A Very Real Symbol


Among the large crowd-including hundreds down from Taranaki for the occasion-at the opening of Parihaka: The Art of Passive Resistance at the City Gallery in Wellington on a wild, wet day in August, I was pleased to run into the writer Dick Scott. More than any other individual, Scott must be credited with raising the level of consciousness-at least among Pakeha-about Te Whiti, Tohu and Parihaka. I know I'm not alone in having had my head turned around about New Zealand history by reading Ask that Mountain: The Story of Parihaka (Reed/Southern Cross Books, 1975), Scott's splendid piece of partisan historical scholarship. Indeed many of the artists who contributed to this impressive and exhaustive exhibition-including Tony Fomison, Nigel Brown, Barry Brickell and John Pule, to name just a few-have acknowledged the impact of the book.

TONY FOMISON Untitled (Te Whiti) c. 1962
Oil on canvas, 905 x 620 mm.
(Private collection, Wellington)

Ask that Mountain has gone through eight editions (totalling over 30,000 copies), a testament to its on-going potency. It was in fact Scott's second book on the subject; the first, The Parihaka Story (Southern Cross Books, 1954), was, he told me, the first New Zealand book ever translated into Russian, and, sure enough, in one of the cabinets devoted to the literary responses to Parihaka-this exhibition is nothing if not thorough-was a copy of the Russian text, Rasskaz o sobytiiahh v Parihake (Moskow, 1957), evidence perhaps that the events at Parihaka were of world-historical significance.

When I first read Ask that Mountain in the late 1970s, soon after returning from almost a decade abroad, what struck me most-reinforced when I read it again this year-was the courage, dignity and discipline of Te Whiti and his followers, and the naked aggression and blatant constitutional chicanery of the settlers, backed by all the power of the fledgling state.

Back then I was struck, too, by the striking parallels between John Bryce and Robert Muldoon. Bryce-a cavalry officer in the war against Titokowaru in the Whanganui-rose to become Native Minister on three separate occasions and he personally carried out the arrest of Te Whiti and Tohu on Te Reo te Pahua-The Day of Plunder-5 November 1881, notoriously riding his white horse at the head of 1600 Armed Constabulary and colonial volunteers into the village of Parihaka, occupied by some 2000 (mostly) women and children, all but a few of the males being already in jail. In the days and weeks following, Bryce supervised the destruction of the village and the dispersal of most of its inhabitants. Muldoon's actions at Bastion Point, almost a century later-though lacking the flamboyant direct involvement of Bryce at Parihaka-bore a distinct family resemblance to Bryce's. Both men were pugnacious, bellicose, bigoted, dictatorial, uncompromising, narrow-minded, and self-righteous-a personification of the nation's worst self, maybe. It made me realise that a challenge by Maori-however peaceful and legitimate-to the authority of the state would be put down just as forcibly in 1978 as it had been in 1881. When push came to shove, Pakeha leaders were avid to use overwhelming force to impose their will on passively resistant Maori. Parihaka and Bastion Point exposed incontrovertibly the iron fist behind the anodyne myth of 'the best race relations in the world'. The scales fell from my eyes, as they say.

Perhaps it is the double dimension of the Parihaka story-its positive and negative connotations are equally compelling-that has made it so magnetic to artists and writers, both Maori and Pakeha. The sheer volume of material brought together by Paula Savage and Gregory O'Brien of the City Gallery in partnership with the Parihaka Pa Trustees for this exhibition is staggering. It is hard to think of any other event in New Zealand history to which such strong and varied visual and literary testimony has attached itself.

