The most famous – and arguably single most important – artwork produced in New Zealand this century goes on display at City Gallery Wellington on November 6, 1999: Colin McCahon’s Urewera Mural.
More column inches have been devoted to this painting than perhaps any other in the country. The object of a highly publicised political ‘theft’ in June 1997 from the Aniwanawa Visitor’s Centre, the Urewera Mural forms the centrepiece of an exhibition at City Gallery Wellington of 10 works by Colin McCahon, regarded as the outstanding New Zealand artist of the 20th century.
McCahon’s paintings confront us and ask that we examine our lives and acknowledge the spiritual essence of our country, says Gallery director, Paula Savage. It is appropriate then that some of the greatest paintings of the second half of the 20th century are in the Gallery as we proceed into the uncertainties of the 21st century.
Ms Savage says the Urewera Mural will help visitors understand something of Te Urewera, the history of the place, its people, and its significance to both Maori and Pakeha. Representatives of the Tuhoe people will be in Wellington for the opening of the exhibition.
Described by one commentator as smoulderingly beautiful, the painting depicts the brooding majesty of the Urewera, and the ancient bond between the Tuhoe people and the land. McCahon spells out across the painting the names of the Tuhoe ancestors, the bloodline of the Tuhoe iwi, their sacred mountain, and prophets Rua and Te Kooti.
The ‘tau cross’ forms a central axis in the Mural, and is echoed in different forms in the nine other works in the exhibition. Holding a plethora of meanings for McCahon – from the mundane, to the mythical and deeply spiritual – it is forms a central motif in McCahon - A View From Urewera.
The tau cross runs like a sequence of telegraph poles through the works gathered here. Spoken and written words amass on either side of – as well as above – these poles, says curator Gregory O’Brien. The texts shift from Maori to English, and include excerpts from the Bible, Maori poetry, a poem by the artist’s friend Toss Woollaston, and the artist’s own words.
Other works in the exhibition have been loaned from private, public and corporate collections, including the Jenny Gibbs Trust, the Chartwell Trust and Te Papa.
Colin McCahon was born in Timaru in 1919, the son of Ethel and John McCahon. He began exhibiting paintings in 1939 and in 1942 he married fellow painter Anne Hamblett, with who he had four children. In May 1953 the family moved to Auckland where McCahon worked at the Auckland City Art Gallery, eventually becoming Deputy Director. While at the Gallery, he painted, exhibited and taught art classes at night and designed sets for New Zealand plays. He visited America on a Carnegie Institute Grant in 1958, and lectured at the Elam School of Fine Arts from 1964 until 1970, when he was finally able to paint full time. A survey exhibition of his worked toured New Zealand in 1972, and in 1983 he was honoured with a solo exhibition in the 1983 Fifth Biennale of Sydney, entitled I will need words. He died in Auckland in 1987.