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Warriors and Chiefs, Canoes and Creatures: Paintings on Iconic Maori Carvings by Alvin Pankhurst

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I’m glad I discovered the work of Alvin Pankhurst (born 1949), a New Zealand realist-surrealist painter with two successful galleries, in Parnell (Auckland) and Pauanui (the Coromandel). Alvin, who studied at the Wellington Polytechnic School of Graphic Design, is an internationally recognised leader in Maori subjects. His early paintings showed the passing of time with roots growing from wild roses, in Victorian interiors. Now the art he makes is steeped in legends and history, presenting Maori artifacts across stunning seashores and lakes.

Alvin writes: “I grew up around the Wairau pa along the banks of the Wairau river, 10 km north of Blenheim. I loved carving as a kid but the spirituality that the Maori master carvers were able to achieve makes your hair stand on end. We can’t ever let the Maori culture and history be lost, so all I can do is try to paint how I feel about the beauty and importance of New Zealand’s native people. That is why I have titles such as ABOUT TIME, OUR TIME, IT’S ABOUT TIME, SPIRITUAL JOURNEY, GUIDING SPIRITS, etc. The Maori culture is the only thing that makes us different from any other country, and it must be held up for everyone to see and for nobody to forget.”

Alvin Pankhurst in front of his painting Tuturu Aotearoa (The Real New Zealand). The Whirinaki National Park is about an hour from Rotorua. The war waka is emerging after centuries of being hidden. If the maori call you “kotuku” (the white heron) it is the highest compliment. It means you are rare and beautiful.

The artist continues on his themes: “I married Ephra in 1975 and found during our overseas adventures that all anyone knew about art in New Zealand was the Maori art with their beautiful carvings, wakas, marae, weaving and songs! And of course the mokos/tattoos and hakas. In 1976, we moved to Auckland and started a series about the early European settlers’ hazardous journey to New Zealand. Over 150 ships were wrecked, most people were saved but there must have been a lot of furniture washed up on the shore. The furniture and crockery made beautiful paintings. I was always reading and hearing stories about amazing Maori treasures being exposed by coastal erosion or by the draining of wetlands.

“When under threat of attack from other tribes the Maori buried their treasures in sand pits or hid them in caves. Their waka were camouflaged with reeds under water in the rivers. My paintings of the great Maori warriors and chiefs, and of war wakas, fishing wakas and taniwha are of carvings by great Maori carvers over the last three to four centuries. The paintings of the iconic Maori carvings reflect the feeling of spirituality, peace, tranquillity and history.”

Alvin has won several awards over the years, including the Air New Zealand National Art Award and Benson and Hedges. In 2001, he became the first New Zealander living in New Zealand to secure a place at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in London. His business is managed by his wife Ephra. They have two sons, Matthew (LLB BA) who works in the galleries, and Andre who is married to Anna and works for Gaudy in Sweden. Andre, a goldsmith/jeweller, makes jewellery for eminent European families.

An important event in Alvin’s life and career occurred while he was still in college. “When I was 19 and completing my Honours in Wellington,” he says, “my bed-sit studio was burnt down, destroying all of my art. It was a result of a combination of oils, solvents, a heater and attempted murder between two visitors to my studio. Severely burnt, the experience dramatically altered my view of paintings and I decided to concentrate on quality not quantity.”

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Images used with permission.

