Towards the end of last year, the late Ralph Hotere’s painting ‘Godwit/Kuaka’ was on display at Wellington’s City Gallery*. This photograph, taken on my phone, does not do it justice. But you cannot really appreciate this 18 metre long work from one vantage point. You need to connect with it from different places within the gallery, from different viewpoints. When I first saw it, I felt compelled to walk alongside it, to process the length of it. The painting is a journey.
‘Godwit/Kuaka’ was commissioned to hang in the arrivals hall at Auckland airport and I imagined arriving passengers following the painting as they pushed their baggage trolleys towards the exit. They would have walked past the changing colours that seem to recede and ripple on the dark mottled background, past the darkness at the centre of the painting, and the Te Reo Māori words that may have seemed foreign or familiar, and then through the colours once again. Perhaps they would have been half-aware of their own shadowy reflections accompanying them along the enamelled surface of the painting. And then maybe they would have turned away, emerging through the sliding glass doors and out into the shock of the blinding southern hemisphere light.
Those reflections in the surface of the painting feel like a visual distraction. When I stood back to look at it in the City Gallery, I could see myself in dark outline hovering in front of the gallery window behind me. I watched a documentary about Hotere, which featured the painting in its original setting, and realised that the reflections of bright airport lights on the painting were intentional, like Hotere’s paintings on mirrors, that they are a part of the moment in which they are viewed.
The reflections are one of many layers in the painting, along with the stripes of colour, and the dark circles, and the text, all floating on darkness. The painting is also saturated with layers of meaning – Kriselle Baker explores these in detail in her fascinating essay about Godwit/Kuaka which I have drawn on here.
Like the arriving passengers, bar-tailed godwits, or kuaka (Limosa Lapponica), are travellers. The godwits in New Zealand migrate to and from Alaska, their nine day journey the longest non-stop flight undertaken by any bird. They gather on mudflats, like those of Manukau Harbour, close to Auckland Airport.
Godwits hold special significance for Māori: Kupe the great explorer was said to have been alerted to the existence of New Zealand by the flight of the godwits, and Māori believed that the departing birds were travelling back to the ancestral Māori homeland of Hawaiki. For Hotere’s Northland iwi (tribe), Te Aupōuri, godwits are associated with the journey of the spirits of the dead, which were believed to travel up the North Island to depart from its northernmost tip into the world of darkness. The godwits also gather at the top of the North Island, at Kapo-wairua (Spirits Bay) in large numbers, waiting for favourable winds to start their journey north.
The poem about godwits that is transcribed on the painting is one of welcome. It is intricately connected with Te Aupōuri tribal identity, which itself is connected with both the darkness of night, the cycle of life and death, and the darkness that existed before creation brought light. The full text of the poem and a beautiful translation can be found here.
The migratory nature of godwits is significant for all New Zealanders though, our national identity tied up in arrivals and departures. Anyone living in New Zealand has arrived from somewhere far away, either in recent or handed-down memory. And New Zealanders leave too, a central theme of Robyn Hyde’s semi-autobiographical (and rather depressing novel) set in early 20th century Wellington, ‘The Godwits Fly’. This essay here by Thomas McLean meditates on the links between migration and Hotere’s painting.
The nearest place to Wellington where you can see godwits is the mudflats at Foxton Beach. I had planned to go up there and find some, but I ran out of time, because I had to fly too, although not so far away. I will be living in Melbourne for most of 2015, and, like the godwits, I will be returning.
I will still be writing of course, about Melbourne and other things place-related, either here at Rising to Gale, or somewhere new – I haven’t decided yet. Watch this space.
*The painting has now returned to Auckland Art Gallery – I’m not sure whether it is permanently on display there.
Baker K (2008) He Kuaka Marangaranga: A godwit that hovers, in ‘Hotere’ (2008) Ron Sang Publications
Hotere (2001) – Documentary by Merata Mita, which you can watch online here if you are in New Zealand