The Fallacy of Maori Privilege

To be part of the globalized, networked world we live in, Nicholas Mirzoeff proposes that we better engage in terms of visual thinking and activism. Visual activism, he puts forth, is engaging with visual culture to promote and create change – that seeing is not enough, we must act (Mirzoeff 297).

An issue within New Zealand society is the notion of Māori privilege. Although not continuously present, it never seems to die. In 2004 the issue received a lot of note after Don Brash’s Orewa speech entitled ‘Nationhood’, where he made claims of “the minority”(Māori) having “a birthright to the upper hand” (Scoop). The reason this topic pervades discussions on New Zealand race relations is based on ideologies regarding the nature of New Zealanders and colonization.

Through my own experience, I have always known the idea of Māori ‘privilege’ to be simply that – an idea. As I explored the topic in further depth, looking at expert opinions and statistical reports, I realized just how large the gap between Māori and non-Māori is within New Zealand’s current social and political systems. Māori are the largest minority group in New Zealand making up 15.4% of the population (Stats NZ). Māori representation within current systems, however, is greatly disproportionate in relation to the rest of the population. When attempts are made to even out this disproportion, backlash is received with the claim of Māori privilege raising it’s head, such as in the case of New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd in May 2016. It appears that this ideology remains as a screen to the realities of colonization which is, as Alan Ward states, “an imperial subjugation of a native people” (qtd. in Meihana 18).

I agree with Mirzoeff’s assertion that visual activism is a form of contemporary citizenship. Activism has always been something I generally shy away from, being rather passive myself. I’ve come to expand upon my visual thinking, though, through examples of artists such as Michael Parekowhai, that visual activism need not be blatant and confronting, but can be more subtle, yet still effective.

Being Māori I have witnessed a little of the grudge held by some labeled as receipt of ‘privilege’ and decided to respond with my own voice. With allusions to Gottfried Lindauer’s dignified paintings of Māori, I painted the following as a response to the fallacy of Māori privilege.

The Fallacy of Māori Privilege, Personal work, 2017

In this painting, I wanted to reflect on the once regal perception of Māori. The expression of the woman is solemn. She fills the frame commandeering respect. The dark green of the background refers to the deep green of pounamu, New Zealand jade, implying status and power. This appears to be someone of privilege. This ‘privilege’ is then contrasted by the tā moko (tattoo) on her face. Often a display of one’s heritage and status (Auckland Art Gallery), this tā moko is made up of statistics referencing the current representation of Māori in the health, prison, education and employment systems. My aim here is to break through the “mask” that is Māori ‘privilege’, which continues to impede the progress of discussion on race relations in New Zealand.

Detail of The Fallacy of Māori Privilege, Personal work, 2017.

Through this exploration of visual activism, I have a better understanding of what it means to be a ‘contemporary citizen’ in how I respond to visual culture. Responding to this topic has helped me see more clearly just how under-represented Māori are and how this can be worked to overcome. To be able to not only reflect on but create work in response to these social issues has given me a sense of engagement in this globalized, networked world and made me realize that promoting and making a change can be achieved through modes such as direct action, to simply conversation and art making.


Works Cited:

Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, “The Māori Portraits: Gottfried Lindauer’s New Zealand”.

Meihana, Peter. “The Paradox of Māori Privilege: Historical Constructions of Māori Privilege circa 1769 to 1940”. 2015.

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Afterword: Visual Activism”. How to See the World,Pelican Books, 2015, pp. 297.

Scoop, “NATIONHOOD – Don Brash Speech Orewa Rotary Club”. 27 January 2004.

Stats Nz. “Māori Population Estimates: Mean year ended 31 December 2016 – tables”. 15 May 2017.


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