One night at a poetry reading in the early 1980s, John Pule—then a poet in his early 20s—stunned Auckland’s literary and bohemian crowd with a reading. “To that group of poets,” he says, “I would have been the last person—and a brown one at that—who after months of just listening, would suddenly burst out with the entire Ode.” The ode in question, in which John Keats relates his intoxication by the nightingale’s eternal song, which in turn throws his own mortality into bittersweet relief, was Ode to a Nightingale. That the poem remains one of Pule’s favorites says something about the humanist character of his paintings. Keats, he explains, taught him sensitivity and how to “use language to create deep feelings.”
These days, in addition to having become one of New Zealand’s most renowned artists, Pule continues to write novels and poems. What began as a formal correspondence between us in March 2009 soon wandered off track, with our e-mails passing back and forth between New Zealand and Australia over several months. “We laughed that night,” Pule says. “When I finished, these friends just raised their glasses as drinkers do, and from then on I felt I was surely part of that group; more than just as a poet.”
By his late teens, Pule’s imagination had already been indelibly shaped by childhood experiences. Born in 1962 in Ulumago, Niue, he grew up in New Zealand after his family emigrated there when he was two. His family life in Otara, a “statehouse” (government housing) suburb of Pacific migrants in south Auckland, was less than ideal—his father was an alcoholic, a fact that, as a young man, Pule found hard to accept. “He carried his illness like a disease. I felt I knew his anger.”
Pule was educated at an American Mormon school, and attended church every Saturday and Sunday. The churches’ stale interiors and the preachers’ long sermons made him feel anxious. “They read horrific stories from Revelations, full of avenging angels and eternal punishment by fire and decapitation,” which left Pule certain that divine retribution existed, and yet he remained “the worst candidate for God to pat on the head like a pet lamb.”
However, it was his conversations with his fiery, independent aunt that offered him an entirely different perspective on the world. For 30 years she shared family stories, genealogies and secrets, and taughthim Niuean myths, songs and dances. She recounted tales of how the jagged coastline of his birthplace was shaped by the violent thrashing of sex between a human and a shark and that he is a descendant of sharks. “Through this contact,” he recalls, “I learned how to write my own kind of stories, using universal themes, but still my own.”
When Pule began to paint in the early 1980s, it was without an art-school education. He was enthralled with Edvard Munch and Vincent van Gogh. “I made paintings that were anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-Christ, anti-anything that I saw as a threat to my beloved Pacific,” he says. From this point, Pule progressed to canvases filled with poetry written in Niuean, but it was with his interest in hiapo that his works suddenly began to incandesce.
Niuean hiapo is the most freehand of all the Pacific barkcloth traditions, dating back to the mid-19th century, when Western and Niuean cultures met, during which time Protestant missionaries converted the island population. Pule describes hiapo as “a very beautiful fusion of responses to meetings and language. They are filled with all sorts of images: Western, traditional, words, dates, numbers, marine and botanical.” In 1991 he began to utilize what academic Nicholas Thomas has described as hiapo’s “optical energy,” adopting its grid-like composition, as well as simple scenes of people cradling each other, making love and nursing the sick—tender images that elicit deep compassion for human fragility.
Pule continued working in this manner through the 1990s. Acknowledgment of his importance to the Pacific art scene grew with his participation in “Bottled Ocean,” the first major group show of contemporary Polynesian art, curated by artist Jim Viviaere, which toured New Zealand in 1994 and 1995. Unprecedented recognition of Pule’s work followed in 1996 when the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa acquired his epic canvas Episode AA-940035 (1994). Pule was also invited to exhibit at both the 1995 Gwangju Biennale in South Korea, and the 1996 Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane. Throughout this period he continued to write, publishing his first novel, The Shark that Ate the Sun, in 1992, and his second, Burn My Head in Heaven, in 2000.
At this time, Pule’s structured and visually dense compositions began to assume an openness, developing into what have been described as his “cloud paintings.” During this transitional phase he produced a series of 12 lithographs, “Restless Spirit Suite” (2000), in which the hallmarks of his more recent work began to emerge.
The series takes its name from a poem Pule wrote in 1990 (published as a chapter in The Shark that Ate the Sun), when he was “living in a shed, in a valley on an island in the gulf near Auckland.” Initially set in his childhood home, its semi-autobiographical narrative follows him on a journey through his youth, “from house to house, borstal to jail . . . so drunk I forgot my name, forgot the name of my country, forgot my village, my people, my sister’s children, and where I live.” Passing through a lover’s lament, the narrative ends up in the Solomon Islands, which Pule had visited in 1986. There he roamed for weeks, until he landed in the southernmost island, San Cristobal, where, as the poem bears out, he found the immediacy of life.
As a text that Pule describes as “floating between dreams, surrealism, realism, biography and history,” frequently expressed in a jagged automatism that recalls the work of French Surrealist writer and artist André Breton, at its core Restless Spirit is a poem of growing self-awareness. “When I write or paint,” says Pule, “I am trying to tell a story about something that makes me aware of who I am.” He explains that creating the lithographs to illustrate the poem ten years after it was written “suited the way I drew at the time—uncertain, spontaneous and burning with desire.”
Inscribed onto the upper half of each print is a section of the poem, which becomes a stage in a theater of motifs, fragments of pattern and vignettes. Lines of text are underscored with threads that evolve into the trajectories of birds, a track left in the sand by a lizard, the line of the horizon. These lines wander up and down, transmuting into more birds, sharks and lizards—all creatures that figure in Niuean mythology. Hiapo grids have been stripped back to smeared crosshatches, and both inside and outside of them one finds erotic images of lovers. There is melancholy too: people forlornly laying Christ down from the cross and tending his wounds; black clouds raining over islands and lovers alike; a teardrop falling from a single eye.
