Maps of Memories
The Art of Star Gossage

LISA REIHANA

Dancing on the light from star to Star…. ,
Far across the moonbeam
I know that's who you are,
I saw your brown eyes
turning once to fire.

Named in acknowledgement of the symbol of the Ratana faith, Star Gossage is great-great-granddaughter of Rahui Te Kiri and daughter of the artists Peter and Tilly Gossage. Her Ngati Wai; Ngati Ruanui; French; Portugese and English ancestry means she has a truly transoceanic identity. She resides on a headland above Pakiri Beach; it is a place resonating with personal myth and a landscape that is rich in history. This gorgeous stretch of the Northern East Coast is suffused with white sands, blue sea and native bush. Pakiri is emblematic of Gossage's psychic landscape - the site and subject of her work. Standing on the foreshore, she directs my gaze across a shimmering sea. Towards the horizon is Hauturu otherwise known as Little Barrier Island, and this 'resting place of the winds' is her papakainga or homeland. Adding to the mystical nature of this place is Hauturu itself, which resembles a person half submerged in the ocean.

STAR GOSSAGE Prophet 2 2004
Oil on paper, 1380 x 720 mm. (Collection of the University of Auckland)

In 1894 the government forced the Ngati Wai people off their land. Rahui Te Kiri jumped ship and swam straight back to Hauturu. When Hauturu was finally 'cleared' and acquired, it was declared Crown owned land and turned into a nature reserve. In return £400 were offered as compensation but tellingly, this money has never been redeemed. Rahui Te Kiri and her husband Tenetahi did not accept this financial overture and so it still sits as a quiet protest in the Crown coffers, defiantly ensuring this act of attrition is understood as confiscation. This local history of enforced displacement helps explain the terrain as well as the melancholic tone of Gossage's work. Two works that exemplify this are Hauturu 1 and Hauturu 2 both painted in 2003. Within these works Hauturu is symbolised as a profile of Rahui Te Kiri. This physical embodiment in turn can be read as a personification of Ngati Wai; 'the people are the land and the land is the people'.

STAR GOSSAGE O Rangi Marie 2004
Oil on board, 1200 x 1200 mm.

In a Maori world view, many indelible connections are drawn between women and land. Papatuanuku is the ground upon which we walk, and she is the progenitor of gods. The first woman was fashioned by Tane who administered a life-giving hongi to a female shape formed of earth. So even banal materials have agency and can be affiliated to the immortal. Often inspired by her grandmother - Gossage's engagement with her work is 'close at hand'. Sometimes her fingers become brushes, other times she gathers materials like tar, lime and earth from the family land and mixes these into the paint. Unique qualities emerge out of these raw alchemical origins, not just gritty textures and altered pigmentation but traces of DNA are embedded in the work. Imbued with these precious particles, centuries from now forensic tests will divulge the particular from contemporary images haunted by an ancient time. O Rangi Marie (2001) shows the figure of a girl with her long arms stretched out across the foreground of the painting. Held in the palm of her hand is a pounamu tiki, and radiating out of this grey-green inanga are the hues of the painting whose cool colours are like a precious Japanese glaze. It is impossible to pin down this lovely gesture - is the tiki being offered, or has it just been gifted? Read either way, the composition elegantly illustrates a generosity of spirit that defies ownership.

STAR GOSSAGE Out of the Gate 2002
Oil on board, 610 x 950 mm.

The paintings of Star Gossage tend to be suggestive rather than precise. Whispering their stories softly, they quietly implore the viewer to look ever closer. In both Macrocarpa in Yellow and Out of the Gate a lone spectral figure appears in a moody nightscape. These untethered forms levitate above a land that cannot ground them. The crooked horizon-line falls away suggesting a perilous state, while the soupy skies and tortured Macrocarpa trees provide emotional resonance. A late-night drive through rural New Zealand and you too can experience these craggy silhouettes jutting out of open spaces - places where the imagination flies. And it is all about the flying. Out of the Gate is almost religious, a Christ-like figure generating its own white light gives itself up to the forces of nature. The ghostly presence in Macrocarpa in Yellow moves towards a pool of water - or is it hovering above? The mystery lies in this visual tension and we are left to wonder if this ethereal being can walk on water.

Although painting is her first love, Gossage continues to mine her personal territory in film, theatre, poetry, writing and acting. I first met her in Tuhoe at an Indigenous Film-Makers Hui. Back in 1993 it was rare to meet another Maori, let alone a woman, producing experimental films. At this time she was studying Film and Computer Art at Otago Polytechnic. In this early piece, the poetic treatment reflects many qualities found in her paintings. Here is an extract from Under the Ngaio Tree, a draft for a short film written in 1993.

EXTERIOR: HEAVY SKY. DAY

A distant song of the coming of BIRTH can be heard.
Cut to the first child in the arms of the Old Lady.

OLD WAHINE
I shall name my first
KOTAHI MORENA PUAWAI
THE FIRST MORNING FLOWER
For that is what I saw first my child
Ehhhh He kehua ma
He tino ataahua
You are as white as a ghost
But very very beautiful
I saw the sunshine dancing behind the salmon coloured
Pohutakawa flower,
These flowers are rare my child and I do believe that you are too.

