Trouble on Mount Toiroa

TAUTINI’S DEMISE: Artist John Walsh has teased out an ancient Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti story for works shown in his first solo exhibition in Gisborne for more than 15 years. “I struggle to fill the commitments I already have,” he says, “but this time I pushed a few things aside to make sure the exhibition would happen.” IMG X Michael Hall courtesy of PAULNACHE and the artist.

THERE is trouble brewing in the lush, saturated bushlands of artist John Walsh’s imagination.

Known for eating the flesh of children in an effort to prolong his own life, Tautini — of Tokomaru Bay’s Toiroa Maunga — has made the fatal error of devouring the child of fellow chief, Tutemangarewa, who responds by cutting off Tautini’s head. Recent works by John Walsh opens at PaulNache at 6pm tomorrow (Friday, April 8).

But the carnage does not end there: Tautini’s daughter Te Aotawarirangi smears herself with blood, retrieves the decapitated head and incites her brother Tuterangikatipu to make war to avenge their father. It’s an ancient, gory story, but one that has a modern-day legacy in the Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti affiliated Anaura Bay marae Hinetamatea, named after Tautini’s wife.

And it was to Hinetamatea that Walsh — himself of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti descent — headed when he was earlier this year invited to be artist-in-residence at a wananga held at the marae, where arts group Toi Hauiti was driving a project to build an imposing new waharoa (gateway). For him, it provided an entry to the stories of his ancestors, specifically that of Tautini and his interesting appetites.

“I’ve got no doubt that someone will get upset about the airing of this tale but that was not the intent and, in fact, the whole kaupapa of the wananga was to take ownership of and tell these unique stories,” he says.

“We would sit around and talk and one day one person would tell the story from their perspective, then the next day another person would come and as word got around, another person would come,” he says. “So each day I had a little bit more to add to the narrative.”

He doesn’t want people to be shocked or revolted by the story, he says, “but to be mindful that this took place in an isolated community, thousands of years ago”.

“If you look at it in that context it is almost understandable that, at a time when life expectancy was just 40 years, someone might be drawn to the idea of immortality. But who knows? All we have to work with is the stories we are told.”

Opening at Gisborne gallery PaulNache

The result of all that korero during the residency is a series of half a dozen dramatic paintings that make up a large part of the exhibition Walsh this week opens at Gisborne gallery PaulNache. Though the artist was based at the seaside marae, much of the imagery is seen from the maunga Toiroa itself, a lush, imagined bushland falling away into the ocean below.

But it’s not all rich greens and intricate, ancient pa sites: in some pieces Walsh has, uncharactistically, allowed himself a bit of “negative space” to give viewers room to contemplate specific images – the blood-smeared figure of Te Aotawarirangi; an open space in front of the whare where Tautini meets his demise.

Though the paintings are new in their content, Walsh says they are a continued reflection of his upbringing in Tolaga Bay and Gisborne, his home until 1993 when he moved to Wellington, where his trajectory as a collectible senior artist really took off.

In an (often unsuccessful) effort not to offend his iwi, Walsh has in the past constructed his own narratives and his own characters. “But it’s all been connected to here,” he says. “This is where it has always come from.” In any case, this time team Hauiti is really on board, from hosting the wananga where the artist developed his work, to coming up with the kai for this week’s exhibition launch.

Still, it’s not all about them and Walsh has also created works inspired almost entirely by place names — evocative titles like Mangatuna and Wharekaka. And another striking, central work illustrates a story about an ancient Scottish practice whereby an offender is set afloat in the sea near a gannet colony, an enticing fish tied to his head.

Grim prospects with gannets in sight

Their prospects were grim, Walsh says, gannets often dive on their prey from great heights and can hit the water at 200 miles an hour. And though it is a completely different narrative from the Tautini series, for the artist, the imperative to paint it was just as strong.

“When I heard this story the image just popped into my mind and I had to get it down,” he says. ‘I was totally drawn to this idea that justice could be such a swift and direct thing.”

Oral history is not an exact science, Walsh says, “but nor is any kind of history”. But in this new series he is telling his-story — the oral traditions his iwi holds as its own.

“I guess it’s a way of taking that chunk of ancient history and trying to fit it into a modern context,” he says. “It’s an exploration, a way of trying to see how things fit and what it can mean to us in our lives.”

ARTS by Kristine Walsh