Mother Earth (2018). Alvin writes: “The chief Pukaki was a great leader held in such high respect. It is his compassion and love that emanates from this unforgettable carving. It is so powerful and comforting that even the taniwha Marakihau wants to be around him. The feeling of peace and magic at twilight alters our perception of many objects and stirs the imagination.”
Guiding Spirits (2017). Alvin writes: “I feel the spirits on every beach in New Zealand, our history is everywhere. The power for good is in the Maori culture and the unbelievable gifts they gave us. I see Paikea guiding Tiki back into the light. We really need our heroes to return.”
Duck Creek (2015). Alvin writes: “This setting is found around creeks, swamps, rivers and lakes all around New Zealand. We have all fished, swum or thrown stones in these waters. They all have ducks like the mother mallard and her young.”
Spiritual Home (2014). Alvin writes: “The kotuku (white herons) feed against a backdrop of Mt Cook/ Aorangi and the Southern Alps on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The most sacred bird in Maoridom, the kotuku breed nearby. The fishing waka rests in Lake Matheson.”
Resurgence (2008). Alvin writes: “Pukaki was a famous chief and leader of the Ngati Whakaue people. He was carved with his warrior sons, by Te Taupua in the 1830s. Paikea was saved by a whale after his half-brother tried to drown him in a power struggle. Paikea  was carved by Pine Taiapa in 1839 for the Whitireia meeting house in Whangara.”
Their Time (2008). “Chief Pukaki and Tiki, Pukaki’s nephew, born in the early 1700s were great warriors and friends from Ngati Whakaue. Carved in the 1820s as gateways protecting Pukeroa Pa, on the hill above Ohinemutu, Rotorua.”
Spiritual Journey (2009). Alvin writes: “The war canoe (waka) was the most prized possession of the Maori, and the flying stance of the figure on the waka was inspired by the kotuku bird (white heron) which is the most sacred bird in Maoridom. Having been submerged for centuries the waka has emerged in the South Island’s Lake Wanaka. This very early 1800s canoe prow represents the separation of the Earth Mother “papa” from the Sky Father “Rangi”. The spirals on the war waka represent light and knowledge coming into the world.”
Returning Heroes (2010). Alvin writes: “Paikea was saved by a whale after his half-brother tried to drown him in a power struggle. this carving is on Witireia the meeting house at Whangara. It was carved by Pine Taiapa in 1939. Witireia is near Gisborne on the East coast of the North Island of New Zealand. The main tribe in this area is Ngati Porou. Paikea is their most famous ancestor.”
Tuturu Aotearoa (2010). Alvin writes: “The wakas were sunk to conceal them when the war parties were raiding neighbouring tribes. They didn’t always win. Even today some are being discovered where they lay hidden. The setting is the kahikatea Forest beside the Arahaki Lagoon, Whirinaki Forest Park, Central North island.”
Transition (2007). Alvin writes: “The carver Te Umanui carved Tiki in the early 1800s with stone and green stone tools. Tiki’s spirit can appear anywhere in New Zealand.”
The Last Stand (2007). Alvin writes: “This waka emerging from the deep of the Whirinaki Forest Park outside Rotorua is typical of those used in raiding parties. Maori would sink them to hide their presence, and then bail out to return home, but did they always return?”
About Time (2006). Alvin writes: “This was my first Maori painting. I loved every moment I spent looking at it and painting it. Historically Tiki was an important leader of the Ngati Whakaue people. The weapon in Tiki’s hand denotes him as a great warrior. This was one of the carvings on the gateways to Pukeora Pa on the hill above Ohinemutu in Rotorua. His uncle the great chief Pukaki was the other carving.”
Maybe Tomorrow (1974). Alvin writes: “The winning painting in New Zealand’s largest Biennial Art Award in 1974. It was purchased by the Dunedin Art Gallery for a New Zealand record price. The painting is painted from the viewpoint of the old man reflected in the mantelpiece mirror . The mirror above the mantelpiece reflects the back of his head, and the vandalised derelict room of the present. He is looking at the derelict room  and remembering how it used to be. The roots represent time that has passed in the same way cobwebs, dust, rust and decay represent age.”
Urban Sprawl (1970). Alvin writes: “I started URBAN SPRAWL the day after I finished my portrait, my studio had this window and the fireplace that I painted  in MAYBE TOMORROW. My bed was in this room and I went to sleep watching the moonlight on the ladder. The blind had no cord, so I never closed the blind. I could lean out the window and touch the ladder. I was a finalist in the NZ Benson & Hedges Art Award 1970 with URBAN SPRAWL. It was bought by the then Minister of Justice Dr Martyn Findlay and hung behind his desk in Parliament.”
Self-Portrait (1970). Alvin writes: “The first painting I painted after the fire. My face was illuminated by candlelight (firelight) showing how I felt as a 19 year old, after having spent months in hospital recovering from my burns, and losing everything I had. The bust is supported by the back view of the skeleton of a foot in a hole (I must have felt insecure). The SELF PORTRAIT was on the cover of the Young Contemporaries Touring Exhibition.”


Cosmopolitan soul and King’s College London alum (Twitter: @TulikaBahadur89) – slowly working on a novel and a collection of short stories ( email for reviews and interviews). Follow “On Art and Aesthetics” on Facebook (@onartandaesthetics) and Twitter (@OnArtAes).