VOICE
She yelled the welcome, the Karanga of birth.
And that word it ran.
Ran right up the spine of
' R A N G I M A R I E P O H U T U K A W A '
Early in the mornings if you go there the word still hides in the belly of the Pohutakawa.
In the early morning with the soft milky mist you can hear the word,
whispering . . . .
on fire . . . .
fire word . . . .
encompassing all the pain and the fire of the first birth.
In her bent over back.

Impressionistic and autobiographical, Under The Ngaio Tree is motivated by a stand of sacred pohutukawa on the Gossage property. The pakiri trees are remarkable because atypically, they flower a beautiful shade of apricot. Trees are especially important to Maori, from time immemorial the custom of placing placenta in the hollow of the trunk forever binds that person to the land - whakapapa and place are inextricably linked. Old wahine and the pohutakawa collectively embody a family tree - they are deeply rooted here. The manuscript finds colour delightful, life and death represented by blood red flowers, the ghostly whiteness of this child - these words can be read as blueprints for paintings to come.

STAR GOSSAGE Girl with Toi Toi 2005
Oil on linen, 1010 x 760 mm.

In the 12 years since it was written, Under The Ngaio Tree has gained in resonance. During 2004 Gossage gave birth to her daughter Grace. Rangi-Marie (Peace) shows Mother and Child enjoying a serene moment. Unusually, the figures are solid and the bright palette is surprisingly hopeful. If destiny is in your hands, then this swaddled baby is cradled in a reassuringly large one. The exaggerated proportions of this hand is like those found on wooden pouwhenua carvings.

Produced in 1995, DUST is a seven-minute experimental video. Gossage is the main performer and again, it is a memorial to her maternal grandmother. In its spoken word soundtrack we hear her whispering elegiac phrases. Combinations of 'dust', 'dry skin', 'newspapers' and 'bottled memories' are obsessively redistributed to form new combinations issuing from her private world.

DUST
Bottling jars can preserve memories
Have you ever swallowed dust?
If you swallow dust it tastes like earth
If you look through the jars, you can see the memories
Tap the memories out . . . Tap the memories out
Drawing in the dust
Maps of memories
You lick it so the dust sticks to your face.
Dry elbows, dry skin tastes like newspaper.
Handful of dust
Every piece of newspaper stands for one memory.
You can wait for the dust to lift - fly.
[whispers] my Grandmothers curtains used to fly,
And if you roll away the memories …then you don't have any.
Dust tastes like earth only dry
And dry skin tastes like newspaper

While these murky evocations speak of mysterious acts, the domestic plays out as a series of still-life and contrasts with the rural outdoors. Recorded in black-and-white, DUST has a nostalgic air; the video is grainy and the overexposed footage appears to fade like the memories it attempts to call forth. Agee jars glint in the changing light of a billowing kitchen curtain. Classic 1940s floral carpet and a white crocheted dress provide textures that consume the eye and obscure the world beyond the window. Jump cut, Exterior. A lone female figure holding a single fern frond in each hand walks down a metal road towards camera - sweeps the dusty ground between us.

STAR GOSSAGE Rangi Marie (Peace) 2004
Oil on board, 800 x 500 mm.

This composition is echoed in Girl with Toi Toi (2005) where the figure stares at the viewer, providing the central focus. The modest dress re-iterates the pale cloudy sky and exudes a protective white pattern around the girls' heart. A windblown toi toi flutters in the dark field that frames the girl. However, the eye is drawn to the girl's shadowy grey blue face whose dark features have a feline quality. Her thick neck and lank hair wouldn't qualify her as beautiful, but somehow she is arresting. There is a stillness that borders on watchful suspicion.

Star Gossage cites the great Australian painters Sydney Nolan and Arthur Boyd as early influences; indeed, some works do have an Australian flavour. This could be explained by the brightness of the sand at Pakiri Beach - it is white and very reflective so on a sunny day vision dances, colours desaturate and details give way to broad gestures. In Untitled 1 the sketchy landscape has a stand of kanuka trees that can easily be mistaken for gum trees, while the bloodcoloured land strongly resembles Central Australian deserts. More recently, Gossage has been inspired by the countryside around the Spanish village Cadaques, and has begun a series of paintings based on the poetry of Garcia Lorca.

When beginning a painting, Gossage doesn't know whether it will become a portrait, be filled with birds or a still-life arrangement - the images that emerge are created by the pigments themselves. A certain combination of tar and oil may appear as watchful eyes or wrest itself into a pair of tui or a stand of trees. This conjuring act means that the images we see are a map of the subconscious moment. Perhaps this is why some works have a precarious quality oscillating on an edge of success or failure, but this tenuousness contributes to their charm. The artist's work is at its best when it disregards market forces and unapologetically uses found wood and earthly minerals. What is critical is to translate the moment, because this is where her honesty and integrity lie. Implicit in the image are its meanings - all the viewer has to do is be still for awhile and absorb them.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 118 Autumn 2006