Urewera Triptych

Urewera triptych, 1975, synthetic paint on unstretched canvas, 1: 2520 x 1793 mm, 2: 2475 x 1798 mm, 3: 2450 x 1780 mm. Private collection. Courtesy McCahon Research and Publication Trust 

None

Installation view Te Mihaia Hou: Maungapōhatu and the prophet Rua Kēnana Contemporary art about the prophet Rua and the Millennium at Te Whare Taonga o Waikato Waikato Museum of Art and History 15 February – 1 May 1991

None

Catalogue cover Te Mihaia Hou: Maungapōhatu and the prophet Rua Kēnana Contemporary art about the prophet Rua and the Millennium at Te Whare Taonga o Waikato Waikato Museum of Art and History 15 February – 1 May 1991

None

Outside Tane-Nui-A-Rangi at Maungapōhatu 10 November 1990. Hirini Melbourne and Wharehuia Milroy (centre), author seated far left

None

Poster for the exhibition Te Mihaia Hou Maungapohatu and the prophet Rua Kenana at the Waikato Museum of Art and History. Image Tane Nui a Rangi at Night by David Cook

Linda Tyler

Convenor of Museums and Cultural Heritage at the University of Auckland

My favourite part of making exhibitions is getting to move art works around and see how they look in relation to each other in the gallery. Larger institutions have everything locked down months ahead of opening, but I am lucky to have always worked for smaller places where you are the one lifting off the Tyvek as the painting comes off the roller. It’s a great privilege to get to see the back of paintings, to feel their heft and texture, while maneuvering to get them on the wall. Although it seems banal to say so, art works can be very powerful. This one, and its sister painting, the Urewera Mural, do seem to have created ripples. 

Even though it is 28 years ago, I can remember the exact spot in the Level 5 gallery at the Waikato Museum that we hung Colin McCahon’s Urewera Triptych for the exhibition Te Mihaia Hou: Maungapohatu and the prophet Rua Kenana in 1991. McCahon himself had died only four years previously, and the work itself was just sixteen years old, but already he seemed like the Old Master of New Zealand painting. His smoky breath still clung to this work, giving it the aura of a great masterpiece.  

We made it the hero of the back wall, the art work that pulled you in to the exhibition with its command of the space, visible from the bottom of the stairs before you even entered the gallery. It had some competition for visual dominance with a one-third scale model of Rua’s council house Hiona in the centre of the room. 

Although it is not as notorious as the Urewera Mural (for which it was “A Painted Drawing”), I find the Urewera Triptych the easier work to conjure in my memory. For me, McCahon is acting as a translator, conveying his understanding of how Māori had been wronged in the Urewera to a Pākēha art world, in preparation for making his final painting. Presumptuous, perhaps even wrong-headed, but well-intentioned, and full of feeling.  

Recently the work has travelled to Hong Kong, where it may have been “read” from right to left. When I looked at the image on the McCahon website, I realized the two panels had been transposed in collaging together the image. The duplicity of digital world! 

We have McCahon’s own words to tell us which way round the panels go. Writing in 1974 to his friend Ron O’Reilly, (who was about to become the third Director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery), McCahon described what he was trying to do with the work, which had been commissioned by the Urewera National Park Board: “I’m painting on black so I can do the romantic thing in white & bring 'the one without a name' into the picture…I think it’s Tane-Atua…But it’s to the God of Trees: he needs some help as the pine trees come in: I feel they belong to a very different religion. So even if I have to start again I now know what it is about…Tane in the middle, the Tuhoe People on the left & Rua & Te Kooti on the right – and the Tuhoe who continue.”1 As has been well-documented elsewhere, McCahon got into trouble for choosing Elsdon Best’s informant Tūtangahau as the ancestor in the pepeha, but no one disputes the significance of Maungapōhatu to Tūhoe. 

My Tūhoe colleagues at the University of Waikato, Hirini Melbourne (1949-2003) and Wharehuia Milroy (1937-2013), facilitated a trip in May 1990 into the Urewera to moot the idea of an exhibition about Rua. Just two years earlier, Wharehuia had brought the WAI 36 Tūhoe lands claim to the Waitangi Tribunal on behalf of Ngai Tūhoe. This was eventually settled as part of the Tūhoe Claims Settlement Act 2014 but unfortunately Wharehuia did not live long enough to see that happen. In May 1990, he took me in to visit Pei Atawa, the Tūhoe Trust Board Chair at Ruatāhuna, to talk about how the exhibition could help instigate a movement to get Rua Kēnana a statutory pardon.

