A Song for Rua, Prophet (triptych)

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Acrylic on paper
775 x 1000mm

cm000378 on the Colin McCahon Online Catalogue.


The inclusion of two texts for this work reflects the curatorial approach taken for the exhibition Te Huringa/Turning Points.


Peter Shaw

In late 1979, Colin McCahon began work on a three-part painting taking as its subject the Tuhoe messianic prophet Rua Kenana. He gave each painting the subtitle Dreaming of Moses. The main image of each work is a black Tau cross deriving from the Greek letter T and which represents a gate or opening. Along the top of the edge of the crossbar is a flat landscape above which appears a dark pillar of cloud. This grows increasingly larger and nearer as the three paintings progress downwards in sequence, according to the vertical hanging scheme drawn by McCahon on one of the sheets of paper.

A passage in the Book of Exodus describes how “when Pharaoh let the People go, God did not guide them by the road toward the Philistines, although that was the shortest … [but] by way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea … and all the time the Lord went before them, by day a pillar of cloud to guide them on their journey.” The analogy between Moses’ leadership of the Israelites out of Egypt and Rua’s of the Tuhoe people from colonial oppression is clear. That Rua did not fully succeed is perhaps inferred by his state of “dreaming” of Moses.

Gordon Brown has written, “McCahon sees the Maori situation as being integrated into a broader spiritual history where all share in the common events of human existence and where light and shade, life and death weave their eternal pattern upon humanity.”


Jo Diamond

This work demonstrates the convergence of an individual artist’s spiritual exploration and a Maori millennial movement of the late 19th Century. The title of this painting holds the key to its multi-layered content and form. Its earthy palette, though contributing to the abstract form of the painting, clearly resonates with references to land, though the dominant dark cruciform shape provides at least a hint of a spiritual concept applied to the landscape. It is, however, the title that asserts the painting’s Maori ‘layer’.

The word ‘Rua’, to those familiar with social and religious history in Aotearoa, will be instantly recognisable as a Maori name as well as a number (two). It provides ample opportunity for wordplay, if not metaphor. It is the name of the prophet Rua Kenana, whose religious order was based on the earlier work of Te Kooti Rikirangi, founder of the Ringatu faith. Rua’s movement, centred in the small but vibrant community of Maungapohatu, in the rugged Urewera mountain range, was millennial in that it sought a viable alternative to the religious and social order proffered by Pakeha Christian missionary efforts of the late 19th Century. A Maori ‘Moses-like’ exodus from the ‘Egypt’ imposed by New Zealand’s colonialist government provided powerful symbolic motivation for the Christian and Maori ideals of Rua’s order.

This large-scale work pays a multi-layered homage. It acknowledges Rua’s leadership in the face of great challenge and eventual belligerence from colonial forces. Given McCahon’s many Old Testament-based explorations, it is also entirely feasible that Rua is employed in this work to ‘speak’ for more than Maori political concerns. Clearly, in the artist’s mind, Rua represents human spirituality, of which Maori sensibilities are only a part. The work is about the recognition of human spiritual need, symbolised in one word: the name of a Maori prophet. Rua’s ‘song’ comes to all of us in relation to our spiritual investment in land, and perhaps its final chorus asks not only for freedom from oppression, but also for justice and peace.

Exhibition History

Te Huringa/Turning Points: Pākehā Colonisation and Māori Empowerment, Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, Whanganui, 8 April to 16 July 2006 (toured)

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