NOEL McKENNA Parihaka Paa 2000
Acrylic on tin & string, 525 x 730 mm.
(Courtesy of the people of Parihaka)

The event in the country's visual culture most closely parallel to the literary consciousness-raising of Ask that Mountain was Taranaki Saw it All: The Story of Te Whiti O Rongomai of Parihaka, the exhibition conceived and curated by James Mack for the Waikato Art Museum in 1973. Colin McCahon's Parihaka Triptych (1972) and Ralph Hotere's Te Whiti series-a suite of small works on paper-were specifically commissioned for that show. Appropriately, two galleries in the present exhibition are largely devoted to these and associated works by McCahon and Hotere, establishing a strong link to that ground-breaking exhibition of quarter of a century ago. A further impetus to the rich visual tradition accumulating around the Te Whiti story was the Parihaka Centennial exhibition of 1981. Among the works created for it were Tony Fomison's Te Whiti o Rongomai ae he Tohu Pai, John Hovell's And still these trampling feet came on, Barry Brickell's Kuaua/Doorway, Stanley Palmer's Parihaka flag and Nigel Brown's Village of Peace-all reassembled for the present exhibition. An impressive feature of this exhibition is the way in which it has built on and surpassed these previous initiatives. One is made conscious of a rich tradition in the process of cumulatively perpetuating itself.

I'm not sure how many hundreds (or is it thousands?) of individual items are included in Parihaka, but obviously any written account based on a necessarily cursory viewing-by an overnight visitor to Wellington-can refer only in passing to more than a handful of them. My remarks are inevitably partial, impressionistic and personal. I also confine myself to the visual objects displayed, not having had the opportunity of experiencing the substantial public programme of readings, performances, lectures and demonstrations that has accompanied the exhibition and is still continuing as I write.

The primacy of photography-both historical and contemporary-in the visual record of Parihaka is an abiding impression of the exhibition. Among the most potent images of all are the rare photographs of Te Whiti and Tohu themselves (rare because of their suspicion of the camera), and the scenes of Parihaka recorded by contemporaries, both on the 'day of plunder' itself-baldly documenting the sheer size of the invading forces-and in the years that followed, such as the melancholy images taken by Alfred Burton in 1886 of the village largely denuded of its male inhabitants. Historical photographs have themselves provided a starting point for many later artists, as in the case of Michael Shepherd's work, Negative, based on, and expertly replicating the appearance of, a glass negative taken during the invasion of 1881. Shepherd has sardonically replaced the flag taken down by colonial forces with the typewritten words 'their flag'. Anne Noble's lamda colour photographic prints, two of them entitled Parihaka . . . seen but not heard, were likewise developed from details in an undated photograph of Children at the Parihaka Pa, itself included in the exhibition, by William Andrews Collis (1853-1920). Her re-visioning of elements of this image represents an outsider's attempt to come to terms with the Parihaka legacy. Ralph Hotere's Comet Over Mount Egmont, Séraphine Pick's Riki and Ruru (2000) and Nigel Brown's Village of Peace (1981) are other works that have their origins in the photographic record. One of the fascinations of viewing Parihaka is recognising these 'intertextual' connections between various works.

MARTI FRIEDLANDER Photographs of Parihaka and Rauwha Tamiparea - detail c. 1970
Photomural printed on coloured paper, 900 x 1200 mm.

Another important category of photographs is those taken by contemporary photographers who visited Parihaka on various occasions in recent decades including, for example, Marti Friedlander's potent photomural recording a 1969 visit, in which she depicts the village as a mournful ghost-town seen in the fading light of dusk, though inhabited by vital if lonely presences such as the moko'd kuia, Rauwha Tamiparea. Fiona Clark also celebrates the strength and determination of the Parihaka kuia who were witnesses for the land during the hearings associated with the Think Big projects during the Muldoon era. Her photograph of Te Whiti's tomb was taken on the 5 November 1981, the exact centenary of the 'day of plunder'. The photographs of Gil Hanly and John Miller also testify to the powerful resilience of Parihaka and its people and the renaissance of recent times.

Of the 15 artists commissioned to produce work specifically for the exhibition three were photographers: Anne Noble, Laurence Aberhart and Natalie Robertson. Aberhart's suite of five photographs collectively called The Prisoner's Dream (1999-2000) consists of four images taken from inside the jail on Ripapa Island in Lyttelton Harbour where Parihaka prisoners were incarcerated. All that is visible through the slits of windows is narrow strips of bare hillside. These claustrophobic scenes are ranged on either side of a sublime image of Mount Taranaki (Taranaki from Oeo Rd, under moonlight), the lengthy exposure of which gives a dreamy ethereality to the sacred mountain and lends itself perfectly to the imagined perspective of the exiled prisoners.

