Wounds set to heal

THE PORTRAIT OF A LADY: John Walsh’s rejected 1980 mural titled, Portrait of Uawa, Tolaga Bay, will finally get to see the light when ‘she’ is exhibited at the
New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington from next Wednesday, November 7 until February 10, 2019. Picture supplied

Celebrated artist John Walsh’s largest work, A Portrait of Uawa, Tolaga Bay in 1980, which has caused contention across Te Ao Maori over the past few decades, will be exhibited for the first time in 40 years at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington.

The work will be on display from Wednesday, November 7, 2018 until Sunday, February 10, 2019.

A large contingent of his whanau from Uawa is expected to journey to the capital to honour the previously rejected work.

The exhibition, John Walsh: A Portrait of Uawa Tolaga Bay, is a major survey of Walsh’s portrait paintings.

An accomplished artist of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti and Irish descent, Walsh was the first contemporary Maori artist to produce a series of realistic portraits of whanau, many of whom are included in the exhibition.

The centre-piece is one of Walsh’s earliest works — a massive, 60-foot long mural, painted when he was just 27 years old. Ambitious in scale, consisting of ten panels with over 60 portraits of whanau and local identities, this impressive, unique and unusual group portrait took 18 months to paint and received funding from the Maori and Pacific Arts Council and the Department of Maori Affairs.

New Zealand Portrait Gallery Director, Jaenine Parkinson who is now welcoming the work into the gallery explains:

“The mural was eventually turned down by Walsh’s elders for placement at Hauiti Marae, the central marae in Uawa, Tolaga Bay.”

“They believed it was too radical; that it challenged long-established concepts of traditional Maori art. Sometimes there is truth in the saying ‘time heals all wounds’ and we are delighted to host such an important work as it takes its place back in the public eye,” said Parkinson.

'The basically pushed my little waka out to sea'

In the 1980s, the mural’s rejection was picked up by the media, and debated among Maori and arts communities across the country.

In the end it was put into storage in Walsh’s friend, Para Matchitt’s studio, in Hawke’s Bay where it has remained ever since.

Looking back Walsh said, “It escalated into a battle with my elders, fueled by the media, and they basically pushed my little waka out to sea.”

“In communities like ours you can have your clashes of opinions, feelings can get hurt, but at the end of the day I only have aroha (love), that’s what matters.”

A largely self-taught artist, Walsh spent two years at Ilam School of Fine Arts Canterbury in the early 1970s but soon returned to his home town on the East Coast where he began his portraiture in between seasonal farm work and fishing.

“People began discretely lining up to have their portraits painted. There was no end of subjects,” said Walsh.

The mural that Walsh originally pitched to his elders was to be both a portrait of Uawa, Tolaga Bay in 1980, and a portrait of his people.

“My purpose was noble enough,” said Walsh. “I wanted to enliven the marae, to bring a contemporary dimension to the art and culture of Te Aitanga a Hauiti.”

The leaders of the marae liked the idea and Walsh eventually set to work in the old wool store behind the Tolaga Bay wharf.

Following the controversy of the completed work, which depicted a realistic cross-section of the community co-existing with supernatural and spiritual figures, Walsh and his family left his hometown, and he continued his arts career in Gisborne and Wellington. His work, however, remained heavily influenced by his upbringing in Uawa.

In 1993, Walsh became the inaugural curator of contemporary Maori art, then a general art curator at Te Papa Tongawera for nearly a decade. A full-time artist, since leaving Te Papa in 2002, Walsh has continued to exhibit regularly and extensively in New Zealand and overseas.

Walsh said the wounds sustained following the completion of the mural have long since healed and over the years he has worked with a number of Te Aitanga a Hauiti artists.

“Many of the elders have passed away, kids are grown and have families, others have moved away,” he said.

Toi Hauiti, the Uawa art collective, have encouraged Walsh to exhibit the mural again and he is delighted that: “Thirty-eight years since her first breath (the mural) gets to see the light of day again, to dust off time and old thoughts and look into the eyes of enquiring people. What a thing.

“Some of those attending the opening event at the Portrait Gallery will be from Uawa, Te Aitanga a Hauiti,” said Walsh.

“They will see her and themselves after many years and once again consider her fate.”

Walsh hopes that, after its exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, the mural will finally find a home.

A contemporary of Walsh’s, Maori artist Darcy Nicholas agrees: “It is important that these portraits are seen by the nation.”

Dr Wayne Ngata of Te Aitanga a Hauiti also agrees, saying now is the time to work towards a home for the mural, back in the community that it comes from.

“It’s important to understand that when the mural was made in 1980, it was quite controversial for that time,” he said.

“Our old people back then saw it in a particular way. It is difficult for us to judge them, from our time.

“You want artists to push the boundaries a bit. But what John did do, was he captured people’s images, people’s faces. And not just Maori, there were many from around our community.

“They are modern poupou or whakairo (carved portraits) telling people’s stories.”

While they may not have agreed for it to be on the marae, the pakeke (elders) still believed it should be in Uawa, somewhere.

“That’s what we are looking at now. Some of us in Hauiti have been sorting out what do we do with the mural. This exhibition is a step towards that.

