Asia-Pacific enhanced mana through art can serve as a framework to guide our contemporary pattern-making in a changing global world.


Mai Mai Sze, The Tao of Painting: A study of the ritual disposition of Chinese painting (2 ed.). (Tennessee, US: Kingsport Press, Inc, (1963)

The Art Story Contributors, “Young British Artists Movement Overview and Analysis”. The Art StoryLast Modified. 2018

Nicholas Abercrombie, Stephen Hill, and Bryan S. Turner, Sovereign Individuals of Capitalism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1986)

Creative New Zealand, New Zealanders and the Arts: Attitudes, attendance and participation in 2017. (Colmar Brunton: Social Research Agency. February 2018)