NATALIE ROBERTSON Te Whiti Rd: U23/4.2 1999
C-type print 715 x 1045 mm.

Natalie Robertson's photographs of road signs, Te Whiti Rd and Tohu Rd are stark and potent visual signs which simultaneously reflect the reduction of the prophets' mana to the trivial and mundane, and paradoxically their inflation into inspiring markers of direction for the future. The blackness against which the road signs stand out sharply might be read as either engulfing or fecund. As the label attached to these works points out, there is an implied connection here to Gordon Walters' works Te Whiti (1964) and Tohu (1973); the first of which-Walters' first koru painting-took its origin from the Wellington street in which he grew up. The addition a decade later of a work identical in size, materials, and colouration, named for Tohu, underlines emphatically the element of homage in Walters' conception.

Twelve other artists were commissioned through a Lottery Board Millenium Grant to produce Parihaka-related works especially for the exhibition.(1) Not the least interest of this body of work-gifted by the artists to the people of Parihaka-were the widely differing points of connection the artists found with Parihaka in which to ground their contributions. John Baxter in his wooden tondo memorialised the 'day of plunder', seizing on the detail that both Tohu and Te Whiti had a finger missing from one hand. Fred Graham used customwood, totara, kahikatea and tukutuku to focus on a point of family connection to Parihaka in the figures at the base of his sculpture. John Walsh in one of eleven small spiritual narratives (oil on board) focused on a dog that figures in Parihaka legend. Shane Cotton offered ten exquisite small oils on canvas, linked by the image of the albatross that was Kohu's personal symbol and source of the raukura by which Te Whiti's followers identified themselves. Darcy Nicholas (acrylic on paper) drew on his tribal association with Te Whiti and the prophet's spiritual legacy. Tame Iti (at least I assume the work was his-I never found the label) offered an installation piece elusively enigmatic in its symbolism. Brett Graham's beautifully carved kauri relief sculpture gave body to a figure of calm spiritual authority. Para Matchitt's elegant stainless steel relief entitled This one is for Parihaka provided an image of the resolution of conflict in harmonious formality.

The largest and most majestic of the commissioned works was by Chris Heaphy. Entitled Stereo (Tohu and Te Whiti), this huge oil on four canvas panels incorporated a buried pun on the word 'speakers'. The painting also references the shapes in McCahon's works on paper celebrating Te Whiti and Te Ua, some of which are also included in the show, and also his Hi Fi painting from the Angels and Bed series of 1977. Two enormous abstract rectangles-one black, one pale blue-abutted together, signify the contrasting but complementary voices of the prophets.

John Pule's painting The Prophets, showing us how far we must go to achieve human freedom, discovers a connection to Parihaka through the figure of Maui Pomare who was a child at the village in 1881, and who later lent his name to the immigrant ship which brought Pule's family to New Zealand in the 1960s. Pule's imagery of horizontal stripes of red and black on white with the addition of a scattering of tiny drawn images is notably stark and spare, emphasising the theme of distance referred to in the title.

SERAPHINE PICK Riki and Ruru 2000
Oil on canvas 1805 x 1010 mm.

Séraphine Pick's large, lively and crowded canvas Riki and Ruru ransacks historical photographs of Parihaka to create a busy and complex multiple narrative incorporating dozens of separate figures in a fashion that owes something to the Mexican muralists, with a hint of Latin American 'magic realism' in its fusing of the fabled and the historical.(2)

In the upstairs long gallery was a large miscellany of works painted during the past three decades, some drawn from the centennial show of 1981, others inspired by visits to or reading about Parihaka. Among the artists in this gallery not previously mentioned were R.J. Bamberry, Don Driver, John Bevan Ford, Robert Jahnke, John Hovell, Lili Aitui Laita, Noel McKenna, Stanley Palmer, Rangi Skipper, Michael Smither, Barbara Strathdee, Danny Taputoro, Hariata Ropata Tangahoe, and Alan Taylor. It is impossible to describe here all the works included, but among those which stand out in my memory are the famous image by Michael Smither that provided the cover of Dick Scott's book, featuring the mountain surmounted by the triple feathers of raukura; also included are Smither's Kai Moana panels painted for the dining room of Te Niho at Parihaka, and normally attached to a pole at the centre of the whare kai. Stanley Palmer's large flag of dyed silk is a striking piece, while Noel McKenna's acrylic on tin with a piece of red string signifying both the mountain and its connection to the Parihaka people is also very effective, as are Rangi Skipper's imposing sculptures.

