One late art-filled night in 2008, artists John Pule and John Walsh found themselves, by chance, at Pule’s Auckland studio. Swapping stories over a glass of wine quickly turned to swapping paintbrush strokes on a canvas, sparking the beginnings of a lengthy collaborative process that would see the pair travel back and forth between Auckland and Walsh’s studio in Wellington over the course of several months. The resultant painting, Untitled (2008), features a signature Walsh blue-green expressionist landscape, but unlike his usual modus operandi it does not envelope the entire canvas, here it is isolated, contained like an island floating alongside one of Pule’s emblematic cloud forms.
As a backdrop to this scene, Pule’s drape-like vines swing down from the skies, while spectral beings and various anthropomorphic creatures populate the foreground. In a clearing on Walsh’s island a group of these beings gather, while others busy themselves like insects flying in and out of Pule’s vines. From below all this action a large kupenga, net, swoops down from the island seemingly fishing for souls, adding to this sense of action and festivity.
Finding a mechanism through which to marry two seemingly disparate art practices can be a difficult negotiation, but through this process Pule and Walsh have been able to uncover commonalities that many people, including the artists themselves, may not have been aware existed in terms of both painterly practices and conceptual thinking. Ideas of belonging to nature, to the land and sea, movement and migration, mythologies and re-imagined histories are all recurrent themes in their respective artistic oeuvres. Spirits, demons and demi-gods float effortlessly across the canvas, interacting with mortal beings, watching over us, guiding us and at times devouring us spiritually.
Pule’s oft used quotation of Christian iconography signals an interest in religion, not as a man of the cloth, but as a believer in the destructive nature of losing faith in customary knowledge and ways of thinking, of the dangers of looking at the Pacific and Pacific stories through Western eyes. His works are submerged within the oral and human histories of Oceania, played out through a matrix of hiapo (Niuean barkcloth) based designs that he rightfully takes possession of as his birthright to adapt, develop and extend the artistic history and stories of Niue.
Similarly, Walsh often speaks of revisiting so called Māori ‘mythologies’ which were once widely held to be true accounts of history, most commonly being ancient stories retold by his Te Aitanga a Hauiti ancestors in the Tairawhiti region of New Zealand. Unlike the word ‘legend’ which refers to a significant historical event or achievement, the problem Walsh says with the term ‘mythology’ is that it implies that such accounts are fictitious and does not allow room to consider the esoteric or metaphorical data lodged between the lines of such tales.
These histories and so called mythologies are retold and revealed in both Pule and Walsh’s paintings. More than mere poetic musings, they are real stories and statements of self-definition, posing a Pacific-centric counter-perspective to Western perceptions of Pacific art, people and culture.
Text by Reuben Friend - Curator Māori and Pacific Art, City Gallery Wellington
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