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Rainbow warriors

David Eggleton on Ralph Hotere's blacking factory and Michael Parekowhai's red-hot riddlings


<P data-associrn="318352"></P> <P>1968 was a year of revolution: a year of civil unrest and anti-war demonstrations, a year that, in the United States, witnessed the materialisation of the women’s liberation, gay-rights, and Black Power movements. In Europe, it was the year of the Prague Spring and of barricades on the boulevards of Paris. It was a year in which, everywhere, a noisy vanguard took to the streets seeking to change the world.</P> <P>It was also the year in which Ralph Hotere exhibited his ‘Black Paintings’ at Barry Lett Galleries in Auckland (and in which one of Hotere’s inheritors, Michael Parekowhai, was born). This formidable suite is made up of three separate sets of seven panels. Each surface has been spray-painted with black enamel or lacquer, and on each a delicate cross is emblazoned - every cross a slightly different colour, sliding across the spectrum.</P> <P>At first or second glance, you’ll see nothing of the international wave of protest in these austere surfaces. Yet as he created them, Hotere was immersed in the mood, the atmosphere of the time. The full history of his relationship with radicalism is long and complex, but a later work, <EM>Black painting - requiem for M.L.K.</EM> (1969) makes the connection explicit: the title commemorates the assassination of American civil-rights leader Martin Luther King.</P> <P><STRONG>The black rainbow</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="43658"></P> <P>One of Hotere’s most notable forms of political engagement was the habit of giving away much of his work to support causes or individuals. Another was the creation of art works intended at least partly as symbols of protest. In 1964, in England, he exhibited his ‘Human Rights’ series: a set of shaped relief paintings, each red-and-black lozenge a smoulder of anger. In 1972, he produced his ‘Te Whiti’ works about the peaceful resistance movement at Parihaka, its sacking by government troops in 1881, and the need to reaffirm M&#257;oritanga. (‘Toi te kupu, toi te mana, toi te whenua’ runs the associated whakatauk&#299;, or proverb - without language, prestige, and land, M&#257;ori culture will not survive.) Hotere’s later creations were eloquent statements against apartheid, against pollution of the environment, against neo-colonial wars. He made art that expressed his opposition to US nuclear-powered vessels cruising New Zealand territorial waters and to French nuclear testing at Moruroa Atoll.</P> <P>In 1985, Hotere produced his ‘Black Rainbow’ paintings and prints - a response to the sinking of the Greenpeace protest ship <EM>Rainbow Warrior</EM> by the French secret service in Auckland Harbour in the same year. This series in turn helped inspire the S&#257;moa-born New Zealand writer Albert Wendt’s 1992 novel <EM>Black Rainbow</EM>. In Wendt’s futuristic narrative, the ‘Black Rainbow’ is a lithograph that functions as a truth-finding device, a prophetic symbol, a religious icon, an obscure object of desire, and an umbilical cord to the womb of pre-history. But in truth all of Hotere’s sprawling œuvre can be seen as part of a black rainbow, whose carbon core he was able to smelt into pure gold.<BR>&nbsp;<BR><STRONG>Discipled to darkness</STRONG></P> <P>Hotere’s devotion to causes marked him as a humanist. He was also a formalist - a meticulous maker of objects, well versed in the traditions and histories of fine arts. He worked his way through a phenomenal array of influences, bringing them back home to his blacking factory and reducing them to his signature bare-bones emblems.</P> <P data-associrn="1364337"></P> <P>His greatest influence, at least close to home, was Colin McCahon. Vincent O’Sullivan tells of Hotere being seen on more than one occasion in the early 1960s driving away from Auckland’s Kiwi Hotel in his red MG sports car with ‘an exhilarated McCahon standing behind, hands balanced on the driver’s shoulders’.<SUP><FONT size=2>1</FONT></SUP> Hotere’s forerunner had battled with abstraction and turned his grapplings into prophecy. In 1958, frustrated by a painting that wasn’t working out, McCahon threw ‘a whole lovely quart tin of black Dulux at the board and reconstructed the painting out of the mess’.<SUP><FONT size=2>2</FONT></SUP> McCahon’s <EM>Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is</EM> (1958) emerged from beneath that splashed coat of black enamel, as did many subsequent abstractions by New Zealand artists. Foremost among them, it could be argued, are Hotere’s black paintings.</P> <P>Hotere eventually got out from under McCahon’s shadow. As McCahon painted his way through the first few verses of the book of Genesis (‘And God said let there be light, and there was light’), he had mined and refined the colour black, then loaded it with meaning. Hotere drew from the same reservoir, but he subtracted meaning until each work resolved into its ideal form. </P> <P data-associrn="36543"></P> <P><STRONG>Contemplating the void</STRONG></P> <P>In his 1968 ‘Black Paintings’ series, Hotere polished black to reveal that we are ourselves the void: we glimpse it as we gaze at our faces reflected back as wobbly masks in the shiny black panes. At the heart of the works are the cross and the circle: the most primitive, the most primal, the purest of human marks. The artist has cleared away all that is superfluous to requirements.</P> <P>The Catholic school-educated Hotere spent his childhood in a remote M&#257;ori coastal settlement with no electricity. In his art, he combined M&#257;ori cultural beliefs with those of a ‘cradle Catholic’ in a way that links him with 19th-century M&#257;ori prophets such as Te Whiti-o-Rongomai (the subject of his ‘Te Whiti’ works) and Te Kooti Arikirangi Te T&#363;ruki. But his cross forms also evoke modern technology. Like compass lines or cross-hair symbols of centring and navigating, they bring us home to harbour. In M&#257;ori creation narratives, Te P&#333; is the pre-dawn darkness of becoming. Hotere’s black paintings can be seen as the testament of this darkness: each thin stripe of colour is like dawn on the horizon and over the water and through the sky. Across a meditative sequence of seven days, Te P&#333; becomes Te Ao M&#257;rama - the world of light.</P> <P>Hotere liked to play hide-and-seek with light, isolating it in order to make it visible. Consider the faint white squares and concentric circles of <EM>Black painting</EM> (1970) - a hidden geometry you must strain to see clearly. His art is a kind of chapel or a stage set for spiritual mysteries, though his beliefs, originally Catholic, became wide ranging.