In its middle, the poem calls to “Rescue Ruth from the cornfield.” Pule is referring to the Old Testament figure of Ruth as she appears in Ode to a Nightingale, evoking not only a distant time but a longing for homeland: “Perhaps the self-same song that found a path / Through the sad heart of Ruth, when, sick for home / She stood in tears amid the alien corn.” So it is that Pule also illustrates islands: the volcanic Rangitoto Island not far from Otara, doubling as a hallucinatory Niue, appearing from afar in silhouette and supplanted with a cross—the promise of salvation.
As the series progresses, there is an increasing sense of ease. It concludes with the discovery of a poem written in black beach sand, reading, “Last night I passed some people celebrating the discovery of Life, they did not notice as they were busy dancing.” In both words and imagery, “The Restless Spirit Suite” encourages us to celebrate life without noticing, even in the face of inescapable self-awareness.
The works that followed comprise vast white canvases of skyscapes dotted with clouds, sometimes rendered in olive green or rust but mostly blood red, applied as puddles of enamel that ooze freely down the canvas like weeping wounds. Drips from the clouds become falling tendrils of cordyline, ti mata alea, the plant from which Niuean mythology has it that the island’s people first sprung. “I chose clouds and the sky because they feature so powerfully in the Bible,” says Pule. “The sky is second only to the sea as a mass that fills my imagination with awe. I see this space as a sort of backdrop to a place that is ideal, you know, a place that is full of metaphors for social change.”
In Mamalu (When I Look at the World) (2007), as in all of these paintings, the clouds double as islands, and upon this uncertain ground. Throughout these works Pule depicts people burdened with heavy objects and facing ordeals: lizards with fierce tongues, monstrous birds and sharks with gaping mouths. In Pule’s hands these predatory creatures become emblematic of internalized emotions. “Depicting people going about their life is one of the simplest acts,” he says. “Many of the people in this work are toiling, struggling to carry large objects. More than likely they have one goal in common, and that is to endure human emotions and desires.”
Circular patterns, which could be interpreted as a cartographic vision of islands in the Pacific, or a constellation of celestial bodies, further define the sky; and within these “heavens” there are churches and crucifixes. Although Christianity is inextricably linked with the colonization of the Pacific, Pule’s work makes no overt postcolonial statement. Motifs of churches, and recently of mosques too, remain a personal as well as a universal open metaphor, neither wholly benign nor wholly malign. As the people of Mamalu ascend this realm of clouds and vines, scrambling toward these heavens, it is clear that Pule has made this work in order for us to witness and share in theirjourney. “That’s exactly what I want people to see when they stand in front of my works: simple endeavors that we all recognize.”
Pule’s most recent paintings are his most somber to date, the product of spending months walking the wind-blown beaches of West Auckland and reading two books on cultural contact in the Pacific during Captain Cook’s voyages of “discovery” during the 18th century: Anne Salmond’s Trial of the Cannibal Dog (2003) and Nicholas Thomas’ Discoveries (2004). In August and October 2009, he unveiled this new body of work in two exhibitions: “Nothing Must Remain” at Gow Langsford Gallery in Auckland, and “Different Oceans” at Karen Woodbury Gallery in Melbourne.
In these new works, executed in a cataclysmic black and white, blocks of hiapo enclose frenetic scenes converging on the beach, where people are dismembering whales, decapitating them with bow saws, breaking down their bodies and carrying off the parts. Rendered in jet-black enamel, the squally ocean waters carry the debris of shipwrecks, and the foam of the waves hitting the shoreline are visceral streams of translucent emulsion colored in a pale yellow that suggests urine mixed with viscous mucus or congealing semen. Pule says, “Beaches were sites where visitors and locals met and tried to sort out differences: skirmishes took place, even great violence. Beaches were foundations for communication and gifting, whether it was language or small objects. I also depicted whales and narwhals as metaphors for those same meetings, entangled in histories and knowledge, sexual desire, religion, bloodshed and uncertainty.”
In the densely patterned The South Land (2009), we find one of Pule’s many angels, tortured and shrieking skyward. In Homeland (2009), the angel grasps a crucifix in one hand and crushes a human in the other. His penis has morphed into a gun, and he also appears to be defecating a lizard—the animal that in Pule’s iconography is symbolic of both territoriality and sexual virility. “Throw in sex, and explorers had a great time fucking up new lands and new people,” says Pule. “They had a good fuck, economically and anthropologically.”
Nevertheless, Pule bucks any notion of these works as simple postcolonial narratives of Western exploitation of Pacific peoples. Crucially, he explains that his waves are in fact “churning [this] turbulence into seething non-negotiable emotions.” Moreover, he acknowledges that Westerners may find these works difficult to fully understand, as their “umbilical cord is tied to the Pacific.”
Throughout his career, Pule has charted the restless flow of human experience, often in the context of a personal journey of understanding and reconciliation with self—his destination expressed as a distant island on the horizon. Along the way, he has laid bare his inner landscape, showing us that desire, uncertainty and struggle are the fabric of our daily existence—not its resolution. The darker phase of his latest paintings encapsulates the tensions and complexities of previous work, although he now also speaks more broadly of humanity’s capacity for meaningless abuse, and of disasters from which there can be no turning back. His oceans possess numerous undercurrents, and exploring their murky depths is a difficult task. What optimism Pule offers is surely to be found in the sea’s capacity to connect us rather than to divide. As in all of his works, their integrity lies in their insistence on empathy.