Oil on unstretched canvas
2100 x 3580mm
The inclusion of two descriptions for this work reflects the Maori and Pakeha curatorial approaches taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.
Kahukiwa has said: “I do all my work for Maori people. That is where it is aimed and that is where I put all my energy.” This painting is a call to Maori women to take responsibility for their own development. Tihe Mauri Ora uses a prophetic saying that translates as “The Life Force is growing, becoming larger, into the World of Light.” At the top of the painting is a quotation from the Maori version of the Treaty of Waitangi and its English translation, which refers to Tino rangatiratanga (chieftainship) being retained by Maori. This emphasis is not included in the official English version of the treaty document. The painting’s huge scale and strident use of colour give visual weight to the issues it raises.
Energetically applied paint over most of the surface contrasts with the smoother, heavily outlined central female figure who is pushed out towards the viewer. This present-day Maori woman is linked to the past by the figure of a traditional woman whose hand is raised as though saying a karakia. She is linked to the future by the representation of a mixed-race child – her origin is similar to that of artist. Kaitiaki (bird-like guardian spirits) fly from both women towards the child to protect and inspire it. The slumbering figure holding the New Zealand colonial flag is shown passively acquiescent to the change offered by the central figure, whose gesture is one of strength rather than of defiance.
As its title suggests, this painting is a ‘wake-up call’ for Maori people, with its graffiti-style slogan repeating a common first line of whai-korero (speeches) on marae when an audience is called to attention. Its painterly forms ambiguously suggest explosive disintegration as much as powerful florescence. Kahukiwa’s painting calls upon Maori women to rise up against a patriarchy brought by a foreign culture that has in homes, schools and churches, both subtly and overtly, brought subjugation. While this painting alludes to the civil rights actions in Mexico against Spanish invasion, one of numerous influences that Kahukiwa incorporates into her work, the dominant invocation of Tihe Mauri Ora necessarily recognises that gender relationships need not be oppressive.
Maori language does not designate women as inferior to men. Along the path of colonisation, power between men and women fell out of balance. Social statistics tell a tragic story of Maori women at the bottom of our economy’s ladder and most vulnerable to domestic violence, illnesses and early deaths. This painting clearly states that to regain balance and harmony, Maori women must take the first steps towards change. Kahukiwa’s ‘step’ with this painting was (and still is) justifiable. It is also well overdue, though unpopular among those who wish to retain their oppressive and chauvinistic stranglehold on women of all cultures.