Take 5 with...Dr. Ngarino Ellis

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Take 5 with...Dr Ngarino Ellis (Senior Lecturer, Art History and Museums and Cultural Heritage, The University of Auckland)

1. What's your favorite course to teach?

I love all my courses but if I had to choose one it would be my stage 2/3 course Mana Taonga: Tradition and Innovation in Maori Art. This covers artists and practices from Te Po (the nightime, the beginning for us as Maori) right to the present day. Romping through over a thousand years of art in 24 classes is pretty insane but I tie it together through key concepts like continuum, whakapapa/genealogy, mana, and gender.

2. What's your current research project?

I have three projects on the go at the moment. The largest is a jointly written book (with Professor Deidre Brown, Architecture) entitled Toi Te Mana: A History of Indigenous Art from Aotearoa New Zealand. Conceived with leading Maori art historian Jonathan Mane-Wheoki (who passed away in 2014), the project aims to investigate Maori approaches to Art History, and formulate new ways to research and write about this. I am also working jointly with jeweller Areta Wilkinson and curator Nigel Borell on a project looking at Maori body adornment. I’m also researching on the work of 20th century master carver brothers Hone and Pine Taiapa. It’s all on here!

3. What's your favorite place to do research?

I love spending time in museum basements surrounded by taonga tuku iho/ancestral treasures, speaking to them, and singing waiata to them. I try and hold them where possible (with textiles this is often tricky due to their often-vulnerable state). Those 18,000 in overseas collections too rarely have Maori coming to see them kanohi-ki-te-kanohi/face to face, making connections. I have just returned from 6 weeks in Europe and the States doing this. I use social media (Instagram and Facebook) at times to share what I find, and it’s great seeing artists tagging each other in as the look at the photos and videos and discuss aspects of these works. 

4. If you were entering your PhD program today, which school would you choose?

Sadly, the University of Auckland is the only University which has an active Maori art history programme. Due to pressures on the tertiary sector, no other universities offer any courses in Maori art history, and have no Maori art history staff. Auckland also has the largest art history department in NZ so advisors who might be able to help. There is also a strong indigenous and Maori Studies department who can also offer support.

5. What needs to be done to increase diversity within Australia and New Zealand studies?

Within my discipline of Art History there are simply not enough indigenous researchers and writers. Our first course on Maori art history taught by Maori (Ngahuia Te Awekotuku) was only in 1988 (I was in the class!) and I’m not sure if there are any Aboriginal Art History courses at universities which are taught by an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander art historian. This has to change. We need to support and mentor indigenous peoples, especially students and at early-career stage in their researching, writing and promoting of Maori, Pacific, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander art history. 


Bio: Ngarino's (Ngapuhi, Ngati Porou tribal affiliations) primary field of research is Māori art history and her focus has been on identifying, promoting and recuperating matauranga in relation to art forms, art practices, artists and theories. This area encompasses Māori art and culture from ca. 800 to the present day, and includes both marae and gallery-based art practices. She has concentrated on pre-1900 art, especially tribal carving, moko signatures, personal adornment and identity. Currently she is the only Māori art historian employed at tertiary level, which encourages her to work collaboratively with Māori in other disciplines, such as Fine Arts, Architecture and History. During the past five years she has disseminated Māori-centred methodologies, terminologies, and research in relation to Art History across a broad range of audiences. Her research has sought to transform the nature of Art History as we know it in order to present new paradigms and theories in relation to Art History as a whole. Her first sole-authored book, A Whakapapa of Tradition: One Hundred Years of Ngati Porou Carving 1830-1930, was honoured with three awards in 2017: Judith Binney Prize for Best First Illustrated Book at the Ockham Awards (NZ’s national book awards), Best Maori Art Books at the Nga Kupu Maori Book Awards, and the Inaugural Best First Book Award by the NZ Historical Association.