<BR>&nbsp;<BR><STRONG>Black on black</STRONG></P> <P>For Hotere, the miracle of compression was what it could reveal. In Bill Manhire’s 1970 poem ‘Malady’, too, the repetition of the words ‘malady’ and ‘melody’ - and the single line that ends the poem, ‘my lady’ - are a revealing mantra. (This turning to texts and vernacular materials was one of the things Hotere had taken from McCahon’s signwriter’s tool kit.) Hotere’s sequence of paintings based on ‘Malady’ render the phrases as concrete poem. In one painting they become two pillars or columns of stencilled lettering. In another, they form an X-shape at whose juncture the three phrases merge. The silvery words are a kind of lunar nocturne, their rhythmic cadences running through the works like ripples on black water. They imply a brooding watchfulness in the small hours and a surrounding hush. Instead of drumbeats or angry slogans, we are offered lulling whispers, lovelorn murmurings.</P> <P>These veils of words bring to mind another poet’s lines: ‘Black intensities / of black on black on black feeding on itself’ (from Hone T&#363;whare’s ‘We who live in darkness’). Hotere made black rhyme and chime with a whole spectrum of moods. Gazing at his reflective surfaces, T&#363;whare claimed to be ‘euchred ... eclipsed.’ So are we all - our very presence swallowed, vanishing into a black Hotere.</P> <P data-associrn="1364886"></P> <P><STRONG>Shine</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="1365037"></P> <P>At the centre of New Zealand’s biculturalism is a jostling tension that reveals itself in overlays of language, place names, and stories. Michael Parekowhai’s art emerges from this context. Parekowhai has proved adept at black magic: he is an illusionist who can make materials appear to levitate, embodying lightness of touch and quickness of thought. In its scale and intensity, and in its attention to surfaces, his work identifies itself with the ‘finish fetish’ of industrial technology. Parekowhai is also a jokester. His barnstormer pieces - made-over ready-mades - employ goofiness, brightness, and shine to dazzle and amuse, and to challenge.</P> <P>Over the past decade or so, Parekowhai has been ringmaster of a sculptural parade of circus elephants, farm bulls, performing seals, and pesky rabbits - a wildlife park of the mind. Seen one way, his larger-than-life creations are outsize paperweights or bookends, transformed so as to hold or slow down our attention span. Seen another, they are animals engaged in trials of strength whose sculptural formalism serves to reclaim such objects from their commodification as trinkets in the global shopping mall, the corporate franchise, the prefab folk memory. Parekowhai’s two-dollar-shop sublime is black comedy of the deepest dye: a commentary on ordinary childhoods and media overkill. <P><STRONG>Sound, colour, sensation, memory&nbsp;</STRONG></P> <P data-associrn="493702"></P> <P>Parekowhai has turned this preoccupation with simulacra, or mass-produced copies, into meditations on identity. During his youth, the ‘M&#257;ori strum’ - the distinctive ‘jinga-jik’ strumming pattern favoured for sing-alongs of party favourites - emerged as a marker of local identity. <EM>Ten guitars</EM> (1999) memorialises the Humperdinck-hit-turned-M&#257;ori-standard with a unique edition of ten individually customised, p&#257;ua-inlaid guitars: a wry comment on the stereotype of the ‘happy M&#257;ori’. But more, it reflects Parekowhai’s obsession with the communal experience of listening to music - an obsession he has continued to explore, with a team of assistants, in his work on concert pianos.</P> <P data-associrn="1236595"></P> <P><EM>He k&#333;rero p&#363;r&#257;kau mo te awanui o te motu: story of a New Zealand river</EM> is another essay in idealised M&#257;oritanga. This 2011 work evokes a non-specific New Zealand river - your river, perhaps - and is a companion piece to <EM>The story of a New Zealand river</EM> (2001), a heraldic concert grand piano, glamorous in black lacquer. Both titles are freighted with resonances: to Jane Mander’s eponymous 1920 novel, about the wholesale milling of kauri forests in Northland, and to the instrument, symbolising colonial settlement, that fetches up on a wild South Island beach in Jane Campion’s 1993 film, <EM>The Piano</EM>.</P> <P>Carved in a variety of customary M&#257;ori styles and painted red in the artist’s converted car-paint spray-shop studio in West Auckland, <EM>He k&#333;rero</EM> is a magnificent, riddling object. Originally imported by Hungarian-born concert pianist Lili Kraus, the Steinway has been transformed into a waka huia, a treasure casket, by the carvings that writhe fantastically across it. They invest the work with a kind of animism (though it only becomes fully alive when played). The piano’s pierced lid resembles the prow of a waka (canoe) turned on its side, and the puaw&#257;nanga, or native clematis, that entwines it brings to mind a vessel decked out for a festive regatta. Its decorative openwork spirals, and the ancestral figures who lasso it, elevate it as an artefact of high M&#257;ori baroque. The cherry gloss that signals its status as a luxury commodity looks almost edible - and beyond that, those sticky skeins and whorls evoke volcanic magma. This object is red hot, its meanings evolving and mutating before your eyes. </P> <P><FONT size=2><STRONG>Endnotes</STRONG></FONT></P> <OL> <LI><FONT size=2>Vincent O’Sullivan, ‘Sketching the Artist’, <EM>Hotere</EM>, Ron Sang Publications, Auckland, 2008, p. 309.</FONT> <LI><FONT size=2>Gordon H Brown, <EM>Towards a Promised Land: On the life and art of Colin McCahon</EM>, Auckland University Press, Auckland, 2010, p. 60.</FONT></LI></OL> <P>&nbsp;</P>
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Ralph Hotere, Black painting, 1970, acrylic on canvas,
Purchased 1997 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
© Reproduced courtesy of Ralph Hotere
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Ralph Hotere, Cruciform II. From: Human Rights series, 1964, acrylic on wood,
Purchased 1981 with New Zealand Lottery Board funds.
© Reproduced courtesy of Ralph Hotere
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Colin McCahon, &lt;EM&gt;Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is&lt;/EM&gt;, 1958, Solpah and sand on board, Collection: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

