Q&A with John Walsh - Art Collector

John Walsh, Manu Whenua, 2016, Oil on canvas, 1520 x 1010cm. Photo: Tom Teutenberg. Installation view, Paulnache, Gisborne, 2016. Courtesy: the artist and PAULNACHE, Gisborne

New Zealand painter John Walsh speaks to Camilla Wagstaff about his latest series of paintings at PAULNACHE in Gisborne, New Zealand

Your new series at PAULNACHE in Gisborne speaks to the ancient Te Aitanga-a- Hauiti story of Tautini. Could you briefly tell us the tale, for those who might not be familiar?

It is extremely difficult to imagine the society of mid 17th century Aotearoa New Zealand when Maori culture was intact and at its height. Their forebears had pushed out from Asia into the Pacific some three thousand years earlier and had evolved in salty isolation from mainstream humanity, island hopping all the way to Aotearoa – The land of the long white cloud.
It is equally difficult to imagine the unique deafening bird and bush environment that the first people stepped on to in Aotearoa. Maori culture evolved with this bird-bush culture for a thousand years. By the time Europeans arrived, Maoridom was an intricate network of tribal and intertribal whakapapa, blood hierarchy, controlled with a complicated system of religion and superstition that was so so different to the universal humanity of today.

During the mid-17th century, Tautini was a major chief of the Anaura Bay-Tokomaru Bay area. His wife was Hinetamatea after whom the house at Anaura Bay is named. As chief, Tautini had often been presented the flesh of slain enemies: the brain for intellect, the heart for power… but in later years he developed a taste for it and perhaps a taste for longevity, immortality. He was known for eating children. While living at Toiroa Pa above Anaura Bay, he made the mistake of devouring the child of Tutemangarewa, chief of Wahineiti. Tutemangarewa couldn’t tolerate this and cut off Tautini’s head.

Tautini’s daughter Te Aotawarirangi smeared herself with blood and went up to Toiroa Pa, retrieved Tautini’s head and took it to her brother Tuterangikatipu who was living at Kawakawa, Te Araroa. Being smeared in blood helped her passage through the different iwi between Anaura and Te Araroa. Tuterangikatipu gathered warriors including Ngati Ira, who were living at Tuparoa, and returned to avenge their father, thereby restoring their whakapapa to the land.

John Walsh, Te Aotawarirangi, 2016, Oil on board, 90 x 120cm. Photo: Tom Teutenberg . Courtesy: the artist and PAULNACHE, Gisborne

What is it about this story that compelled you to make a body of work?
I was invited home to take part in a wananga at Hinetamatea Marae during February 2016. These works are reflections from the stories told there.

A striking work in the series illustrates a completely different tale – namely a form of justice practiced by an ancient island community off the coast of Scotland where wrongdoers were fitted with a fish on their head and left to float in the sea near a gannet colony. How does this work relate to the rest of the series?
Tautini and the Scottish wrongdoer were worlds apart but both met very direct forms of justice. They are possibly from similar times and from oral traditions where over the generations of retelling the stories become grander, mythical. To me the Scottish story could be from another iwi up the Coast, in fact I was close to retelling it as such. But the direct justice interests me, it’s a huge contrast to the justice of today’s minutely regulated society where the practice of law can leave our moral compass spinning.

John Walsh, Gannet Justice, 2016, Oil on board, 120 x 60cm. Photo: Tom Teutenberg . Courtesy: the artist and PAULNACHE, Gisborne

This is your first show in Gisborne in 15 years – how did it come about?
I have tried to maintain a constant presence back home, so I have been working with Matt Nache at PAULNACHE for some time. PAULNACHE is a great asset to Gisborne and this show has been niggling for a while. It’s great to finally see it up – a happy collaboration.

You have become well known for your beautiful, ethereal landscapes and depictions of mythical figures – how did this visual language evolve?
I had been working away, in the mix with my peers in the New Zealand art paddock. One time while painting with mates I thought, I love working like this - it was what I had always done as sketching, mapping out with paint. Why don’t I make this the work, the finished work. So over the years I’ve refined that. It was a moment. What I hold onto is the immediacy, the urgency of painting like that, the state of mind as much as the technique.

John Walsh, Are You Maori, 2016, Oil on board, 40 x 55cm. Courtesy: the artist and PAULNACHE, Gisborne

What inspires you?
The thought that I could make a really good painting; and deadlines.

Why do you choose paint as your means through which to communicate?
I would love to make film, movies of all these stories and ideas that fill my head but every day I go into my studio and we, the stories and I, dance around merrily enough.

What’s next?
I have several shows to work towards and a few adventures on the boil… This June a show based around my largest works (featuring two of my five metre paintings) will be hosted by Pataka Museum in Porirua. I also have an upcoming show with Whakatane Museum & Art Gallery, in the Bay of Plenty, New Zealand, later in the year. I look forward to seeing them [my paintings] all again in the same space.

But what my practice has given me is that I don’t need to know or fret about what’s next, that’s the exciting part, what ever turns up will be greeted with the same openness and if I choose to engage I’ll give it my best.

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