CURATORS Gregory O'Brien, Aaron Lister
John Pule explores his diasporic Pacific identity through his painting and writing. Hauaga surveys twenty years of his art, since he began exhibiting in the 1990s.
Born in the village of Liku, in Niue, in 1962, Pule emigrated to Auckland with his family in 1964. In 1991, he travelled back to Niue and connected with the traditional art of hiapo—paintings on felted mulberry-bark cloth. Pule says: ‘I saw hiapo in a different way. Of course I could see all the patterns and the grids in it, but, from a very early time, I saw this Polynesian architecture that I couldn’t quite place. I knew it had something to do with building and being occupied by stories, stories that belonged to other people.’
Pule’s early hiapo-based works, like Mafola (1991), feature Niuen patterns, abstracted images of plants and fish, and references to European art and Christianity. Pule employs hiapo's formal devices—patterns, grids, and rhythms. Fragmented into zones, his early works are highly structured and optically mesmerising. The Pulenoa Triptych (1995) combines threads of the artist’s life, Niuan history and mythology, and the impact of Christianity on Niueans, in both Niue and New Zealand. Its title means ‘without consent’, and the work addresses the foreign intrusion into the Pacific, particularly French and American nuclear tests.
In the early 2000s, Pule’s paintings open up formally. In his ‘cloud paintings’, stories, figures, and symbols are dispersed over tiered, bulbous, inky cloud forms. The clouds, which could be celestial or nuclear, hover over landscapes of human and mythological activity. Much of the imagery revolves around war and destruction and the blight of religion. Drips become tendrils that link the clouds, signifying ti mata alea, the Cordyline tree, from which the Niuean people and culture are said to have bloomed.
Several suites of lithographs are included. The earliest, Restless Spirit (2000), recalls medieval illustrated manuscripts. It combines text from Pule’s 1990 novel The Shark that Ate the Sun (Ko E Mago Ne Kai E La) and expressive images of animals, figures, symbols, and structures.
Hauaga: The Art of John Pule (2010)—the first book to address Pule’s art—is launched at the exhibition opening. It features essays by Peter Brunt, Gregory O'Brien, and Nicholas Thomas, plus poetry by Pule.