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'Te Puhi o te tai Haruru', 1984-85

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'Te Puhi o te tai Haruru', 1984-85


This is an oil painting on hessian on board, created in 1984-85 by New Zealand artist Tony Fomison (1939-90). It is a large, horizontal composition with two Polynesian faces in the foreground and middle ground, and a coastal landscape in the right background. The larger portrait fills the left third of the canvas, and is cropped severely so that it appears in extreme close-up. In the lower middle of the canvas there is a head-and-shoulders portrait of a younger Māori woman. Behind and above her is a large overhanging rock frontage, while in the background to the right are sea, coastline and sky. The work measures 90.5 cm x 181.7 cm.

Source Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa

Educational value:
  • This asset is an example of the work of one of New Zealand's significant 20th-century painters, perhaps best known for his figurative work and dark-hued palette - this large work uses a compressed sense of space within the composition to characterise a particular unease.
  • It is representative of many of Tony Fomison's interests - it draws on his longstanding ambition to make mural-sized 'apocalyptic' paintings of history in New Zealand, his interest in Māori rock drawings and his 'sense of a burgeoning biculturalism'.
  • It comes as close as Fomison ever does to depicting a particular place - it is set on a shore line in Taranaki (on the west coast of the North Island) where he also studied Māori rock drawings; the feathers worn by the female figure refer to the Taranaki people of Te Whiti o Rongomai (a 19th-century Māori leader renowned for his pacifist resistance to European settlement); Fomison imagined the ancestors of this place, and sought to confront his audiences with this tangible, powerful past.
  • It illustrates his attitude towards the use of pre-European Maori rock drawings by contemporary artists - in 1959, Fomison worked for Canterbury Museum making tracings of rock drawings in South Canterbury in the South Island, but he was critical of European artists who used the drawings as the basis for their own creative work; Fomison made it clear that his landscapes do not have any literal reference to the rock drawings.
  • It illustrates Fomison's belief that 'In pre-pakeha times at least, art was too sacred for casual use ... none but a craftsman in the service of his ancestors was free to render the sacred spiral in a more permanent form'; rather than copy the actual markings directly from these Māori rock drawings which inspired him, Fomison imagines the people who made them.
  • It is the largest of a number of paintings Fomison made about the 'handing on' of ancestral knowledge - the female Puhi figure can be seen as the daughter of a chief looking to her ancestors for guidance.
  • It is the work of a painter who has been called a New Zealand expressionist - while he has little in common with European expressionists, he has been associated with the Australians Boyd, Nolan and Williams, although his work is less openly decorative.

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