Back to the Future
I am constantly amazed at the ability of the human mind to revert to the cringing safety of the cliché. This observation is by no means a comment on the works created by Rangi Kipa (Taranaki, Te Atiawa Nui Tonu, Ngati Maniapoto, Pakeha) for an exhibition at the New York dealer gallery Goff + Rosenthal in 2008. But it does relate to many of the remarks about his practice, which only add to the well-trodden territory of contemporary Maori art discourse. There are the inevitable references to ‘customary carving traditions’ and ‘connections with the ancestors’, which, although overly used in Maori art rhetoric, nevertheless have an element of truth to them. These phrases can sometimes threaten to overshadow an artist’s practise by including it in a generic round table of truisms that do little to relay the significance of an individual’s achievements.
The tension between cliché and individual difference is also prevalent in the inevitable allusions to ‘the Maori art movement’, a movement which established Maori art and artists as key players in the New Zealand art scene in the 60’s and 70’s but has little traction in the post millennium polyglot of the international art market. Kipa’s works, however, are now viewed from both these vantage points. He treads a precarious tightrope between the ravenous requirements of a global art society constantly on the lookout for the next big thing, and the rather less imperative, but still highly emotive, expectations of local individuals, communities and whanau which provide the context in which he creates his works.
In his recent Parata series for Goff + Rosenthal, Kipa has taken the basic parata form from the tau ihu, (figurehead), found on a waka tīwai, (a light canoe used on rivers and estuaries) and used it as a conduit for his very personal take on the world. He chose this form particularly because it is often overlooked by carvers in favour of the more decorative figurehead found on the waka taua (an ocean-going war canoe). Kipa has stripped the parata back to the bare essentials - a small, softly modelled beak, a large, eyeless, duel-planed forehead, with some having just a hint of a nose. Worked in a high density plastic product aptly titled Staron™ each brightly coloured figurehead becomes the perfect canvas for Kipa’s highly individual graphic vocabulary.
The exhibition at Goff + Rosenthal Gallery included three sets of parata, each displayed in a distinctive formation mounted onto the gallery walls. It is as if the works emerge through a veil from another time and place rather than from the walls of the typical white cube gallery space. It is easy to see the relationship between the installation and the use of the parata as a symbol for new pathways and modes of engagement. Beyond this connection, however, each individual work also carries its own message. The bright colours and distinct graphic qualities of each form mark it as significant outside of these groupings, a reading that the viewer cannot help but see as a potential metaphor for Kipa’s view of his own place in the world – a part of it, but most definitely an individual.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is the work titled Navigator that acts as a focal point from which to negotiate the other works. Navigator is emblazoned with celestial maps; an addition with dual meanings, it is not only related to Kipa’s cosmological and ocean-faring Maori heritage, but also alludes to a more complex post-colonial relationship. Interestingly this is also one of the few pieces in the exhibition to be given the gift of sight – large stylized eyes which are always focused on the outward journey.
Navigator, 2008 (Courtesy of the Artist)
Elsewhere in the gallery a set of nine parata works are lined up in ranks, a grid formation which is reminiscent of an armada of waka coming straight at the viewer. Among these are works which have very personal resonance for Kipa.
The work cheekily titled Hokusai-Hukatai is a bright orange representation of the famous woodcut by the Japanese master Hokusai which depicts a small vessel caught in the trough of a tsunami size wave; in the background watching over the scene rests the enigmatic symbol of the perfect Japanese landscape, Mt Fuji. However, on closer inspection, Kipa’s image has been altered to show a more familiar setting. The wave is similar but without the floundering vessel and the mountain in the background has been replaced with an image of Mt Taranaki, Kipa’s turangawaewae (place to stand). The image is also reversed; it is only a reflection, a clever re-working of the idealized landscape that Hokusai created hundreds of years earlier. A final twist on this already heavily loaded scene is the use of Hukatai in the title which is surprisingly the Maori word for the white foam of a breaking wave.
Hokusai-Hukatai, 2008 (Courtesy of the Artist)
Another bright orange work from this group also picks up on Japanese themes; titled Golden Hands, this parata form shows two carp, a larger and a smaller, circling each other. The work is a very personal narrative depicting the relationship Kipa shared with his father. It relates to the role his father played as the family provider spending many hours fishing for the extended family, a task that Kipa as oldest son was also expected to fulfil. Kipa’s father gained the title ‘Golden Hands’ for his unique fishing methods where he would deftly tickle eels and trout out of the stream instead of using fishing lines or traps. As with all of the works in this series, Kipa has invested Golden Hands with a complex layer of ideas. The carp in Chinese mythology travels upstream and when it reaches the source it turns into a dragon. The dragon in turn is the combination of all the mythical beasts and therefore the most potent and wise – it had the claws of the eagle, scales of the carp, head of a lion, and the body of a serpent.
This exhibition was not Kipa’s first use of the parata form. In October 2007, Kipa exhibited Radiáre as part of the inaugural suite of exhibitions for the Museum of Contemporary Art, Denver. Radiáre was constructed as a whare (house) through which he intended to both explore and critique many New Zealanders’, and, in particular, Māori understandings of customary practices and art forms. In this work Kipa created a parata in place of the whare upoko, (ancestral figurehead) which sits at the apex of the roof. This lime green whare upoko sported lightly incised taa moko (tattoo) and the word ‘AO’ which among other meanings refers to the Māori concepts of daylight, the world and a newly emerging bud. This one, seemingly small, aspect of the impressively scaled Radiáre aimed to literally point the way forward and became a catalyst for the parata series that was to follow.
Radiare, 2007 (Courtesy of the Artist)
Kipa’s practice has methodically moved to the left of the carving techniques and traditions he trained in. He is quick to acknowledge his artistic roots, but expresses some sadness at the inability of many of his peers to push beyond the often limiting parameters of their craft. In some ways the Parata series is both an acknowledgement of and a departure from customary practices. Kipa considers these works to be a metaphorical comment on his own journey as an artist. It is a reference to moving forward, and away from what he considers to be the stasis of political discussions within whakairo (carving) circles regarding the role and adherence to customary practice. He feels there should be an embracing of cultural innovation, a trait which Maori were often acknowledged for by those they encountered during the fraught period of colonial interaction of the mid 19th Century. The tohunga whakairo (master carver) Te Hau O Te Rangi Tutua, a mentor and friend of Kipa’s, believed that if you wanted to replicate the practices of the old days you may as well use a machine, he was a firm proponent of progress and innovation, a principle which Kipa himself adheres to with conviction.
The Parata series is the physical manifestation of this idea, referencing the traditions of the past while progressing and adapting into the future. As Kipa succinctly states, “I’m not looking to re-validate our culture within the post-colonial social structure of New Zealand, but rather my position is that we’re already validated and must move forward”.
In some respects Kipa’s investigation of new techniques and materials has become something of a phoenix rising from the ashes, an artistic rebirth which has provided the artist with a new outlook on his practice. The highly symbolic use of the parata form was no coincidence; its place at the front of the waka, always looking forward and to the future, gives us a clear insight into Kipa’s artistic and personal positioning. His works show a confidence and sincerity which is the reason for much of Kipa’s success. They combine seemingly disparate subject matter but all share an inherent belief in the benefits of progress and an acceptance of traditional values. As I review Kipa’s impressive body of work, I can’t quite help but think of the old saying ‘in order to move forward you need to have one eye on the future and one eye on the past.’ I guess you can’t always avoid the dangers of the cliché trap.
This article is an unpublished draft commissioned by the artist in 2008.