The diversity of work in this large gallery while impressive is also rather wearying in its sheer profusion. I had the impression in this part of the show that the identification of and accumulation of Parihaka-associated images had become something of an end in itself. The coherence of the impulse tends to lose itself in mere proliferation.

Ultimately more satisfying visually were the downstairs galleries where the artists who had focused on Te Whiti and Parihaka in a prolonged and consistent way were given sufficient space for their vision to be fully articulated. Tony Fomison's portraits are typically gravid and compelling, testifying to the strong hold Te Whiti took on his imagination. Ralph Hotere's Te Whiti paintings-mostly small in scale and dark in colour-are not among his more spectacular works. They are meditative pieces, heavily reliant on texts drawn from a wide range of sources-Dick Scott, John Caselberg, Hone Tuwhare-which require time and close attention to make their effect. They deserve a visit in themselves for their full impact to be felt.

Colin McCahon's Parihaka works, on the other hand, are among his most accessible. It is fascinating that the acrylics on paper he made preparatory to the magnificent Parihaka Triptych bear so little resemblance to the larger work. Several of them depict the mountain in realistic style and bright colours, while Te Whiti and Tohu (or more usually Te Ua) are represented by shapes which might represent tombstones but which also have a strong connection to the landforms associated with the Necessary Protection series, a relation made explicit in the title Te Ua and Te Whiti Seen as Necessary Protection.

COLIN McCAHON Ornament for the Pakeha 1972
Pencil and watercolour on paper, 316 x 405 mm.
(Collection of Penrose High School, Auckland)
Courtesy Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust

A work which stands apart from McCahon's acrylics on paper is the delightful watercolour drawing An Ornament for the Pakeha (1972) which does point towards the triptych, and, indeed, aids in the explication of it by explicitly identifying the horizontal cross in the left-hand panel as signifying (among other things) a plough. It is evident from McCahon's correspondence with John Caselberg-whom he consulted about Te Whiti-that his original intention was to use the image of the mountain in the triptych. He told Caselberg:
Am doing a very large painting for Jim Mack & want to glow a white & vast Egmont across about 20 odd feet of canvas. All to be a bit like the Edmonds Baking Powder thing-a very real symbol. Have done about 8 30 x 20 things on Te Ua & Te Whiti. Christianity makes an uncertain link with a light chain linking the 2 Muriwai cliffs of the Necessary Protection things. Some of my best work for years.(3)

Eventually, however, the mountain disappeared, the colours were reduced to black and white, and the imagery of the cross and the eloquent words of Te Whiti were left to carry the burden of meaning alone: 'I stand for peace'. One of the first of the many art works to be inspired by Te Whiti and Parihaka, the Parihaka Triptych remains the most compelling, and the inescapable centrepiece to this memorable exhibition.

1. Ten poets were also commissioned to produce new pieces for the exhibition, fragments from which were displayed on the walls and will be included in full in the forthcoming publication. The poets were Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, Dinah Hawken, Cilla McQueen, Chris Orsman, Roma Potiki, Elizabeth Smither, J.C. Sturm, Robert Sullivan, Apirana Taylor and Ian Wedde.
2. Michael Shepherd's Negative, discussed earlier, was also one of the commissioned works.
3. Colin McCahon to John Caselberg 19 June, 1972. Quoted in my forthcoming book Answering Hark: McCahon/Caselberg : Painter/Poet (Nelson, Craig Potton Publishing 2000, p. 113) with the permission of John Caselberg, the Hocken Library and the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 97 Summer 2000-01