Posted in Contemporary (roughly 1960s onwards)HistoryMythology and FolkloreNaturePaintingTagged 


‘Figurative Art Now’ 1975, Barrington Gallery by Michael Dunn.
‘New Zealand Art: A Modern Perspective’ 1986, by Elva Bett.
‘Treasures of the Dunedin Public Art Gallery’ 1990, by Peter Entwhistle.
‘100 New Zealand Paintings’ 1995, by Warwick Brown.
‘Royal Academy London Publication of Artists 2001.’
‘Who’s Who in Art in United Kingdom 2002’, published yearly.
‘Art New Zealand Today, Sixty Contributing Artists’ 2002. In the library of the Auckland Museum.
‘National Business Review 2009.’ Article: ‘Record Price for New Zealand Artist.’
‘Beloved’ 2010. Dunedin Public Art Gallery: Celebrating 125 Years and Showcasing Historical and Contemporary Gems from the Collection Spanning 600 Years.
French Publication of Alvin’s ‘THE WHALE RIDER’ 2012. Alvin’s painting and write-up on the legend of Paikea were made available on request for all of the Secondary schools in France.
‘New Zealand on Canvas 2013’ by Denis Robinson.

Eric & Kathy Hertz painting sets record price for rare Auckland art


Ian Stuart | Thursday August 01, 2013

New Zealand artist Alvin Pankhurst, who won his first art award as a seven-year-old at school, has achieved a record price at a sale of important early and rare art in Auckland.

His 2006 oil on acrylic on canvas, called About Time, sold for $55,000 at an auction at the International Art Centre last night.
The painting, which was estimated to make up to $30,000, was one of three owned by the late Eric and Kathy Hertz.

Mr Hertz was the chief executive of 2degrees Mobile, the third largest mobile phone company in New Zealand. The couple died when their aircraft crashed into the sea near Kawhia Harbour in March.
The painting of a carving on a West Coast beach was Mr Pankhurst’s first Maori painting. It featured Tiki, an important leader of the Ngati Whakaue people.

The sale also featured a 1910 oil by renowned New Zealand artist Charles Frederick Goldie, which has been privately owned for the last 70 years. The painting of Arawa chieftainess, Rakapa, sold for $234,500.

However, a 1978 acrylic on canvas by the late Sir Peter Siddell, A Portrait of Tony and Patsy, failed to reach its reserve price.

International Art Centre director Richard Thomson says it is one of Sir Peter’s finest works. It was expected to sell for up to $220,000 and Mr Thomson says they are talking to several interested parties.

A very early water colour of Auckland’s Princes St by Colonel Robert Henry Wynyard, an early Auckland administrator, sold for $31,500. It was painted in 1849.

Two paintings by Ralph Hotere fetched more than the estimate. Winter Solstice, Lake Mahinerangi, painted in 1981, sold for $44,000 and Mungo, painted in 1985, went for $36,000.

Mr Thomson says sales of important, early and rare art always attracted a high level of interest and this sale was no exception.

“There was very spirited bidding on many lots and buyers were very discerning. There was some exceptional talent on offer tonight and many buyers will be very happy.

“There were a lot of paintings which sold at the top end of the estimate. There is always very keen interest in good quality art,” he says.

Alvin Pankhurst’s About Time sold for $55,000Alvin Pankhurst’s About Time sold for $55,000
Goldie’s 1910 oil of Arawa chieftainess Rakapa fetched $234,500Goldie’s 1910 oil of Arawa chieftainess Rakapa fetched $234,500
Sir Peter Siddell’s 1978 acrylic was unsold






If you are engrossed in the flashy, chic shops of Parnell (or have your head in your iPhone) you will miss the private little gallery of Alvin Pankhurst. You don’t want to miss it.

Aim for Parnell Village Coffee Club and you’re in the right area. Down a narrow alley is the Pankhurst Studio Gallery, one small room saturated in emotion. His art speaks of loss and constantly passing time, heritage and power, often with strong Maori connotations. It’s art to empower a wall or silently mourn, for galleries and homes alike.

There are sketches, prints and staff well acquainted with the art. The artist himself has numerous awards for his work over the years- don’t overlook this gallery.

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Pankhurst Studio Gallery

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Category: Art Galleries
305 Parnell Road
Auckland 1052
+64 9 307 0155

Otago Daily Times 25/11/86

Otago Daily Times 25/11/86

This is the “Picture of the Month at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery”.

Titled “Alvin Pankhurst’s Surrealist Painting”.