We made a second trip to stay at Maungapōhatu on 10 November 1990, taking the museum photographer David Cook with us. Hirini Melbourne who was researching taonga puoro at the time, brought many musical instruments along with him, which he played inside the wharenui late into the night, illuminated by a kerosene lamp and a candle. I remember the eerie sound of the pūrerehua as it spun on the end of its cord. David Cook left his camera outside the meeting house for a 4 ½ hour exposure (10.30 p.m to 3.00 a.m.) using a wide-angle lens, capturing the earth’s movement as circular tracks left by the stars and planets. We used this image on the poster for the exhibition because its blue and the yellow colours linked to the colours used by Rua’s community, and the circular paths of the stars traced the shape of Hiona as well as suggesting that Rua was attempting to establish an independent axis around which his own community could revolve. It was a cold night, but in the morning it was warm and sunny, and we walked out the “six foot track” from Maungapōhatu towards Tawhana. 

Shortly before Christmas in 2019, more than 200 people, including Māori King Tūheitia, assembled to witness the Rua Kēnana Pardon Bill get signed into law at Maungapōhatu marae by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy. Rua Kēnana is only the sixth person in New Zealand to receive a statutory pardon, and it was the first time in history that an apology has been signed into law on the original site of the wrongdoing. Not only was this an acknowledgement that he had been unlawfully arrested and imprisoned causing lasting pain and disadvantage, but it was also a declaration to restore his mana and that of his descendants. 103 years after his arrest, 44 years after McCahon painted the Urewera Triptych, and 28 years after the Te Mihaia Hou exhibition, justice had finally been served.

 

[1] Colin McCahon to Ron O'Reilly, December 1974, qouted in Simpson.

CONNECTING CULTURAL LEGACY WITH CONTEMPORARY PRACTICE

Index
Person image/svg+xml Group Copy 2 Group Copy 2 Created with Sketch.
Artwork image/svg+xml Group Copy 2 Group Copy 2 Created with Sketch.
Bridget Riggir-Cuddy
The House Protects the Dreamer
Naomi McCleary
Kauri
Séraphine Pick
Northland Panels
Brian Sweeney
View from the top of the cliff
Rudi Fuchs
North Otago Landscape
Rex Butler
I Considered All the Acts of Oppression
Donna McDonald
The Fourteen Stations of the Cross
Harold Jones
Muriwai no.7
Ted Spring
On Building Bridges
Areez Katki
The Three Marys at the Tomb
Rosanna Raymond
Jet Out
Rufus Knight
Waterfall
Megan Tamati-Quennell
Black Landscape
Nick Mitzevich
Victory over Death 2
Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern
Victory over Death 2
The Governor-General, The Rt Hon Dame Patsy Reddy
Gate III
Grant Banbury
I Paul
Sir Bob Harvey
Dark Landscape
Young Old Girls (Christchurch Girls’ High)
North Otago Landscape 19
Sophie Bannan
Van Gogh - poems by John Caselberg
Linda Tyler
Urewera Triptych
Emily Karaka
Tangi. Muriwai
Robert Gardiner
Are there not twelve hours of daylight
Thomas Crow
Are there not twelve hours of daylight
Jude Rae
Victory over death 2
Brent Harris
The Family
Cora-Allan Wickliffe
15 Drawings Dec '51 to May '52
Salome Tanuvasa
Landscape
Yona Lee
Landscape theme and variations (series B)
David Kirk
Kaipara
Priscilla Pitts
Fourteen Stations of the Cross
Ruth Watson
This day a man is
Tessa Laird
Keep New Zealand Green
Nell
East window
Nicola Farquhar
Kauri trees
Hon Grant Robertson
Otago Peninsula
Jane Macknight
Untitled (North Otago Landscape)
Karen Walker
Titirangi
Wystan Curnow
The Green Plain
Philip Clarke
Necessary Protection (IHS)
Mary Kisler
A candle in a dark room
Ayesha Green
I AM
Matthew O'Reilly
Muriwai
Bettina Bradbury and Kararaina Rangihau
A poster for the Urewera no. 2
Al Keating
A Grain of wheat
Cushla Dillon
Entombment (after Titian)
Hamish Coney
Here I give thanks to Mondrian
Stephen Wainwright
As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land
Sue Gardiner
Landscape theme and variations (series A)
Robert Leonard
Numerals
Judy Darragh
Clouds 1
John Coley
AS THERE IS A CONSTANT FLOW OF LIGHT WE ARE BORN INTO THE PURE LAND
Shannon Te Ao
Ka pōraruraru ahau. I am troubled.
Helen Beaglehole
GATE III
Ralph Paine
Jump E9
Judy Millar
Muriwai: Necessary Protection
Fiona Pardington
Waterfall
C.K. Stead
All mortals are like grass
Gretchen Albrecht
As there is a constant flow of light we are born into the pure land
Martin Edmond
Cross (1959)
Lisa Reihana
Urewera mural
Peter Simpson
Jet out to Te Reinga
Christina Barton
Gate III
Dame Jenny Gibbs
I Considered All the Acts of Oppression
Zoe Black
Ruby Bay
Jim Barr and Mary Barr
Oaia and clouds
Vivienne Stone
Tomorrow will be the same but not as this is
Kate Sylvester
Northland Panels