In this most recent collection of paintings, John Pule continues to investigate his Niuean culture weaving narratives by combining images, designs and text that reference both the historical and the contemporary. He fuses references from the traditional art and the history of his birth country, Niue, with his own personal experiences as a Niuean living in New Zealand. Pule is a writer, poet and artist; and his paintings often combine his artistry with both text and image.
Hiapo the Niuean version of tapa cloth is distinctive for its traditionally freehand method. Hiapo was gifted to the European visitors that came to Niue in the nineteenth century and as a result, it became an art form linked to a time of colonialisation and consequently the introduction of Christianity to the Niuean people. Pule’s use of hiapo combines ideas and images of colonisation and the domination of Christianity in Niue, with his own personal investigation of his culture and experiences as a migrant in New Zealand. In earlier works Pule covered the entire canvas with drawings, patterns and circular emblems in a format akin to traditional hiapo format. Large-scale artworks such as the Pulenoa (triptych) 1995 the are highly detailed designs often painted on unstretched canvas and as a result closely resembling the cloth surface of hiapo. In this exhibition, the canvas is on stretchers, and hiapo is visible in tower-like forms and circular designs which have increased space between them. In these recent paintings, traditional subjects of the hiapo such as fish and landscapes are placed next to ink sketches of aeroplanes (the modern vehicle of migration), churches, and skulls. Pule reactivates symbols of ancestral mythology and combines them with scenes and symbols of more contemporary derivation. The crucifix and the church are repeated images as Pule makes clear his opinion of the domination of the Christian Church over his people. These contemporary or less traditional additions also reference Pule’s experiences as a Niuean migrant, and are drawn in the same inky black, interwoven into the hiapo towers.
Blood red marks on the canvas hover and seem to represent both clouds and land mass. These red shapes that have become a feature of Pule’s recent paintings carry various pockets of visual narrative; domestic objects sit upon them, fish appear to be submerged in them. The long red tendrils that drop are reminiscent of veins or arteries but also roots - as if looking for soil in which to establish. The temporal quality of these island-clouds alludes to the lack of permanence in the life of a migrant.
The vines of ti mata alea (the Cordyline tree) run down the paintings intertwining with the red tendrils of the clouds. In Niuean culture, it is believed their race originated from ti mata alea, by using this plant in his paintings Pule represents the very beginning of his people, their foundation. It is this concept of life and growth through soil and taking root, which informs the subject of Pule’s paintings. When they first settled in New Zealand Pule’s family brought native Niuean plants to establish in the soil of their new home. It is this mixing of soils, this attempt to find anchorage whether temporary or permanent that is visible in his paintings.