The “Picture of the Month” for November at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery is a large tempera painting by Alvin Pankhurst titled Maybe Tomorrow. The work is a great favourite with the public and in 1974, the year it is dated, it won the Benson and Hedges Art Award. It was purchased by the Gallery on the night the award was announced for a price which was then a record for a painting by a living New Zealand artist.

Despite these apparent signs of success the painting and its artist have never won much recognition from critics and historians and it is interesting to consider why.

There is a popular belief that art historians and critics are biased against what are called “realistic” paintings out of intellectual snobbery. But this is really only a prejudice and we may safely suppose the critics’ and historians’ reason for disregarding Maybe Tomorrow is more specific than that.

But merely stating the prejudice reveals the inadequate or inadequately understood terminology we have with which to talk about broadly different kinds of painting. We need to sort that out, before trying to identify the particular objection critics have to Maybe Tomorrow.


In the sense of the word “realistic” that is most often used of paintings Maybe Tomorrow is realistic because it is not abstract, (it depicts things.) Even so, it is misleading to describe it simply as “realistic”. That is because several of the things it depicts can not happen.

For instance, it shows a fireplace with a mirror in the fascia under the mantelshelf. Another mirror is hung over the mantelshelf on the chimney breast. The two mirrors thus face the same way into the same interior, one a little higher than the other. But the lower one reflects the face of an old man at dead centre while the upper shows the back of someone’s head in the same place.

Moreover the interiors reflected beyond each of these figures are different and incompatible. Thus the painting is presumably depicting something that can’t happen. (The alternative is to suppose that the artist is depicting a scene that could be contrived by super-imposing painted or photographic images where the mirror images appear to be. But that would be to make the rather trivial point that a painted picture of a mirror does not perform like a real mirror and presumably the artist did not have that in mind.)

Thus in another sense of the word “realistic” the painting is not realistic because it does not show us a scene that exists, or even could exist.

Because there are so many paintings like Maybe Tomorrow which, while they depict things nevertheless depict things that do not or could not exist, art critics and historians have long ago made use of the rather awkward term “representational” (or more rarely “objective”) to distinguish those works that depict something or other from those, like purely abstract paintings, that do not depict anything at all.

The advantage of calling these paintings “representational” rather than “realistic” is that we avoid the suggestion that the word “realistic” seems to make, that the things that are depicted exist.

In this way Maybe Tomorrow is better called representational than realistic.

Perhaps unfortunately there is another sense of the word “realistic” which people sometimes use of paintings in which it means very precise and detailed and particularised. In this secondary sense Maybe Tomorrow is realistic because it is so very precise and detailed.

From all this it may be seen that we will not have any very clear agreement about whether the painting is realistic or not until these different senses of the word have been spelled out. But having done that we can agree that while the painting is realistic in the sense of being detailed, it would be better to call it representational, rather than realistic, if we want to emphasise the fact that it is not abstract. And having cleared up the question of terminology, the important thing to note is that Maybe Tomorrow does depict things but that the things it depicts not only do not, but could not exist.


Paintings of this sort have been made at various times for different reasons. A notable modern movement that produced a lot of such works is “surrealism”. It grew up and flourished in Europe between the World Wars and aimed to reveal a kind of super-reality or surreality. It was thought this super-reality would eventually come to exist by some kind of fusing of the ordinary matter-of-fact world we know from waking experience, with such phenomena as dreams and hallucinations and the unconscious workings of the mind.

It might be objected that the ordinary notion of reality already includes both the world we know from waking experience and our dreams, hallucinations and so on. Also that the fusing of these two things in the way the surrealists had in mind poses logical problems that are probably insuperable. But is is not so important here to criticise the surrealists’ metaphysical ideas as simply to grasp essentially what they were.

Because of these beliefs some of the surrealists, such as Salvador Dali painted dreams or anyway scenes whose descriptions make them sound like dreams, as a means of representing the super-reality they believed in.

Pankhurst may have been influenced by Dali and his connection with surrealism has been noted by Gordon Brown and Hamish Keith in the most recent edition of their book, An Introduction to New Zealand Painting. Indeed in the 1960s and 70s one can see a number of our artists painting a kind of belated New Zealand surrealism in which Brent Wong is the follower of Magritte, Siddell perhaps adapts Delvaux, and Pankhurst, with this one painting, momentarily assumes the role of Dali.

