John Pule: Time will tell - Art Collector

Issue 70, October - December 2014

Throughout his career, John Pule has developed his own language of motifs and figurative elements anchored in the history and mythology of his birthplace Niue, an island country in the South Pacific. Nicholas Thomas looks back on the artist’s practice, discovering a diverse yet unwavering response to the island’s troubled past.
John Pule, photographed for Art Collector Issue 70, October - December 2014. Photo: Kallan Macleod.

At the beginning of the 1990s, John Pule discovered a style that enabled him to create paintings and works on paper that were powerfully original. Their imagery was energised by the stimulus of hiapo, the dynamic painted barkcloths of 19th century Niue, notable for their quirky pictorial imagery – ships, compasses, the occasional beetle – as well as strong grids and botanical motifs. Pacific artists in New Zealand were gaining visibility, and there was widespread interest in customary motifs, as there was too, in the new Pacific jewellery and fashion. Yet Pule was neither trying to revive a traditional form, nor to ground a contemporary identity in a Niuean traditional art. Curiously, his early paintings look like hiapo but do not really resemble them at all.

Pule saw the fabrics as incarnations of an architecture: an organisation of space, a working of nature that made it habitable, and gave it an aesthetic. While Pule employed hiapo’s dark brown palette and grided style, his motifs bore no resemblance to tapa patterns. Geometric devices worked in tension with more organic elements, such as thick bands full of fine line, suggesting the flow of a river or blood through an artery. Large circular forms suggested a ritual architecture, a place of sacrifice and blessing.
Pule’s signature in the 1990s was the restless combination of dynamic form and figure. Some of his figures are recognisable animals such as pigs and fish, but only in outline – their bodies are vessels that contain motifs, scenes and other creatures. Many too have a monstrous character, they are strange bird- or lizard-like predators with gaping jaws. What these outlandish and energetic creatures suggest is a landscape of myth, a cosmogenic domain of transformation and transgression, of theft and loss, but also consumption and growth. But if Pule’s viewers ever assumed that these paintings illustrated Polynesian myth, they were mistaken. This was a personal vision, not a Niuean counterpart to the efforts of some Maori who use modern painting to represent myths and ancestral histories.

Pule is estranged from the Christianity that his parents’ generation were so attached to. He would agree with the critique of missionaries’ cultural imperialism, but is saddened more than angered. His sense is that a sick Christ was rejuvenated in the Pacific, that the church has sucked vitality from the lives of Pacific Islanders. Hence while he depicts people lamenting the death of Christ, his own lamentation is over the loss of their own gods, and of so much else.

Powerful as these themes are, they do not amount to the whole story. And this is in part why and how Pule is propelled beyond the early paintings such as
Lamentation, which image a moment of loss and nothing else. The issue remains potent in the hiapo works but is in tension with other energies. Consider Style with Seven Moons, 1993, (see timeline on page 164) which presents the issue of Christianity, of before and after, in an oblique but explicit way. The top right frame in the grid depicts a couple having sex, as does that on the bottom left, but there is a juxtaposition. The former employ an Indigenous position, as opposed to the missionary position that is enjoyed under the sign of the cross. Yet both exhibit danger and ecstasy: these vital forces transcend the historic divide.

By the end of the 1990s, Pule was trying out quite different compositions and in 2001, began to produce work that was startlingly different. The grid and the fullness was gone. The viewer encounters not a map or a body but an atmospheric space, a surreal cloudscape. The clouds are at once inhabited and interlinked, by paths, long and precarious ladders, and by plant growths. The vines and plants are associated with life, origins, and nurture. Yet many of the characters betwixt and between the plants and clouds are dismembered. Calamities appear to be unfolding. Aeroplanes, great bodies, are sliced apart, trophy heads are being carried away by tiny figures, actors who make their way precariously between islets in a void.

Pule’s work had always proceeded from a consciousness of a profoundly disturbed history. While that history and experience incorporated moments of joy, its dark side always stood out, and became more potent and threatening, in increasingly impressive and ambitious works. Personal mythology remained present, the works full of writhing, injured, predatory creatures, suggesting violence on a cosmological scale, yet also what was going on in the world of global politics in the early 2000s. The violence of religion and sacrifice had assumed new significance, as did the broken bodies of a passenger aircraft. The twin towers and an approaching plane are visible, a tiny detail, in
Another Green World, 2006, (see timeline on page 165). The scenes and rites of violence in Pule’s work from the period have a fantastic look to them, but it is something real and close to us that is being acknowledged.

In the last five years, Pule has returned to Oceania’s history, to the shores of a profound and inky ocean. The colour is no longer burnt umber, red, or green but black and blue. The works moreover take a historical turn and engage the passages of exploration and cross-cultural contact that marked the beginnings of colonial history in the Pacific and are again much debated. Pule depicts ships, landings, violence, and interaction. Some of the finer drawn imagery is reminiscent of
John Webber’s iconic Death of Captain Cook, or William Hodges’ paintings of the encounters of Cook’s second voyage – scenes of excitement, confusion, hubbub and violent resistance.

If these formidable black paintings marked a return to particularly Pacific sites, scenes and characters, the move does not quite bring the artist full circle.
Arrival, The Splendid Land, and other works carry with them everything that is disturbing, indeed threatening, in paintings such as Another Green World. Whether he is making sense of missionaries, turning toward hiapo, or engaging with the Cook voyages, John Pule has always responded to the troubled past. Yet ecstasy and terror have always been intertwined. His newest paintings enlarge and enliven the botanical motifs that were always fertile in his works: here vitality seems to explode, joyfully.

Nicholas Thomas
Share this page: