Andrew Paul Wood – 21 August, 2017
Pule peoples the lagoon-cum-sacred grove thus created with a staffage of stylised reclining figures, similar to those in his paintings of the early 1990s. The little figures seem threatened with imminent overwhelming by the trifid-tsunami of symbolised Pacific heritage, raw life force and fecundity. The effect strongly recalls Matisse or perhaps Pat Hanly, especially in paintings like' Levekiaga' (the Niuean word for nurturing, protecting or upbringing), 'Ohi' which gives the exhibition its name, and 'Nofoaga' ('dwelling place').
3 August - 26 August 2017
“1891. The day opens on the plaza of Tuapa village. The curtain rises on a ghost of a landscape. The background is dotted with native huts. The people of Mutalau village are anxiously waiting for the ceremony to begin and for the feared god to appear.”
- John Pule, Burn My Head in Heaven / Tugi e Ulu haaku he Langi (Penguin 1998)
John Pule arrived in Auckland from Niue as a young man in 1980 with no formal background in art or literature. Over the next three, getting on for four decades, he has become one of the Pacific’s most admired contemporary cultural figures, but while his writing has received plenty of deep, considered and well-deserved critical response over the years (the 1998 novel Burn My Head in Heaven being a case in point, demonstrating his intellectual and aesthetic range), his visual art rarely attracts quite that sort of in depth discussion beyond the biographical and ethnographical—not that Pule’s art should ever be separated from these things.
There are, of course, exceptions, such as the incredibly enlightening Hiapo: Past and Present in Niuean Barkcloth (Otago University Press 2005), a collaboration between Pule and Nicholas Thomas, and Thomas’ Hauaga: The Art of John Pule (Otago University Press 2013) which give critical insight into Pule’s process.The autobiographical element is essential but not the only layer of interest. It’s not like Pule’s art is a static artefact that doesn’t evolve in response to the world around it. Ample evidence of this ongoing evolution can be found in Pule’s latest show at Jonathan Smart Gallery.
These could easily be some of Pule’s most important works to date. The title, Ohi, is Niuean for ‘bloodline’, part of Pule’s ongoing meditation on his origins and his complex relationship with his home and adopted land. The works in Ohi were produced in Kavakava in the eastern part of Niue, anchoring them in that place of Pule’s origins like an umbilical cord.
The geometric grids and hieratic friezes have long since been replaced with lush curtains of stylised and ornamental foliage, and now something new. The paintings have transitioned from the decorative surfaces of John Olsen-esque jellyfish clouds and Stations of The Cross riffing on hiapo bark cloth that emerged in 2001, than physical/material objects and metaphorical/metaphysical (and particularly womb-like) spaces. The surface of the paint at times sports a tactile rippling and wrinkling like cooling lava or the surface of the ocean. The womb-like clearings in quasi-phallic foliage are brought about by disciplining the familiar organic abstract forms (a flamboyant material drama in their own right) into something that functions more like the proscenium midground of Romantic landscape painting or the drapery of the Academic étude.
Pule peoples the lagoon-cum-sacred grove thus created with a staffage of stylised reclining figures, similar to those in his paintings of the early 1990s. The little figures seem threatened with imminent overwhelming by the trifid-tsunami of symbolised Pacific heritage, raw life force and fecundity. The effect strongly recalls Matisse or perhaps Pat Hanly, especially in paintings like Levekiaga (the Niuean word for nurturing, protecting or upbringing), Ohi which gives the exhibition its name, and Nofoaga (‘dwelling place’).
It’s actually quite remarkable how the paintings eschew the concerns of the contemporary as resolutely as they do, rejecting the glut of modern art culture and its zombie formalism with considerable vitality and visual interest; no overly clever conceptualising of making or art about art required. Even the earlier paintings didn’t invent a drastically new vocabulary—beyond what was available in the hiapo that emerged in the 1880s—with their spirals, concentric circles, geometric shapes, and motifs that diminish in size from the border to the centre. This was the source code that pushed Pule’s painting beyond a contemporary, western, threadbare painterly discourse of figure versus ground, abstraction versus figuration, colour versus line and so on, into a unique territory all his own.