It would be interesting to know the extent to which any of these artists shared the original surrealists’ beliefs about the nature of the world and the purposes of painting. Probably they knew altogether less about Freudian psychology and the writings of Andre Breton than their European precursors. It is no doubt this sort of reflection that has led some critics and historians to dismiss Maybe Tomorrow as an example of “record cover art”, a kind of shallow fantasising that looks like surrealism but does not have its intellectual framework or psychological depth. In fact if prompted for an explanation it is probably this sort of reason, rather than any other, that our critics and historians would give for disregarding Pankhurst’s painting.

But it seems a little harsh. We have already suggested that the surrealists’ metaphysic was not particularly sophisticated, and one suspects that their psychology was only what may be quickly assimilated from a fairly superficial acquaintance with the works of Dr Freud. Indeed however ill read in Freud Pankhurst may have been, by the 1960s or 70s it can be assumed that with the great majority of middleclass New Zealanders he had assimilated Freud’s principal ideas, especially about the primary and suppressed nature of the sexual urge. He was no doubt similarly familiar with notions of a fundamentally irrational metaphysic whether he picked these up from the surrealists, the popularisation of the works of Sartre and Camus, or from science fiction.

In terms of philosophy and psychological  theory, Pankhurst even if he had not read the same books, was probably no worse equipped than most of the European surrealists of the 20s or 30s and whether or not the painting is regarded as truly surrealist its success or failure as a work of art, must, anyway, be judged on what it has to convey and how successfully it conveys it.


Its simple message is that all things change and, though unpredictably, ultimately decay and perish. It shows us one end of a still well-preserved Edwardian room that might be found even now in many New Zealand villas (though nowadays rarely so intact.) The prominent fireplace has not been modernised; the wallpapers are of the period (although not in their details): the numerous objects  that fill the space were nearly all made before the first World War.

Two wine flagons are exceptions. These locate the scene in the New Zealand of the 1960s, and 70s and part of the public’s fascination with the work arises from this fact. It could be in a particularly well-preserved flat in Dunedin’s North End for instance or anyway in such a place at the beginning of a student’s occupancy.

By comparison the scene of a similar room reflected in the mirror above the mantelpiece seems to show what the room might become after being vandalised. It is stripped of cupboards and fireplace fittings and obscene graffiti cover the walls which once were embellished by patterned, lascivious wallpaper. Such derelict Victorian and Edwardian rooms were also fairly common in the city at that time and it is thus a convincing detail. And the relationship between the two seems fairly clear: the one is what the other may become. Even the well-preserved room refers to the past, and by implication, decay.

So many of the things in it are conspicuously old-fashioned: they belong to another time however well they may have survived. And as if that hint were not enough many of them are floating, defying the law of gravity, caught up in a creeping vine that has grown out of a vase in the corner and seems to be in the process of engulfing the whole scene. In the end nature will consume us all.

The other theme that runs through the work apart from mortality and the irrationality of the world, is a sexual one. It is an undertone that is there in the erotic details of the wallpaper and the obscene graffiti of the devastated room. Perhaps the point is that even as nature consumes us all, so too is she constantly renewing.

The artist makes use of a large scale, precise detail, dramatic lighting and exaggerated perspective to grasp the audience’s attention at a distance, to draw it in and to absorb it in the busy minutiae of the work. The deliberate illogic of the mirrors, of vines that are and are not a part of the fireplace tiles, piques the expectation and puzzles the viewer with its implications – which means that people return to the painting repeatedly.

Since he made it the artist seems never to have painted anything comparable and the place of this work in our art history is therefore today more singular and perplexing than ever. Its power to intrigue has not diminished but the idea of a New Zealand surrealism seems strained and some will say that Pankhurst owes as much to Walt Disney as to Dali.

But perhaps when he is seen in perspective, Walt Disney, in some of his works, will appear as a significant artist of the twentieth century. And that may be the clue to locating the work critically. It is a fantastic image and fantasy is something we have difficulty treating seriously as art. JRR Tolkien’s trilogy The Lord of the Rings has an oddly undetermined position in modern English literature despite its immense popularity and clear concern with heroic themes. It took a long time before the equally singular Alice in Wonderland came to be regarded as literature.

Perhaps in a hundred years Maybe Tomorrow will be accepted as an important part of our culture, a nostalgic, indulgent Vanitas painted at the height of the mid-century’s prosperity to remind us that all is stranger than we usually care to admit and anyway mortal. The painting is on show in ‘N’ Gallery.