A whirlwind tour of New Zealand art and culture

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A Maori youth group performs in Cathedral Square, in Christchurch, New Zealand. The group was raising money for a tour of the North Island. Want to see more? Keep scrolling – and reading – to see a video clip.

If you are a regular reader of this blog (and if you are – you have my infinite thanks) you will have noticed that most of the posts from the past three weeks were written by my fabulous colleagues, Euan Kerr and Chris Roberts. That’s because they were kind enough to fill in for me while I was away on vacation on the South Island of New Zealand.

While most people use vacation to get away from work, it’s hard to get to know another culture without taking a look at its art. So the past three weeks involved some museums, street performances, and architecture, as well as local food and crafts. Rather than keep it all to myself, I thought I’d share some of the highlights.

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First off, sheep. You can’t hardly throw a rock without hitting one (not that I’d ever do that, mind you). There are an estimated eight sheep for every one New Zealander, and they fuel a large part of the nation’s economy. That translates to huge meat exports to England and elsewhere, and it also means a high level of crafts involving wool, such as spinning, knitting and weaving.

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On a hike in Dunedin, I stumbled across Clifton Farms, where Ian and Pat Robertson have been breeding sheep for a range of colors in their wool – charcoal, dark and light brown, and cream colored. Pat’s family has owned the farm for close to 150 years, and her husband Ian grew up on a farm just down the road. On the day I stopped by they were showing off both their sheep and their collection of antique spinning wheels to the Otago and Taieri Spinners and Weavers guilds.

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Ian Robertson shows off his wife’s collection of antique spinning wheels.

It wasn’t until arriving in New Zealand that I learned it has a strong Scottish history. In fact the name of the city of Dunedin is actually the Gaelic version of “Edinburgh.” The streets in the city of Dunedin are named after the streets in Edinburgh, and at the center of the city there’s a statue erected of the great Scottish poet, Robert Burns.

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Of course for hundreds of years before the Europeans settled New Zealand, it was known by the Maori people as “Aotearoa.” Most government buildings I saw had signs in both English and Maori, and in Christchurch a Maori youth group was performing to raise money for a tour of the North Island.

Maori culture from Marianne Combs on Vimeo.

The Otago Museum in Dunedin and the Canterbury Museum in Christchurch both had extensive exhibitions on Maori culture and traditions, as well as the impact of European settlers arriving on the islands.

The Dunedin Public Art Gallery features a range of work, from the traditional landscape painting to the modern art installation. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, the gallery had a special exhibition titled “Beloved” which brought together pieces from its permanent collection in some interesting (although sometimes inexplicable) pairings.

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Of course the most striking visuals to be found in New Zealand are from its mountain ranges and fjords. A boat ride in the Doubtful Sound offered some incredible views.

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Those mountains have inspired numerous New Zealand artists, as well as quite a few tourists, including this one:

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As for architecture, New Zealand boasts a variety of styles, and I was quite impressed with some of the modern neighborhood homes, as well as the old Victorian and Edwardian edifices. A couple of standouts were the Larnach Castle, and the Dunedin Railway Station:

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This is all just a scratch on the surface, of course, and only represents some of what can be found on the southern half of the South Island. But it was more than enough to impress this reporter, and make three weeks fly by.

  • Carole Machek

    Great tour – makes me hungry to go there and check out the wool and the scenery etc etc!