The art of Kura Te Waru Rewiri
Associate Curator Māori Nigel Borell reflects on the career of Kura Te Waru Rewiri, one of five contemporary artists featured in the Five Māori Painters exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
The artists’ work is exhibited alongside taonga Māori (heritage art), objects of material culture and the art of ancestors as documented by colonial artists in the 19th century. This juxtaposition seeks to reposition Māori painting by offering an understanding of its early origins and by looking at how painting traditions have persisted, while also undergoing continual development.
Kura Te Waru Rewiri’s work emphasises the carved figurative form derived from whakairo (carving), often the domain of men. Borrell discusses its importance in her art and how she treats the carved form in a painting.
Kura Irirangi Te Waru-Rewiri is the maataamua (eldest) of Hamiora and Geneva Rewiri’s nine children. Her tribal affiliations are to Ngāti Kahu and Ngāti Rangi in the Far North, and she also shares a whakapapa (genealogy) connection to Ngāti Kauwhata in Feilding.
In 1970 Te Waru Rewiri made the move from Northland to study at University of Canterbury Ilam School of Fine Arts in Christchurch. At Ilam the budding artist found her own voice as a painter and scholar. One of the most significant strides Te Waru Rewiri made during her Honours year was the way in which she started to challenge the parameters of monocultural knowledge. Similar to other Māori scholars of the time, Te Waru Rewiri was interested in bringing forth Māori art histories within the Western academic framework.
Ways of seeing and knowing
Kura Te Waru Rewiri’s painting practice and subject matter are diverse and explorative. The artist has revisited several key themes throughout her painting career: the importance of the ancestral figure and the figurative form as an expression of identity; expressionist painting history; and the exploration of the abstract as a form of creative expression.
Her study of whakairo – woodcarving, which is often considered to be the domain of men – has focused on tribal styles and mainly looked at early carved examples in South Island museum collections. The simplicity of the forms and the balance of carved form and pattern resonated with the artist.
Ahau: this is me
In 1985, after a nine-year teaching career, Te Waru Rewiri returned to painting full time and the figurative form and the carved subject was again the inspiration. Many of these carvings are in the Auckland Museum collection. In these works the carved figures are presented boldly, in colourful combinations.
The artist wanted to reflect the contemporary life and challenges of where she lived in Otara, South Auckland. There, the struggles of being a mother and her aspirations for a better deal for Māori are some of the subjects she expressed in this work. The painting Rārangi (The Line), 1985 depicts an orderly row of carved figures – full of facial expression – which reference the ‘dole day’ queues of people lining up at banks waiting to collect their weekly benefit payments. Another work, Te Whaea raua ko ana Tamariki (Mother with Children),1985, portrays a crouching mother cradling two youngsters, nurturing and protecting the young – a depiction that could be read autobiographically. Whakatara (Defiance), 1985 has a cluster of carved tiki forms starkly peering out at the viewer. The bold, forthright view of the tiki faces echoes that community and their resilience.
Te Rīpeka (Crucifix), 1985 is one of Te Waru Rewiri’s most compelling pieces. This striking painting has two central carved forms in strident colour combinations of pink, blue, green and orange. It portrays two figures presented in the sinuous carved style of Te Tai Tokerau (Northland). The figures sit ominously upon a crucifix motif. The carved patterning of unaunahi (fish scale) and whakarare (interlocking chevron and ridge band), the visual language of these patterns, indicate a northern lineage. The carved poupou (pillars) are from the meeting house Tutangimamae which resides in the Auckland War Memorial Museum collection. The impact of colonisation more generally and Christianity specifically on Te Tai Tokerau carving traditions is both lamented and protested boldly in this piece.
These acrylic paintings would form the decisive statements comprising Te Waru Rewiri’s first solo exhibition entitled Ahau: This Is Me in 1985 at Gallery Pacific in Auckland. The figurative and human form are expressions of the artist’s psyche. They show a profound desire to reconnect us to the whenua (land) and reiterate a sense of continuity with it. Furthermore, they are a statement about identity that situates Māori as tangata whenua (descendants of the land). They were also statements of tino rangatiratanga (sovereignty).
Te Maori: Te Hokinga Mai
In 1986, Te Waru Rewiri was seconded to the Department of Education in the role of education officer for the exhibition Te Maori following its return to Auckland. During the exhibition’s 11-week run at Auckland City Art Gallery in 1987, she co-ordinated kaiarahi or Māori gallery guides to conduct public tours. This experience provided an even deeper regard for the carved form. Large tribal groups visited the exhibition to specifically connect with their particular taonga (treasures) and this reinforced the taha wairua (spiritual dimension) and the mauri (life force) relationship that Māori share with their taonga.
