John Pule
and the Psychic Territory of Polynesia


Dreams were the holy ground from which your ancestors could stand and direct your life, introduce you to visions, symbolic pictures of places, caves, faces, animals, insects; also where they cry and lament, laugh and run, bring rain and storms, set canoes adrift, destroy gardens and homes, take children, leave messages in stone.

In Mark Cross's painting Coma of the Human Spirit, John Pule stands on the coral shore of Niue Island, quill in hand, attentively observing sleeping children wrapped in mosquito nets. Like vague forms in chrysalises, they have still to awaken and become transformed. John Pule, Niuean-born New Zealand poet, painter, novelist has been transformed-undergoing a personal metamorphosis from marginalised, alienated urban Pacific Islander stereotype, to become a visionary in his own time. He's one of those artists who is larger than the sum of social conventions-and in New Zealand, a place where it sometimes seems the sun has never set on the last remaining rump of the British Empire, those conventions include a sizeable colonial mind-set hangover. Witness media profiles such as the Listener (20 October 2000) which selectively quote Pule so as to patronise whilst seeming to promote.

There's something Nietzchean or self-willed about Pule's triumphant progress that's impressive. His antagonistic spirit honed to steely sharpness by the flying sparks of the institutions-ghetto, school, borstal, factory, street-of New Zealand's largest city is that of someone who has argued his way through an identity crisis-who am I?, what am I?-to become a survivor not only able to bear witness to the past but also able to point the way ahead. Through his art-his iconic fabulism-Pule explores Polynesia as a psychic territory. Being a Pacific Islander is a state of mind, and we pause at the crossroads too: in a sense we're all Pacific Islanders now.

JOHN PULE La: The Sun 2000
Oil on canvas, 1523 x 3055 mm.
(Collection of the Auckland City Gallery Te Toi o Tamaki)

The conventional grand narrative of history tells us that European exploration, colonisation and political intervention estranged Polynesia from its cultural heritage and led to the dispersal of traditional Pacific Island 'art'-more often sacred objects-into private collections, museums and curio shops. This caused a massive collapse in cultural confidence and an eclipse in the making of art objects. Only since the collapse of the actual grand narrative of 'civilisation' within the past two decades have Pacific Island artists begun looking at themselves as the colonised 'subject' from a post-colonial perspective. Ani O'Neill and Andy Lelei have actively addressed issues of cultural devaluation and abasement; Michel Tuffery and Jim Vivieaere have used sculpture to interrogate economic exploitation; and Glen Wolfgramm and Fatu Feu'u amongst others have helped revitalise the imagery of traditional art forms. But John Pule is the Pacific Island artist who has so far displayed the most challenging inventiveness and the most sophisticated sensibility. His artistic practice interrogates art itself. He has become a significant New Zealand sign-maker.

Born in 1962, Pule, who is mostly self-taught, began as a serious painter in the mid-1980s by creating colourful but somewhat heavy-handed and occasionally turgid allegories. As he grappled with the oil paint, his brush bobbed and weaved in the approved expressionist manner. These paintings, executed in his studio in an old Catholic hall behind a church in Parnell, were done while he was a volunteer worker for Greenpeace and deal with three inter-related subjects: romantic/sexual love; the legacy of Christianity and nuclear neo-colonialism in the South Pacific.

JOHN PULE Fakaue Kia Maui Pomare (Thanks to you Maui Pomare) 2000
Oil on canvas, 1985 x 1985 mm.

As he told Sean Mallon and Pandora Fulimalo Pereira in Speaking in Colour: conversations with artists of Pacific Island heritage:

A lot of my work then was about the entry of Christ into the Pacific. I depicted him as a sickly, unhealthy person, being carried by Islanders, and also hanging loosely on the crucifix . . . he's up there for ages . . . no one wants to bring him down. No one wants to have anything to do with darkness. It's a dark subject, even though Jesus is supposed to generate light.(2)

As can be deduced from these remarks, the artist is very keen on probing for paradoxes with the resultant energy and the flash of illumination that they can provide. Around this time Pule had become fast friends with artist Tony Fomison who also became an intellectual sparring partner, one of several mentors whose brains Pule would pick.

What is fascinating about these early paintings is Pule's strategy: he begins by imitating key European artists who were influenced by Polynesian culture, those who appropriated its ideas and imagery-Gauguin, Picasso, Matisse-as well as the cooler northern expressionism of Edvard Munch (an artist whose repressed hysteria was congenial to what amounts to a whole art movement in New Zealand). It's as if he wants to reclaim or reappropriate certain intellectual property. He then uses this derivative style to paint the people of Oceania grieving from multiple psychic wounds; but these early works are mostly distinguished by the clotted sombre hues he manages to wring from ostensibly bright reds, yellows and blues. It's as if everything below the Equator has been stricken with some unnamed malady.

