PRINT October 2017


Colin McCahon

Colin McCahon, Parihaka Triptych, 1972, acrylic on canvas, 5' 9“ × 12' 4”.

IN 2002, Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum presented a survey of the late New Zealand artist Colin McCahon. Called “A Question of Faith,” it was staged in the belief, held by the Stedelijk’s then director, Rudi Fuchs, that McCahon was one of the great artists of the mid-twentieth century. Though Fuchs’s enthusiasms never went viral in the way the exhibition’s organizers had hoped, there have been occasional international champions of the artist since then—most notably Thomas Crow, who has recently placed McCahon’s work, alongside that of Sister Corita Kent, Robert Smithson, James Turrell, and Mark Rothko, at the heart of his book No Idols: The Missing Theology of Art (2017).

In New Zealand, the position is much clearer: McCahon is a giant, the most influential artist of the past hundred years. That this is so hinges on the dramatic shift he underwent in the 1960s—the decade during which he turned from a solid, regional Cubist doing his best to process overseas modernisms into an artist with a singular vision of the consequences of contact between Māori and Pākehā, or European New Zealanders. City Gallery Wellington’s recent exhibition “On Going Out with the Tide,” curated by Wystan Curnow and Robert Leonard, was the first survey to extensively address the impact of McCahon’s engagement with Māori culture on his paintings. As such, it proposed a thornier question than McCahon’s exploration of biblical text: namely, what it means for an artist from a settler culture to use indigenous references so substantially. Curnow and Leonard also framed McCahon’s paintings as harbingers of a profound national journey, arguing in the exhibition brochure that “in the twenty-first century, we can understand this work in terms of a tectonic shift in New Zealand culture—emerging biculturalism.”

Rather than simply cherry-picking useful indigenous forms (as so many European and American modernists did), McCahon drew, time and again, from the unique mash-ups of Māori and Christian beliefs and iconography that sprang out of war, land confiscation, and colonial rule. He often did this using a stark, white-on-black palette—an obvious Christian reference to darkness and light, but one that found a parallel in what Māori traditionally consider the generative forces of Te Ao (the light) and Te Pō (the darkness). In The Lark’s Song, 1969, for example, he painted, as though on a blackboard, the words of a Māori song that approximate the birdcall after which it is named. At the bottom of the painting is a line in English, CAN YOU HEAR ME ST. FRANCIS, from verse by New Zealand poet Peter Hooper. In The Song of the Shining Cuckoo, 1974, McCahon conflated a Māori myth of the migratory bird, which holds that the creature led the first people to Aotearoa (New Zealand), with the fourteen stations of the cross, represented in the work by roman numerals. According to Curnow and Leonard’s text, McCahon also associated the shining cuckoo’s journey with Māori ideas about the soul’s flight into the afterlife, as represented by a dotted line that tracks across the composition.

Two of his greatest paintings from this period are responses to singular examples of Māori resistance. First was his Parihaka Triptych, 1972, an immense work referencing the violent 1881 breakup by colonial forces of a pacifist community led by the Māori prophets Te Whiti and Tohu Kakāhi. The second, his Urewera Mural, 1975, refers to the Tūhoe iwi (tribe) of the central North Island, who have a long history of resistance to colonial rule. In 1997, the Urewera Mural became a subject of protest, when it was temporarily “confiscated” by Tūhoe activists from Te Urewera National Park’s Āniwaniwa Visitor Centre, where it hung. In 2014, following the establishment of the Te Urewera settlement act, the controversial piece and the park itself were turned over to Tūhoe by the Crown. The board now responsible for the mural declined to loan it to City Gallery Wellington’s show, on the grounds that the work had only just been returned home after a chaotic period in its history, leading the curators to exhibit a study for it, Urewera Triptych, 1975.

The controversies and national debates spurred by the painting’s 1997 removal were a reminder that the nature of McCahon’s identification with the Māori people will forever be a problem, his canvases constantly posing questions of who has the right to speak about the traumas of colonialism, and when. “On Going Out with the Tide” acknowledged the problematic aspects of McCahon’s Māori work, even while it recognized that the artist’s affinity with Māori language, causes, and belief systems was genuinely felt, and that this allowed him to produce an art that was truly “of here.” In 2019, New Zealand, along with Australia, will mark 250 years since Captain James Cook’s first voyage to this part of the world: the British “discovery” of New Zealand and Terra Australis. It would also have been McCahon’s hundredth birthday. Colonization is the dirty, violent secret at the heart of modernity, which, despite the work of many postcolonial theorists and historians who have sought to bring it to light, is still too often skimmed over or avoided in histories of modernism. Cook’s arrival was the explosive moment that led to the colonization of the South Pacific. McCahon, with his white words glowing in black space, discovered a language that truly articulated the strangeness and traumas of the world it created.

Anthony Byrt is a critic and journalist based in Auckland. His first book, This Model World: Travels to the Edge of Contemporary Art, was published by Auckland University Press in 2016.