In Burn My Head in Heaven, set during the 1920s, a central image is that of the Niuean ritual of killing-the-god which the character Loeb, a US-sponsored anthropologist, persuades the now Christian Niueans to re-enact. The ritual is an image that reoccurs a lot in Pule’s imagery and writing. The god in question, Limaua, is described in the novel thus:
“According to stories, Limaua had three names. He was mostly known by the name of Lima-ua, meaning two hands. He was also known by his nickname Gutupuhi, meaning spurting mouth, and Fulukovi, meaning an ill-bred god who acts in a mean manner. His home was at Houma in Aliutu. He had a wife named Fineiki and two beautiful daughters, Fitiutouto and Kiliutomanogi. He was considered to be an angry person who caused storms, hassled fishermen, and slapped canoes about. The only way to appease this god was after the fishermen caught fish and went to Houma to make offerings. If this exchange did not satisfy him, he would shake his head. His long hair, thick as kelp, caused the currents to spoil the day’s fishing. He has been described as resembling a merman, with streaming hair and a fish’s tail, but was represented as an ancient warrior with the customary flowing beard and decorations of white shells and ti girdle. Limaua was a descendant of Huanaki, one of five gods who arrived at Niue.”
While not implicitly the subject of this series, this imagery of fecundity and flowing rhymes with the lush foliage in the paintings, as do the descriptions of plants in the novel:
“The women in holy white dress, their hats decorated with flowers and sweet-smelling leaves, the children also in white dress playing around their parents, disseminating the fragrances from their kahoas. Maile leaves release a dizzy sweet scent. The aromatic yellow corolla pua petals, fragile and easily bruised to reveal thin dark capillaries. … The dull hiapo in which the god was wrapped was made from the bark of the ata tree. The globular fruit of this tree, when crushed, secretes a sexual perfume; its leaves are used in the preparation of medicine. The god himself was made from the soft wooded tree, the puka. Its flowers are small, fragrant in terminal cymose clusters; its wood is used in the construction of canoes.”
If the archetype is familiar, it is because it seems universal. The ritual of killing the god to ensure the renewal and fertility of the land, and the resurrection of that god (yes, Christ too), was intensively explored (and exoticised) in Sir James George Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1890). Frazer’s thesis was inspired by J. M. W. Turner’s 1834 painting of the same name. In Classical tradition, in the woodland surrounding Lake Nemi (“Diana’s Mirror”) was a sacred grove where a certain tree grew. The grove was guarded by a priest-king, a runaway slave, who, having plucked a bough from the sacred tree in the grove, was then permitted to fight the old, incumbent priest-king to the death and replace him, and so on. Turner’s painting illustrates the scene in Virgil’s Aeneid where Aeneas and the Sibyl present the golden bough to Proserpine, wife of Hades, to gain admission to underworld. There seems to me an echo of the Turner painting in these figures sitting around beneath their trees, waiting.
Frazer makes a connection to Niue with a story that hints at ritual origins: “On the coral island of Niue or Savage Island, in the South Pacific, there formerly reigned a line of kings. But as the kings were also high priests, and were supposed to make the food grow, the people became angry with them in times of scarcity and killed them; till at last, as one another was killed, no one would be king, and the monarchy came to an end.”
While these specific works don’t necessarily reference these themes directly the way that Pule’s The Death of a God (1990s-2000) works do, these paintings become a kind of reimagined mythopoesis of a lost Niuean religion, an idyllic pre-contact utopia, and some of the new, as Thomas notes in Hauaga: “[Pule’s] sense is that a sick Christ was rejuvenated in the Pacific, that the church has sucked the vitality from the lives of Pacific Islanders. Hence, while he images people lamenting the death of Christ, his own lamentation is over their loss of their own gods, and of so much else.”
In the back space are a series of poems, scribed with a square, 5mm nib in blue ink recalling the maternal waters of the Pacific. The sequence is called Tala Noa (poems about ‘something’ or ‘anything’—’noa’ usually signifies non-existence, the unimportant). The poems are consequently brief, poignantly describing love and regret. These are sparse, elegiac works, shorn of the more familiar illuminations of a lot of Pule’s text works, full of formal interest in the imperfections of the calligraphy.
While there is a link here with the modernist use of text in New Zealand art with the likes of McCahon and Hotere, it’s worth noting that surviving hiapo prior to the fading of the practice in the late nineteenth century even incorporate writing, usually names, around the edges of the design. There is, as well, a suggestion of the constraints of English on the concepts of the peoples it colonises. Vaughan Rapatahana’s view of English as an imperialist, many-headed hydra come to mind, as does Epeli Hau’ofa influential 1994 essay “Our Sea of Islands” - the idea of small areas of land being divided by ocean and colonial hierarchy inverted by the image of islands as corpuscles connected and bound together by the Pacific.
If the paintings are a searching back, the poems are a paean to the desire for homecoming and return to origins and the source, though as the pre-Socratic Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said, “no man steps in the same river twice” - everything flows, is always changing, and you can never really go home again except in the mind.
Andrew Paul Wood
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