In just over twenty years, John Puhiatau Pule has produced a highly distinctive body of work that occupies a singular position in New Zealand art, and offers one of the most significant expressions of contemporary Pacific culture. Pule is a self-taught artist, and was already an accomplished poet and writer before taking up painting in the late 1980s. Like his writing, Pule’s painting surges urgently and restlessly across genres, formats, periods, and cultural forms. His is a hybrid art pulsating with the energies that come through fusing a bewildering range of practices, cosmologies, symbols, and patterns. It is this complex hybridity that allows Pule’s art to speak so powerfully both for and about living and breathing in the contemporary moment, within the Pacific and beyond.
Pule was born in the village of Liku, Niue in 1962, and emigrated with his family to Auckland two years later. Pule’s art and writing have remained in constant dialogue with Niuean culture, history and traditions. Early paintings were text-based, bustling with poetry written in the Niuean language. Other expressionist paintings decried the corrosive presence of Christianity in the Pacific. A return to Niue in 1991 was the catalyst for a new engagement with Niuean culture played out through nineteenth-century hiapo (bark cloth painting). Pule found in hiapo a dynamic artform that embodied issues of cultural exchange, dislocation, loss, and survival that both spoke strongly of the colonial past and to the contemporary migrant experience. Hiapo offered a way for Pule to connect his own stories to broader cultural histories and narratives.
The exhibition begins with Pule’s paintings of the 1990s which push the formal, thematic, and conceptual possibilities of hiapo, injecting new life and energies into this nineteenth-century artform. By the end of the decade, the recognisable signs of hiapo all but disappear from Pule’s paintings under dramatic new configurations and colours. Yet traces always remain of the form Pule describes as offering ‘pathways for me to follow, creating a destination for me, a space to confirm my obligations as an artist’.
In 2000 Pule’s hiapo-based paintings gave way to epic, lushly painted canvases dominated by bright cloud forms that float across and drip down expansive white surfaces. Each patch of red, blue or green colour is linked by cascading vines and ladders which create whole worlds teeming with objects, people, and creatures often caught in acts of passion and violence. These malevolently seductive cloud paintings offer up the tokens, anxieties, and fantasies of the contemporary world. Here Pule continues his painterly interrogation of an endlessly rich range of historical and present-days sources drawn from the Pacific, Aotearoa New Zealand, and beyond.
One gallery brings together a selection of Pule’s works on paper. These works embody Pule’s dual practice as a writer and visual artist. Asking to be read as well as viewed, these are virtuosic pieces of printmaking and are among Pule’s most exquisite utterances as a poet-painter.
A persistent theme of Pule’s work is the inner life of the artist overlapping with and enriching the physical world in which he finds himself. At the same time, the work is strewn with the tensions and contradictions of the post-colonial contemporary world.