Oil on board
340 x 390mm
The following two texts were written for Te Huringa/Turning Points and reflect the curatorial approach taken for that exhibition.
John Tole and his brother, Charles, both attended the Elam School of Fine Art, Auckland, where they came under the influence of John Weeks (1886–1965). The Tole brothers would often have travelled to Rotorua, where they, like Weeks, were friends with Dr W. S. Wallis, a local doctor who shared their interest in modern painting. They were fringe members of what the painter Melvin Day, who in 1945 had gone to the area to teach and shared a studio with Wallis, has called ‘the Rotorua Connection’.
In this attractive painting, the ability to balance tones within a composition and elements of the cubistic disintegration of form are possible evidence of Weeks’ influence. The distinctive roof gables of Whakarewarewa were as appropriate a subject for Tole as those of L’Estaque were for Georges Braque.
The fascination with architectural forms sits at the heart of this painting, though unlike his other paintings, Tole refers here to Maori people and their lifestyles. The colourful, angular shapes, mainly of rooftops, have the added embellishment of the gabled roof and maihi of a wharenui, snugly nestled in the middle of this village. The implied tekoteko adds another Maori element to this painting, as do the flax-bushes that were typically used for weaving everyday and special-purpose kete. Clothing hung out to dry is also a common sight in such a village and its inclusion adds a further human element to the painting. The rising smoke typifies this village as one that still relies upon open fires for heating, cooking and rubbish disposal. If it was not for the painting’s title, this village scene could be set from numerous locations in Aotearoa where predominantly Maori communities once resided in the 1950s.
Now, most Maori people are city-dwellers, a consequence of major urban drift that occurred after World War II. By then, rural life had become economically untenable for many Maori people, often largely due to government economic policies that resulted in Maori land title fragmentation. Indeed, continually changing land title legislation, confiscations for various reasons, the erosion of customary rights and the short-sighted over-commercialisation of natural resources dramatically and negatively altered Maori family-based economies and relations that had previously stood the test of time.
The novelty of Tole’s modernist use of colour in association with the theme of Maori village life in the 1940s and 50s remains palpable in this work. None the less, for some of its viewers, especially, but not only, those Maori who can still associate with villages such as this, memories of economic hardship and disempowerment spring all too easily to mind.
Te Huringa/Turning Points: Pākehā Colonisation and Māori Empowerment, Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare o Rehua, Whanganui, 8 April to 16 July 2006 (toured)