Shane Cotton (Ngāpuhi: Ngāti Rangi, Ngāti Hine, Te Uri Taniwha) is widely regarded as one of New Zealand’s foremost painters. He is of mixed Māori and Pakeha ancestry, and much of his work is concerned with exploring these dual heritages. Along with his contemporaries Michael Parekowhai and Peter Robinson, Cotton is part of a generation of Māori artists whose work engages with international trends in contemporary art. Building on the work of pioneer Māori modernists such as Ralph Hotere and Arnold Manaaki Wilson, these artists look overseas, incorporating new ideas and new methodologies into the existing body of Māori art practice. Rather than identifying as “Māori artists” exclusively, they are artists who are also Māori, and who use the strategies of postmodernism as a way of addressing questions of identity and whakapapa.
Cotton graduated from the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts in 1988, and began exhibiting his work in dealer galleries in 1990. In 1991 he received his Diploma in Teaching from the Christchurch College of Education, and subsequently went on to teach art at Lincoln High School in Canterbury, before taking a position at the Māori Studies Department at Massey University in 1993.
Cotton’s early work consisted of biomorphic, internationalist abstractions, but in 1993 his work began to move in a different, figuratively inflected direction, with a series of works referencing motifs from 19th century Māori folk art. In paintings like Whakapiri atu te whenua (1993) and Artificial Curiosities (1993), Cotton draws on the tradition of Māori figurative painting that flourished from the 1860s to the 1920s, and that existed as an alternative to traditional carving, which was regarded as idolatrous by Christian missionaries and converts. Cotton referenced this visual tradition as a way of discussing postcolonial issues: in Needlework (1993), the landscape is reconfigured as a pincushion, stuck full of flag-pins (including a prominent Union Jack). Over the years, Cotton’s compositions have become increasingly complex, incorporating tiki and manaia motifs, native birds, upoko tuhihi (decorated human heads) and English and Māori texts.
Cotton was made an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2012, for his services to visual arts. His work has been widely exhibited both in New Zealand and overseas, and is held in the collections of many major galleries, including The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa and Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.