Niue artist John Pule is exhibiting his works at Auckland Art Gallery until 21 January. The show covers 20 years of his work — since he began exhibiting in the 1990’s. One of the few major New Zealand artists who has had no formal training and little education, he developed his art as a way of explaining the world in which he felt isolated.
Born in the village of Liku, Niue, he immigrated to New Zealand at the age of two in 1964, only returning to the island in 1991. Since then he has made a number of trips to Niue, developing his interest in the history and mythology of Niue.
His early work of the 1990’s (which should include his novel The Shark That Ate the Sun) showed him developing ways of understanding his environment, heritage and history, according to a review by John Daly-Peoples published in the National Business Review.
The exhibition begins at this point with some of his simple, direct pieces which were influenced by looking at traditional hiapo, a cloth beaten out of mulberry bark, felted into rectangular sheets and then painted freehand within a grid-like pattern.
Among these early works are Mafola (1991) in which we can see many of the images he would continue to use; the figurative elements which often refer to Christian stories, Niuean patterns, abstracted natural images of plants and fish, obscure narratives and European art. There are even images which will take on the cloud formations of his later work and his intentional scrambling or blurring of images is also there.
Other early works such as the Pulenoa Triptych (1995) included images which were essentially metaphors that combined the threads of the artist’s personal life, the history and mythology of Niue as well as the impact of Christianity on Niueans both there and in New Zealand.
In the last 20 years Pule has created his own set of geometric motifs and figurative elements. Some of them come from the Niuean hiapo, some from other Pacific traditions while others are from European and Maori sources. With all of them he has made adaptations and transformations in much the way that many contemporary artists appropriate other works of art. In the end however, they are all filtered through the artist’s own imagination.
The exhibition also includes several of his works where he used his poetry. These are political works, written in both English and the Niuean language, allowing him to further express his ideas.
The set of lithographs Restless Spirit (2000) with texts from The Shark That Ate the Sun is like mediaeval illustrated manuscripts combining words and illustrations. These works read like a cross between a set biblical quotations and private diary entries.
Published in association with the survey exhibition of the artist’s work the book, Hauaga: The Art of John Pule published by Otago University Press, provides an indispensable guide to Pule’s work. It is the first book to deal with his art and ranges over his drawing, print-making and writing – he is the author of two novels and several volumes of poetry – as well as his painting.
Essays by Gregory O’Brien, Peter Brunt, and Nicholas Thomas provide several routes into Pule’s engaging and compelling works, considering his formation as a writer and artist, his meditations on life and loss, and the extraordinary architecture of his visual art.
John Pule speaks himself, through an extended interview, and in a series of extracts from his poetry and prose.
Source: National Business Review. To read the full story, click here.