Warriors and Chiefs, Canoes and Creatures: Paintings on Iconic Maori Carvings by Alvin Pankhurst

I’m glad I discovered the work of Alvin Pankhurst (born 1949), a New Zealand realist-surrealist painter with two successful galleries, in Parnell (Auckland) and Pauanui (the Coromandel). Alvin, who studied at the Wellington Polytechnic School of Graphic Design, is an internationally recognised leader in Maori subjects. His early paintings showed the passing of time with roots growing from wild roses, in Victorian interiors. Now the art he makes is steeped in legends and history, presenting Maori artifacts across stunning seashores and lakes.

Alvin writes: “I grew up around the Wairau pa along the banks of the Wairau river, 10 km north of Blenheim. I loved carving as a kid but the spirituality that the Maori master carvers were able to achieve makes your hair stand on end. We can’t ever let the Maori culture and history be lost, so all I can do is try to paint how I feel about the beauty and importance of New Zealand’s native people. That is why I have titles such as ABOUT TIME, OUR TIME, IT’S ABOUT TIME, SPIRITUAL JOURNEY, GUIDING SPIRITS, etc. The Maori culture is the only thing that makes us different from any other country, and it must be held up for everyone to see and for nobody to forget.”

 

Alvin Pankhurst in front of his painting Tuturu Aotearoa (The Real New Zealand). The Whirinaki National Park is about an hour from Rotorua. The war waka is emerging after centuries of being hidden. If the maori call you “kotuku” (the white heron) it is the highest compliment. It means you are rare and beautiful.

 

The artist continues on his themes: “I married Ephra in 1975 and found during our overseas adventures that all anyone knew about art in New Zealand was the Maori art with their beautiful carvings, wakas, marae, weaving and songs! And of course the mokos/tattoos and hakas. In 1976, we moved to Auckland and started a series about the early European settlers’ hazardous journey to New Zealand. Over 150 ships were wrecked, most people were saved but there must have been a lot of furniture washed up on the shore. The furniture and crockery made beautiful paintings. I was always reading and hearing stories about amazing Maori treasures being exposed by coastal erosion or by the draining of wetlands.

“When under threat of attack from other tribes the Maori buried their treasures in sand pits or hid them in caves. Their waka were camouflaged with reeds under water in the rivers. My paintings of the great Maori warriors and chiefs, and of war wakas, fishing wakas and taniwha are of carvings by great Maori carvers over the last three to four centuries. The paintings of the iconic Maori carvings reflect the feeling of spirituality, peace, tranquillity and history.”

Alvin has won several awards over the years, including the Air New Zealand National Art Award and Benson and Hedges. In 2001, he became the first New Zealander living in New Zealand to secure a place at the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in London. His business is managed by his wife Ephra. They have two sons, Matthew (LLB BA) who works in the galleries, and Andre who is married to Anna and works for Gaudy in Sweden. Andre, a goldsmith/jeweller, makes jewellery for eminent European families.

An important event in Alvin’s life and career occurred while he was still in college. “When I was 19 and completing my Honours in Wellington,” he says, “my bed-sit studio was burnt down, destroying all of my art. It was a result of a combination of oils, solvents, a heater and attempted murder between two visitors to my studio. Severely burnt, the experience dramatically altered my view of paintings and I decided to concentrate on quality not quantity.”

Links: Website (pankhurst.co.nz) | Facebook (www.facebook.com/alvinpankhurstgalleries)

Images used with permission.

 

Mother Earth (2018). Alvin writes: “The chief Pukaki was a great leader held in such high respect. It is his compassion and love that emanates from this unforgettable carving. It is so powerful and comforting that even the taniwha Marakihau wants to be around him. The feeling of peace and magic at twilight alters our perception of many objects and stirs the imagination.”

 

Guiding Spirits (2017). Alvin writes: “I feel the spirits on every beach in New Zealand, our history is everywhere. The power for good is in the Maori culture and the unbelievable gifts they gave us. I see Paikea guiding Tiki back into the light. We really need our heroes to return.”

 

Duck Creek (2015). Alvin writes: “This setting is found around creeks, swamps, rivers and lakes all around New Zealand. We have all fished, swum or thrown stones in these waters. They all have ducks like the mother mallard and her young.”

