Hotere: Out the Black Window. Ralph Hotere’s Work with New Zealand Poets. Auckland Art Gallery / Toi o Tāmaki, 4 July – 9 September.
Hone Tuwhare & Ralph Hotere (1987)
I can hear you
making small holes
in the silence
Rain. It started early that morning: dark, blustery rain. As I drove to meet Hone Tuwhare in Grey Lynn, where he was staying until the Montana Book Awards ceremony (his latest collection, Shape-shifter, won the poetry section this year), I could barely see the other cars on the road. They skidded along, each in their own halo of spray.
But if I
should not hear
smell or feel or see
you would still
wash over me
The poem “Rain” has been reprinted in anthologies, set to music, and painted more than once by the artist Ralph Hotere, whose touring exhibition Out the Black Window is now on show in the Auckland Art Gallery. But Hotere never speaks about the meaning of his own works. Nor, I soon discovered, does his friend, Hone Tuwhare.
Does rain actually need a meaning? The poem simply calls it “small holes in the silence.” Is it possible to make a painting which expresses that? Ralph Hotere has made a long hanging – rain has a long way to fall from the sky – speckled and lined with grey. The words of the poem, at the bottom, are scrawled, stencilled, smudged in a series of different letterings.
“Every time he’s used something of mine the poems were written first,” Hone told me. “What Ralph has done with them is up to him. I can’t explain it for you.” I can’t explain it either. It isn’t really a matter for explanations. You feel its beauty or you don’t. But perhaps we can all be assisted to feel. Why else do we have poems and paintings?
Hone Tuwhare, one of New Zealand’s most celebrated poets, was born in Northland, in the Hokianga, in 1922. His 1964 book No Ordinary Sun was the first ever published by a Maori poet. The title-poem, about the effects of nuclear testing in the Pacific, is the subject of another memorable painting in Hotere’s exhibition.
“He’s one of our most political painters,” Hone said. “I’ve always respected him for that.” The two men share a passion for the environment, for ecology, for political commitment, which goes some way towards explaining the harmony of their work.
Their two careers have run strangely parallel in many ways. Hotere, also born in the Hokianga, now makes his home in Dunedin where (he once remarked) “they accept that I’m a painter and leave me to go about my work.” Hone, after long years in Auckland, Wellington, Dunedin, has settled on the South Otago coast. Like Hotere, he now needs solitude a good deal of the time. Both artists share a fascination with language, with the sounds and shapes of words – with their limitations, also.
Gregory O’Brien’s exhibition catalogue for the Hotere show sets the dark, wordless painting “Requiem” beside Hone’s “We, Who Live in Darkness.” That poem, about the Maori creation myth of Rangi and Papa, asks “what was time, anyway? Black intensities / of black on black on black feeding on itself? / Something immense? Immeasureless?”
As Hone read the poem aloud to me (his usual response to any question about them), he paused on the last word. “‘Immeasureless’ isn’t correct, they tell me – not good grammar.” The same thing has been said about a lot of his poems. They veer from pub language, Kiwi vernacular, to Shakespearean or Biblical rhetoric.
“Immeasureless” does stop us short, make us think about those “intensities of black on black” – the same blackness brooding in the heart of Hotere’s painting. In the poem “Hotere,” Hone said:
… when you score a superb orange
circle on a purple thought-base
I shake my head and say: hell, what
is this thing called aroha
Like, I’m euchred, man. I’m eclipsed?
The language is careful, precise – but local. That question mark at the end is not, Hone remarked to me, to show doubt, but because “Kiwi kids always go up at the end of a sentence.”
“I thought he’d hate the poem. But when he saw it he really liked it; he wanted to use it in his exhibition.”
We live in a dark world: “a visual kind of starvation,” as Hone puts it. South Africa, the Springbok tour, the French nuclear tests, the Aramoana smelter, these are some of the issues which Hone and Hotere have dealt with together. Hotere paints on old bits of corrugated iron and canvas which have been discarded as rubbish; Hone writes, at times, in a kind of disposable street language. Perhaps what they finally have in common is that they are trying to salvage something for us. And not all the paintings are black.
As I ended my long conversation with Hone Tuwhare he pressed a bottle of wine on me as a parting gift. “Are you sure?” I asked, uncertain. “It’s a koha,” he said, “for aroha.” Read his poems; look at Ralph’s pictures. What is this thing called aroha?