Acrylic on unstretched canvas
1810 x 1810mm
The inclusion of two descriptions for this work reflects the Maori and Pakeha curatorial approaches taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.
The impetus for this explosive work was the event that took place in Waitemata Harbour, Auckland, at 11.49pm on July 19, 1985. In the first act of state-sponsored terrorism ever to occur in New Zealand, French secret service agents sank the Greenpeace vessel Rainbow Warrior as it lay in dock while final preparations were made for its voyage to Mururoa Atoll to protest against continuing French nuclear bomb tests. In this work, Ralph Hotere, never one for an ivory-towered approach to artistic practice, demonstrates the powerful sense of political engagement that has been characteristic of his life’s work.
In this work, an aquatic allusion is made palpable by the clever incorporation of triangular shapes that surround the eyelets of this unstretched canvas and the squared shapes that progress unevenly towards its centre. It provides the sense of an inverted ripple or complex whirlpool. A watery slate-blue dominates the painting, yet the incorporation of other colours – rusty red and chalk white – add a disturbing quality. If the brooding blue represents a deep ocean, the other colours and the way they have been applied (scumbled, but mostly scratched in appearance) denote the pollution of rusting, submerged metal.
The anti-nuclear politics of the work are easily discerned from its inclusion of text, particularly the word ‘Mururoa’ and the added word ‘Sunrise’ telling us that there is little glory in this dawn; the first sunlight of a day broken by human violation: nuclear bomb tests. The writing, squared-off through incomplete divisions and an indecisive, yet central, cross-shape, help to provide a sense of ‘unnaturalness’ and foreboding, belying the painting’s comparatively innocuous title. As ever, the question as to whether Hotere’s Maori identity is relevant to this work is raised. Hotere’s renowned hesitation to comment verbally on his art and life leaves the viewer free to speculate on an answer. Dawn/Water Poem II draws us beyond that label ‘Maori’.
Its testimony against violation of the environment touches a chord in most people concerned with ecology and environmental sustainability, regardless of their location and attached societies. The environment at the centre of Hotere’s concern in this painting is the Pacific Ocean, one that many Maori consider an intimate part of their cultural inheritance. That Hotere is a Maori artist is possibly less significant than his contribution to a universal campaign against local, regional and global destruction. The impact of this artist’s environmental politics, expressed as a poetic art, continues to this day, as, sadly, do the follies of human action to which he draws our attention.