John Pule's Fakaue Kia Maui Pomare (Thanks to you Maui Pomare) at the Gow Langsford Gallery, November 2000

These figurative works were followed by a transitional phase when Pule began painting his own poems in the Niuean language directly on canvas and surrounding them with blocks of simple colour. We can view these works as a new territorial assertion: they were conceptual and political in that the language was baffling while also drawing attention to itself. Though they obviously derive from McCahon and Hotere, these canvases tend to be minimal without being particularly painterly. The geometric colour blocks relied on juxtaposition and context-their purpose was didactic: they hemmed in and held down a bristling alphabet brittle to the point of fracture. In a sense, they were visually opaque.

Amazingly in 1991, Pule found a way out of this dead end. It followed his first return visit since leaving for New Zealand as a two-year old to Niue and to his home village of Liku, and his dawning awareness there of the possibilities of traditional design: of weaving and hiapo (tapa-cloth) patterns.

Tapa-cloth is made from bark fibres beaten flat, then felted together. Traditionally, it's soaked in coconut oil then spread out and heated over a smoky fire to turn a browny-yellow before being printed with simple repetitive designs which are inked on in soot and earth pigments. Stained with such dyes, tapa is a craft object of great beauty. Pule's innovation was to turn a craft-form into an art-form by using canvas as a substitute for bark-cloth and then investing the visual field with a radically increased amount of symbolism. Suddenly what had seemed beautiful but mute was now highly articulate, able to hold its own on any Art Biennale world-stage. From 1991 on, Pule's work pullulates with optical dynamism: he had found a public language for expressing private emotion and for creating a coherent world view.

JOHN PULE Take These Walls With You When You Leave 1998
Oil on canvas, 1980 x 1850 mm.

Just as Shane Cotton has built an all-encompassing databank of imagery derived from nineteenth-century Maori folk art and Bill Hammond has created panoptic allegories of settlement and Richard Killeen has developed a world-eating visual dictionary, so John Pule has mobilised whole lexicons of imagery: assemblages and scenarios into which you can read explanations almost endlessly. His pictographs are a protocol of communication that you don't have to fully understand in order to get something from. Animistic, shamanistic, these oil-on-unstretched canvas (that is to say, natural, spun cotton) markings have the hybrid authenticity of shifting signifiers that links them to such totemic sign systems as Buddhist mandalas, Hopi geometric sand patterns, Aboriginal earth ochre paintings, and Venezuelan prehistoric petroglyphs: his demonic forces are universal and, as Freud has written, they never really went away-only the names have been changed. Within our anthropocentric universe the gods remain the same.

Centred on Auckland, the city of sails, banners and bandannas, Pule has travelled the Pacific over the past decade gathering visual inspiration and providing workshops and poetry performances in Niue, Fiji, Rotuma, Hawaii and elsewhere. Pule is the possessor of stories he must tell-stories of migration, of dispossession, of alienation, of belonging, stories of how the savage Other resides in each one of us. The flowing lines of his humanist poems, when written and drawn as art works on fine quality paper, flow like those totemic woodcarvings where various designs meld together. The vignettes and anecdotes and tales which make up his sprawling novels can be read as a form of textual explication of his visual practice, yet his art requires no explication: the ideograms are those of old Polynesia and old Melanesia restored.

It is possible to discern in La: The Sun (2000) the organic detritus of Oceania: things spewed up by the sea, or to note in Take These With You When You Leave (1998) the New Zealand passport, the state house, the spade, the bed, or the shoes a Niuean migrant might need in New Zealand. But the details matter less than the whole. Each of these paintings represents a search for the meaning of being Polynesian; they represent a gravitational pull towards some apocryphal hiapo still waiting to be discovered. In the meantime we have Pule's wafting veils in monochromes of black or brown or green. They are the communal sail-cloths for star-waka and are inscribed with talismans of safe-keeping. Where they are transgressive, their discordances are patterned and balanced and thereby made lyrical and harmonious. If sometimes his stick figures seem just too naive, reflect then on the repetitive manic graphology of Keith Haring, on the straitjacketed stylisations of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and realise that Pule's is a calculated art of powerful arrangement, dancing a fine line between mechanical repetition and visual cacophony and anarchy. Such supercharged graffiti promise to lead us forward into the lush paradise-garden at the heart of Creation, that realm where the artist seeks to take us through his spidery lattices which twine and knot like spectacular creeping vines and amongst which images dwell like clusters of exotic fruit.

Pule's graphic line is ever-varying. The token anthropologist, he collects things: his painting are miniature museums of ethnology. Here and there, one senses the artist's delight in pure improvisation, in dreaming. Now and again, there is rupture and erasure, rubbing, smearing, blotting, but all done with delicacy and finesse-with ironic control. Suites of drawings, lithographs, woodcuts, etchings: Pule's is a fecund, restlessly inventive talent. To end somewhere, stop in front of Kamata A Tautau He Hae (We Will Start Here) (1999) and partake of the ceremonial as blobby black cartoon pictures bob up amongst the rhythmic rolling red stripes like tiny atolls in the ocean, like seeds of a newly flowering mythology.

1. John Pule, The Shark That Ate The Sun, Penguin, Auckland 1992, p. 77.
2. Sean Mallon and Pandora Fulimalo Pereira, Speaking in Colour: Conversations with Artists of Pacific Island Heritage, Te Papa Press, Wellington 1997, p. 89.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 99 Winter 2001