Colin McCahon, Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is, 1958, Solpah and sand on board, Collection: Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu

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Ralph Hotere, Black painting XV, from ‘Malady’ a poem by Bill Manhire, 1970, acrylic on canvas,
Purchased 1971.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Michael Parekowhai, &lt;EM&gt;The Story of a New Zealand River&lt;/EM&gt;, 2001, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki L2001/26 
Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image

Michael Parekowhai, The Story of a New Zealand River, 2001, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki L2001/26 Permission of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki must be obtained before any re-use of this image ,
© Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett, Auckland

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Michael Parekowhai, Tua Toru. From the installation 'Patriot: Ten Guitars', 1999, Wood (flame maple, spruce, rewarewa, swamp kauri, ebony), päua shell, guitar strap, guitar stand,
Purchased 2000 with New Zealand Lottery Grants Board funds.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

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Michael Parekowhai, He Korero Purakau mo Te Awanui o Te Motu: story of a New Zealand river, 2011, Original Steinway grand piano (Model D), brass, added timber, cast and flat bar steel, resin, ivory, ebony, mother of pearl, paua and lacquer,
Purchased 2011 with the assistance of the Friends of Te Papa.
Full object info is available on collections.tepapa.govt.nz

Michael Parekowhai, &lt;EM&gt;Chapman&#39;s Homer&lt;/EM&gt;, 2011, bronze, stainless steel, two pieces: 2510 x 2710 x 1750mm and 560 x 870 x 370mm 
Image: Michael Hall

Michael Parekowhai, Chapman's Homer, 2011, bronze, stainless steel, two pieces: 2510 x 2710 x 1750mm and 560 x 870 x 370mm Image: Michael Hall ,
© Reproduced courtesy of the artist and Michael Lett, Auckland