“Over the next three months we’ll work out what’s the next step, because there are a lot of families in there. Some are still here today, some have passed on.”

Celebrated artist John Walsh’s largest work, A Portrait of Uawa, Tolaga Bay in 1980, which has caused contention across Te Ao Maori over the past few decades, will be exhibited for the first time in 40 years at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery in Wellington.

The work will be on display from Wednesday, November 7, 2018 until Sunday, February 10, 2019.

A large contingent of his whanau from Uawa is expected to journey to the capital to honour the previously rejected work.

The exhibition, John Walsh: A Portrait of Uawa Tolaga Bay, is a major survey of Walsh’s portrait paintings.

An accomplished artist of Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti and Irish descent, Walsh was the first contemporary Maori artist to produce a series of realistic portraits of whanau, many of whom are included in the exhibition.

The centre-piece is one of Walsh’s earliest works — a massive, 60-foot long mural, painted when he was just 27 years old. Ambitious in scale, consisting of ten panels with over 60 portraits of whanau and local identities, this impressive, unique and unusual group portrait took 18 months to paint and received funding from the Maori and Pacific Arts Council and the Department of Maori Affairs.

New Zealand Portrait Gallery Director, Jaenine Parkinson who is now welcoming the work into the gallery explains:

“The mural was eventually turned down by Walsh’s elders for placement at Hauiti Marae, the central marae in Uawa, Tolaga Bay.”

“They believed it was too radical; that it challenged long-established concepts of traditional Maori art. Sometimes there is truth in the saying ‘time heals all wounds’ and we are delighted to host such an important work as it takes its place back in the public eye,” said Parkinson.

'The basically pushed my little waka out to sea'

In the 1980s, the mural’s rejection was picked up by the media, and debated among Maori and arts communities across the country.

In the end it was put into storage in Walsh’s friend, Para Matchitt’s studio, in Hawke’s Bay where it has remained ever since.

Looking back Walsh said, “It escalated into a battle with my elders, fueled by the media, and they basically pushed my little waka out to sea.”

“In communities like ours you can have your clashes of opinions, feelings can get hurt, but at the end of the day I only have aroha (love), that’s what matters.”

A largely self-taught artist, Walsh spent two years at Ilam School of Fine Arts Canterbury in the early 1970s but soon returned to his home town on the East Coast where he began his portraiture in between seasonal farm work and fishing.

“People began discretely lining up to have their portraits painted. There was no end of subjects,” said Walsh.

The mural that Walsh originally pitched to his elders was to be both a portrait of Uawa, Tolaga Bay in 1980, and a portrait of his people.

“My purpose was noble enough,” said Walsh. “I wanted to enliven the marae, to bring a contemporary dimension to the art and culture of Te Aitanga a Hauiti.”

The leaders of the marae liked the idea and Walsh eventually set to work in the old wool store behind the Tolaga Bay wharf.

Following the controversy of the completed work, which depicted a realistic cross-section of the community co-existing with supernatural and spiritual figures, Walsh and his family left his hometown, and he continued his arts career in Gisborne and Wellington. His work, however, remained heavily influenced by his upbringing in Uawa.

In 1993, Walsh became the inaugural curator of contemporary Maori art, then a general art curator at Te Papa Tongawera for nearly a decade. A full-time artist, since leaving Te Papa in 2002, Walsh has continued to exhibit regularly and extensively in New Zealand and overseas.

Walsh said the wounds sustained following the completion of the mural have long since healed and over the years he has worked with a number of Te Aitanga a Hauiti artists.

“Many of the elders have passed away, kids are grown and have families, others have moved away,” he said.

Toi Hauiti, the Uawa art collective, have encouraged Walsh to exhibit the mural again and he is delighted that: “Thirty-eight years since her first breath (the mural) gets to see the light of day again, to dust off time and old thoughts and look into the eyes of enquiring people. What a thing.

“Some of those attending the opening event at the Portrait Gallery will be from Uawa, Te Aitanga a Hauiti,” said Walsh.

“They will see her and themselves after many years and once again consider her fate.”

Walsh hopes that, after its exhibition at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, the mural will finally find a home.

A contemporary of Walsh’s, Maori artist Darcy Nicholas agrees: “It is important that these portraits are seen by the nation.”

Dr Wayne Ngata of Te Aitanga a Hauiti also agrees, saying now is the time to work towards a home for the mural, back in the community that it comes from.

“It’s important to understand that when the mural was made in 1980, it was quite controversial for that time,” he said.

“Our old people back then saw it in a particular way. It is difficult for us to judge them, from our time.

“You want artists to push the boundaries a bit. But what John did do, was he captured people’s images, people’s faces. And not just Maori, there were many from around our community.

“They are modern poupou or whakairo (carved portraits) telling people’s stories.”

While they may not have agreed for it to be on the marae, the pakeke (elders) still believed it should be in Uawa, somewhere.

“That’s what we are looking at now. Some of us in Hauiti have been sorting out what do we do with the mural. This exhibition is a step towards that.

“Over the next three months we’ll work out what’s the next step, because there are a lot of families in there. Some are still here today, some have passed on.”

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