This is high art. Literally, physically, even metaphysically. The painted curls and crescents and half circles, the flora and fauna and stylised figures that swarm up the heke (rafters) of the whare whakairo, the decorated meeting house. This is kowhaiwhai, the soaring art practice of John Hovell.
“Kowhaiwhai has always been something fizzy and slightly frenetic,” he says on the phone from a borrowed house on the Coromandel (in summer he’ll return home, to a demobilised house truck in Kennedy Bay, where he grew up – no phone, no computer).
“The carvings, the big fellas in warrior stance – they’re quite rigid and still. The tukutuku [woven wall panels] are the landscape where descent lines and relationships with the land come in. Kowhaiwhai is about things unfolding and progressing. It is the on button, setting all these things going.”
These things, swarming across the airy headspaces of often-isolated buildings in the Coromandel and the East Coast, are of the natural world: birds and fish and growing, creeping, fruiting plants; human stories of voyaging and food-gathering, each anchored to the brevity of a whakatauki (saying) and the specific markers of place.
“The old-time Maori, the adze-maker and carver and stone-worker, picked up bird bones and shells, all these lovely things that have form and function, and worked out how the shape was part of the narrative of that creature,” says Hovell. “The shell that has patterns on it is a narrative of the life it lived in those waters: it might have starved, or the waters were warm – that story is laid down. So they become little lexicons of motifs and pattern.”
Or visual mnemonics, used “to preserve and pass on vital information of the fleeting and incidental, a kind of graffiti within the high seriousness of the whare whakairo”, writes Damien Skinner in The Passing World: The Passage of Life – John Hovell and the Art of Kowhaiwhai, an illustrated non-fiction finalist in this year’s New Zealand Post Book Awards.
Hovell had a barefoot and “dangerous” childhood, playing not cowboys and Indians, but Ngati Porou and Ngapuhi (his ancestry allowed him to battle for both sides). He went to Mt Albert Grammar School, then completed a BA from the University of Auckland before training from 1965 under master carver Paratene Matchitt at Hamilton Teachers Training College. It had to be teaching – “Both my parents said, ‘You will be a teacher.’”
And it had to be art. “From when I could hold a pencil, I drew and painted and made up designs. My great-grandmother was a painter – I inherited her brushes and palette knife – and my Pakeha mother pushed me towards Maori art. The first book she gave me was Wilhelm Dittmer’s Te Tohunga (The Ancient Legends and Traditions of the Maoris). I was 10 and that was my doorway into Maori art. That was my bible.”
But it was Matchitt who set Hovell on the “physical voyage” of Maori art. Was he picked? “Yes, in a way I was. Para said, ‘Painting is your work.’”
When he was teaching in the East Coast township of Te Araroa, Hovell spent long evenings studying the integrated art forms of the whare whakairo with master carver Pineamine Taiapa. His paintings from this period are an often startling negotiation of landscape through the lens of modernist art: kauri forests, stylised and organic; waterfalls abstracted to a single kape rua (crescent shape) referencing Colin McCahon’s silvered arcs; non-figurative kowhaiwhai motifs alluding to the geometric forms of Australian artist Leonard French – all laid down, using his great-grandmother’s palette knife, in a thick slurry of paint, linseed oil and putty on panels of coarse hessian.
This was the feel of East Coast art: muscular, not an “arty” thing. “As an artist on the East Coast, you had to prove yourself. You were a diver or fencer or shearer. [You] carve or weave or paint kowhaiwhai, plane the wood, sand it down, hack it out of the bush. Maori art in the 1960s had that great vitality.”
As part of the formative Maori Artists and Writers group (later Nga Puna Waihanga), Hovell took part in the restoration of meeting houses under the guidance of Matchitt, Arnold Wilson, Sandy Adsett and Cliff Whiting. Weekends were spent cleaning and repainting ageing kowhaiwhai, including the bold figurative work in the meeting houses built for Te Kooti Arikirangi, a scandalously innovative – “brilliant”, says Hovell – art form later superseded by the revival of more traditional designs.
Lying on his back, paint dripping in his eyes, was a good apprenticeship, he says. “The rafters were all hand-adzed, so the texture of the paint was very evident and the design followed the oddities in the wood. In old meeting houses, the rafters are like the rib bones of a whale – flat at the tip then they swell out, like a nikau leaf unfolding from the bole. The whole thing was crafted so the paint was more than two-dimensional and became something else.”
In 1982, Hovell moved to Hawke’s Bay, to Te Aute College and a curriculum increasingly focused on Maori art.
“Other artists would come down and see what we were doing. There was quite a competitive element, as there is in all Maori art. I remember one art teacher saying, ‘I’m taking my pupils to Italy, what are you going to do?’ I said, ‘I’m taking mine to the swamp to catch eels.’”
The eels are there, in the fale-shaped roof space of the school dining hall, part of a wildly unconventional narrative of flora, fauna and food-gathering; the blue of kereru, the orange of squid – and black. Not a dead black, says Hovell, but the black of te Po, the cosmic night. “The old ladies in the pit [where they dyed the flax] would say, ‘It’s not just black, it has browns and blues in it – black is full of possibilities.’ With kowhaiwhai, you are jumping off into something universal through the old ladies’ pit.”
In 1986, Hovell was asked to produce the kowhaiwhai for the new University of Auckland meeting house, Tane-nui-a-Rangi. The result is a gentle integration of non-traditional colours (blues, greens, greys) and tonal techniques suggestive of a waxing and waning of land (green) and sea (blue), of discovery and loss, of dreams or memories flying up from the carved wall figures.
“Kowhaiwhai swings from side to side like a snake, up one side and down the other. This is the lifeline, the manawa, the heartbeat. That is what the old people look for.”
For 20 years, Hovell lived in the Solomon Islands, teaching art and commencing a PhD on non-literary systems of tribal knowledge: the carving, weaving and knot patterns of the outlying Polynesian islands. In the ancient Lapita patterns, he found stories later carried across the Pacific on gourds and in facial tattoos. “I felt I was looking at the origins of Maori art, very early forms of art preserved.”
Instead of completing his PhD, Hovell trained as an Anglican minister, applying his art practice to altar screens and banners, with traditional Christian themes reproduced “in an island way”.
In the Solomons, “art is made for the moment. They make beautiful art and they burn it. Made and lost – it’s an interesting perspective.”
But always he returned, permanently in 2007, to work on new projects, often alongside Ngati Porou carver Pakariki Harrison (who died in 2008), always as part of a team. “The pleasure comes from working constructively with others on a project,” he says. “Anonymity is still very much a factor in Maori art, and is one of the assurances that what one does makes sense.”
THE PASSING WORLD: THE PASSAGE OF LIFE – JOHN HOVELL AND THE ART OF KOWHAIWHAI, by Damian Skinner (Rim, $49.99).