 

Spiritual Home (2014). Alvin writes: “The kotuku (white herons) feed against a backdrop of Mt Cook/ Aorangi and the Southern Alps on the west coast of the South Island of New Zealand. The most sacred bird in Maoridom, the kotuku breed nearby. The fishing waka rests in Lake Matheson.”

 

Resurgence (2008). Alvin writes: “Pukaki was a famous chief and leader of the Ngati Whakaue people. He was carved with his warrior sons, by Te Taupua in the 1830s. Paikea was saved by a whale after his half-brother tried to drown him in a power struggle. Paikea  was carved by Pine Taiapa in 1839 for the Whitireia meeting house in Whangara.”

 

Their Time (2008). “Chief Pukaki and Tiki, Pukaki’s nephew, born in the early 1700s were great warriors and friends from Ngati Whakaue. Carved in the 1820s as gateways protecting Pukeroa Pa, on the hill above Ohinemutu, Rotorua.”

 

Spiritual Journey (2009). Alvin writes: “The war canoe (waka) was the most prized possession of the Maori, and the flying stance of the figure on the waka was inspired by the kotuku bird (white heron) which is the most sacred bird in Maoridom. Having been submerged for centuries the waka has emerged in the South Island’s Lake Wanaka. This very early 1800s canoe prow represents the separation of the Earth Mother “papa” from the Sky Father “Rangi”. The spirals on the war waka represent light and knowledge coming into the world.”

 

Returning Heroes (2010). Alvin writes: “Paikea was saved by a whale after his half-brother tried to drown him in a power struggle. this carving is on Witireia the meeting house at Whangara. It was carved by Pine Taiapa in 1939. Witireia is near Gisborne on the East coast of the North Island of New Zealand. The main tribe in this area is Ngati Porou. Paikea is their most famous ancestor.”

 

Tuturu Aotearoa (2010). Alvin writes: “The wakas were sunk to conceal them when the war parties were raiding neighbouring tribes. They didn’t always win. Even today some are being discovered where they lay hidden. The setting is the kahikatea Forest beside the Arahaki Lagoon, Whirinaki Forest Park, Central North island.”

 

Transition (2007). Alvin writes: “The carver Te Umanui carved Tiki in the early 1800s with stone and green stone tools. Tiki’s spirit can appear anywhere in New Zealand.”

 

The Last Stand (2007). Alvin writes: “This waka emerging from the deep of the Whirinaki Forest Park outside Rotorua is typical of those used in raiding parties. Maori would sink them to hide their presence, and then bail out to return home, but did they always return?”

 

About Time (2006). Alvin writes: “This was my first Maori painting. I loved every moment I spent looking at it and painting it. Historically Tiki was an important leader of the Ngati Whakaue people. The weapon in Tiki’s hand denotes him as a great warrior. This was one of the carvings on the gateways to Pukeora Pa on the hill above Ohinemutu in Rotorua. His uncle the great chief Pukaki was the other carving.”

 

Maybe Tomorrow (1974). Alvin writes: “The winning painting in New Zealand’s largest Biennial Art Award in 1974. It was purchased by the Dunedin Art Gallery for a New Zealand record price. The painting is painted from the viewpoint of the old man reflected in the mantelpiece mirror . The mirror above the mantelpiece reflects the back of his head, and the vandalised derelict room of the present. He is looking at the derelict room  and remembering how it used to be. The roots represent time that has passed in the same way cobwebs, dust, rust and decay represent age.”

 

Urban Sprawl (1970). Alvin writes: “I started URBAN SPRAWL the day after I finished my portrait, my studio had this window and the fireplace that I painted  in MAYBE TOMORROW. My bed was in this room and I went to sleep watching the moonlight on the ladder. The blind had no cord, so I never closed the blind. I could lean out the window and touch the ladder. I was a finalist in the NZ Benson & Hedges Art Award 1970 with URBAN SPRAWL. It was bought by the then Minister of Justice Dr Martyn Findlay and hung behind his desk in Parliament.”

 

Self-Portrait (1970). Alvin writes: “The first painting I painted after the fire. My face was illuminated by candlelight (firelight) showing how I felt as a 19 year old, after having spent months in hospital recovering from my burns, and losing everything I had. The bust is supported by the back view of the skeleton of a foot in a hole (I must have felt insecure). The SELF PORTRAIT was on the cover of the Young Contemporaries Touring Exhibition.”

 


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