Te Waru Rewiri’s figurative paintings produced after Te Maori show a new maturity and fluency with the carved form. Gone are the energetic colour fields that characterised earlier works; now we see the carved form pared back in simple yet powerful arrangements. Her unique command of colour and its application have been intuitively negotiated. For the artist, colour is a ‘sound’ that resonates in her paintings; it is the karanga (call) of her ancestors; kōrerorero (discussion) is created when colours meet, overlap or contrast one another. The technique of layering colour is knowledge she credits to observing Buck Nin, her art teacher at Bay of Islands College.
Te Waru Rewiri felt the weight of painting these carvings and the need to depict and honour them as accurately as possible. There is a desire to communicate a sense of the metaphysical, to offer the viewer a way into another realm, another dimension. The work Ia ra, Ia po (In Te Po there are many beginnings), 1994 is a potent example of these developments in Te Waru Rewiri’s practice. This triptych references the esteemed carving Tangonge, a mesmerising example of early Māori carving originally found in Lake Tangonge, Kaitaia in the Far North in 1920, and held in the Auckland War Memorial Museum collections. This carving is unique as it is carved on both sides, and unlike a conventional pare (door lintel) it is intended to be viewed from both sides. This has added to the thinking that it is a gateway carving which was created to facilitate the moving from one realm to another. In Te Waru Rewiri’s painting the carving hovers above in a sky of moody blue and purple shades, encapsulated in a warm yellow glow full of energy.
The painting is grounded by an indistinct central image of a waka kōiwi (burial chest) outlined in a thin line of blue which sits quietly in a large field of dark brown. Together, these elements seem to conceptually indicate a location and this ‘place’ can be viewed as a conversational space; a two-way process of reveal and conceal, of disclosure and secrets kept close. We experience the encoded and esoteric versus the literal rendering of information. Both light and darkness are presented in her practice as gateways to new realms and experiences. They are used as metaphor to depict our relationship to concepts of rebirth, reverence and wāhi ngaro or the lost spaces. Kura would often discuss her ideas and concepts with her father Hamiora and he termed much of the explorative abstraction as wāhi ngaro, an exploration into the lost and unseen spaces. Here ‘space’ is also filled with the potential for new ideas and new knowledge.
“I felt that when I talked to my dad about my ideas and what I wanted to work with, he was a kaitiaki [guardian] for me. A lot of the ideas I wanted to work with he discussed as ‘wāhi ngaro’ or working with lost spaces.”
Kura Te Waru Rewiri’s paintings of the carved form caught the attention of tohunga whakairo (master carver) Pākariki Harrison. He understood the underlying politics of her message and described the painter as a ‘frustrated carver’. Harrison was acknowledging the creative merits of tohunga (expert status) that the painter was exploring in her work. He was a progressive thinker, well versed in the politics surrounding women and carving; and he was outspoken in his own critique of the redundant customs and practices perpetuated by male carvers claiming carving as a purely male domain. This acknowledgement from Harrison can be appreciated as an endorsement to let new readings take shape in relation to the art form.
A courageous paradigm pioneer
Kura Te Waru Rewiri’s painting practice has forged new ways to understand and appreciate the scope of contemporary painting informed by Māori realities, beliefs and paradigms. The artist challenges the status quo and has a unique way of testing conventions to philosophically construct new empowering outcomes. We see examples of this throughout her career.
Her paintings both challenge and liberate our thinking beyond what is regarded as acceptable and customary, broadening the epistemological framing that reflects realities of this point in time. Te Waru Rewiri is not requesting validation from Western academia or Māoridom, but rather seeking permission only of the self. Permission to take another path, and the courage to explore another avenue. In this way Te Waru Rewiri is the architect of her own thinking and a courageous paradigm pioneer.
This excerpt is taken from the book Five Māori Painters, published by Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki on the occasion of the exhibition Five Māori Painters at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki 22 February–15 June 2014. You can buy the book from all good bookstores.
Post by: Nigel Borell
Nigel Borell is the Associate Curator Māori at Auckland War Memorial Museum. He trained at Robert Jahnke’s Massey Campus where he achieved a Bachelor of Maori Visual Art, followed by a Master of Arts with Honours from the University of Auckland. He has curated several exhibitions as well as written critical reviews and essays, such as those for Tu Mai.
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