Shane Cotton

Where ya from man?

acrylic on canvas
760mm x 760mm

signed S.Cotton, dated 2011 and inscribed ‘where ya from man?’ in brushpoint lower right; dated 2011 and inscribed where ya from man in ink verso


Acquired from Black Barn Gallery, Havelock North, 2011.


Shane Cotton came to prominence during the 1990s with paintings characterised by an ochre colour range and a focus on the land: land stacked on shelves, land in pots, land divid...

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Estimate $15,000 - $20,000

Shane Cotton


acrylic on canvas

1400mm x 2800mm

Auction N˚1

Estimate $60,000 - $70,000

  1. Shane Cotton, quoted in William McAloon, “Stirring the Pot: Recent Paintings by Shane Cotton,” Art New Zealand, no.90, Autumn 1999, p. 72.
  2. Horatio Gordon Robley, Moko; or Maori Tattooing. Papakura: Southern Reprints, 1987.
  3. Shane Cotton, quoted in Justin Paton, “Shane Cotton: Stamina, Surprise and Suspense.” Christchurch Art Gallery.

Words as Images

by Jessica Mio

Shane Cotton came to prominence during the 1990s with paintings characterised by an ochre colour range and a focus on the land: land stacked on shelves, land in pots, land divided up and pinned with flags. This preoccupation stemmed from Cotton’s research into New Zealand’s colonial history and his own bicultural heritage. The repercussions of two cultures meeting played out across his canvases through his distincitve use of symbolic imagery. Then, at the turn of the new millennium, Cotton shifted to paintings dominated by black and rich in the symbols and stories of histūrangawaewae: Taiāmai of Te Tai Tokerau, Northland. By grounding the works so firmly in his ancestral homeland, Cotton asserted his identity as a member of the Ngāpuhi iwi and of the Ngāti Rangi, Ngāti Hine, and Te Uri Taniwha hapū. Christianity became a dominant presence in his work due to the huge impact that early Christian missionaries had on Northern Māori culture, from the introduction of literacy to the near total suppression of local art forms.

In 1998, Cotton stated that

It made complete sense to me that if I was to develop stories from the North and develop stories around images, then I really had to look closely at aspects of the Bible, look to the word, and find a way to bring them together.¹

Since this time, Christian prayers and Biblical verses have permeated Cotton’s paintings in both English and te reo Māori. Pattern in 2 Lords Prayers features Te Inoi a Te Ariki (the Lord’s Prayer), written out twice in white paint. As the prayer descends from the top of the canvas, the tiny letters become increasingly separated, losing legibility until they are just specks against the expansive field of black. Standing out from the darkness is a red cell that harks back to the earliest years of Cotton’s career when microbiological forms filled his paintings. The silhouetted figure within the cell would have been sourced from a book or webpage, illustrating Cotton’s habit of taking found images and repurposing them within his artworks. The same goes for the birds, which are given a ghostly affect through their partial reproduction in thin white paint.

In a departure from his earlier works, the significance of these images is unclear: they are divorced from their original contexts and left to float in a seemingly random configuration. Instead of telling narratives through words and symbols, here Cotton has shifted his focus onto the nature of text and image themselves. By scattering letters and using reproduced images, he plays with concepts of legibility and originality. This shift heralds the postmodern period of Cotton’s career, in which he favours ambiguous subject matter in order to hand over the creation of meaning to the viewer.

From this point on, stories of a specific place and time fade from Cotton’s works. Instead, the imagery in paintings such as R.A.U.K. invites conjecture but denies resolution. The birds in this work could have a range of potential meanings depending on the viewer’s associations, such as freedom, nationhood, or death. The latter relates to the story of Māui, whose demise was caused by the laughter of a pīwakawaka (fantail). Likewise, the concentric circles could be targets or references to artists such as Julian Dashper and Jasper Johns—or something else altogether. In Cotton’s postmodern works, no single interpretation is more valid than another.

The images of toi moko (Māori tattooed heads) are drawn from Major-General Horatio Gordon Robley’s book, Moko; or Maori Tattooing, which was originally published in 1896 and includes photographs of preserved heads from Robley’s own collection.Their inclusion could be a reference to the 19th Century phenomenon of Europeans buying toi moko from Māori and selling them at high prices overseas, a trade that led to many Māori being killed for this purpose. But Cotton removes the context from the images by floating them on backgrounds of black and smoky white. He has digitally altered them into flat forms and even removed the moko that made the heads so coveted in the first place. The outlines are refilled with layered colours in one and camouflage patterns in the others, inviting a whole new set of potential associations.