Flash Frontier

Interview: John Pule, Niuean Visual Artist and Poet

Interviews and Features

Fakaalofa atu, John Pule!
We are excited to talk with you about your art and inspiration, about your relationship to your own history and geography and the colourful world between ocean and sky.

On origins and connections


Flash Frontier: Let’s begin with a quote from you.

‘Most ideas come from living things. The best ideas come from where I come from. Where I was born is a spectacular event in itself, and that is dazzling for me as an idea.’ (2014)

You were born on the island of Niue – a rock of coral limestone that is both connected to New Zealand and also remote, isolated and specifically its own, in terms of history, geology and people. We are curious about the place you were born as an event in itself. Can you elaborate here? Tell us more specifically what dazzles you?

John Pule: The place where I was born called Pia, situated behind the pastor’s house, towards the sea. My mother described to me the day of my birth which happened sometime in the afternoon. My father took the placenta and somewhere in Pia buried it. Later we emigrated to NZ. Since then that story has practically governed my early days to make writing and painting. I tried to find out where my placenta was buried so I can build a shrine, as a way to worship this strange globular house created out of my mother’s flesh, this pito/world I was born in and lived in for nine months. That for me is a dazzling event.

Hafata, oils, enamels, ink, polyurethane, 2016, 1.500×1.500

I have written about clearing the foundation of the house I was born in many times in poetry. The other dazzling imagery is the red hibiscus shoots my mother planted the day she married my father, near the foundation of the house, near the front door. I came upon a forest of red flowers in 1991 covering the foundation like a hat. Recently I recorded myself reading on the foundation of the house I was born on. My paternal grandparents lived at Pia, as I did with my siblings. Two very old mango trees still grow. A crumbled pile of rocks that once served as oven to bake bread can still be seen.

FF: Can you tell us more about your work, Return to the First Time of My Life / Liu Ke He Mogo Fakapa He Haaku a Moui? What was it like digging into this place, these memories, after so long? Can you speak to that journey, which appears to have been an exploration of both external and internal space? Can you talk about your place between sea and sky?

JP: It wasn’t easy deciding which family land to build my hut and studio. I could have built at Pia instead I built at a place called Kavaka, on the edge of the Liku village towards the next village Hakupu. Kavaka has been home to my ancestors for centuries. Next to Kavaka is another piece of land that belonged to our family called Maleua. Here my parents grew vast fields of watermelon, talo, bananas, kumara, and set up a table on the road and sold the produces, which paid for our passage on the cargo passenger ship, the Tofua. The history of Kavaka is rich with ancient names, and there is a small family burial plot by the roadside. Kavaka translates as ‘the place where they make vaka’. My paternal grandfather is buried here, and that was one of several reasons I wanted to build here. I never met him and I only have a photo of him posing in front of the old limestone Liku Ekelesia Church before he died in 1951.

At first it was difficult to settle into village life, especially since I left as a child and returned as an adult. The elderly folks knew me at birth so they were okay it was the younger generation that saw me as the new boy on the block. I built my studio with the help of a local man from the town of Hikutuvake. Returning to build and live in Liku has its challenges.

Kavaka, oils, enamels, ink, polyurethane, 2016, 1.500×1.500

There was one way to introduce myself to Liku and that was to stage an exhibition to be held in the village hall. I painted this exhibition at Kavaka. I also saw this as an opportunity to make public an important letter Famu Moka wrote for me. She left Niue to live in New Zealand in 1942 on the cargo passenger ship Maui Pomare. Famu was the eldest in her family. I keep a photograph taken by a photographer in an Auckland studio in 1944 of my father, my grandfather, Famu Moka and their sister. This photo is inspirational, as it shows them in Auckland city at the same time, which tells me that we did travel the ocean to see other countries.

Anyway, Famu wrote the letter when she was 80 years old. In the letter she wrote the names of nine family lands around the region of Liku that belonged to our family and she named me as the custodian of these nine lands.

I painted ten paintings, titled one of them ‘RETURN TO THE FIRST TIME OF MY LIFE/ Liu kehe Mogo Fakapa He moui Haaku’, and titled nine paintings with the names of the lands. The names are as follows: Pia, Kavaka, Pekula, Futufutu, Hafata, Tau Malala, Tatafa and a house at Tu Matagi. The letter was my artist statement. The paintings sent a message and hope has cleared the pathway for me for others to see what I do. Famu also wrote a little story that was significant to that particular area of land.

FF: You are self-taught and have been described as ‘one of the most celebrated artists of the “New Oceania”’ – your work resonates in the deep reaches of Pasifika culture, and it challenges existing notions of what culture means. Did you set out as a young artist on a mission to challenge and examine, and possibly even rebel? (You once said, “I made paintings that were anti-war, anti-nuclear, anti-Christ, anti-anything that I saw as a threat to my beloved Pacific…”). Or did that path open up to you along an organic meandering path?

JP: I always liked to draw as a kid and it came naturally, but it was poetry that I turned to when I was 17. Growing up in Otara had an influence on how I saw the world as a teenager. Poverty and the constant presence of police harassment impacted on my youth and early poems. With poet friends I dabbled in politics and joined anti-nuclear groups, did voluntary work for NZ Foundation for Peace Studies, designed posters for Red Cross, wrote and performed anti-apartheid poems. Busked, recorded and toured NZ a few times with friends.

Tony Fomison was an early influence and a huge supporter. He introduced me to the owner of The French Shop who let me take an expensive box of oils paints on the basis of take now, pay later. I returned twelve years later to pay my debt, and she had tears in her eyes.

In religion I formed a personal view that Christ was a sickly unwell human when he was carried into the Pacific. Why can’t he be a positive healthy entity, why can’t we perform a symbolic ritual where he is brought down from the cross, where we bathe his diseased body, bandage him, put on an intravenous drip, clothe him and then he can walk away and live a normal life. Why do we praise a sad unhappy figure?

On memory and dream and the size of it all


FF: And what of memory, and dream? You seem to move between personal and collective memory/ dreaming. What role does the act of remembering play for you, with regard to your personal history and your work as an artist? Can you speak to The Blue Plateau of Polynesian Memory (a series containing both paintings and poetry) – the role of Oceania here, and how memory and dream weave together. Also, what’s at the heart of this piece, individually and collectively?

JP: These days I’m more interested in personal family history and investigating micro histories of Liku that has remained in people’s memories in the village.

The Blue Plateau of Polynesian Memory came about when I was in Niue looking at family lands, somewhere to build my studio and home. Traversing the ocean from New Zealand to Niue inspired the title. The blue sea, the blue sky became for me like a membranaceous sac that waters the roots of memories. Memory is adventive. The pito is the poet’s first house. I became adventurous simply by flying back and forth to the country I was born in. This is what is at the heart of this painting, and the poetry inspired by memory, pito and soil. Poetry that has roots in the pito – paintings that are like worms in the soil.

FF: Some of your work is very large-scale: Kehe tau hauaga foou: To All New Arrivals, for example. And yet, it must fit onto a canvas, or into the space allowed. Can you talk about how an idea forms and becomes something that is larger-than-room-sized but must fit on one canvas, or one wall? It seems to require an act of compression – perhaps not dissimilar to writing small fictions as we do here at Flash Frontier. How do you go about telling a big story in a confined space?

When I was given the opportunity to be in the Auckland triennial 2007 I discarded the brief what to paint and did something different that I wanted to do, that I wanted to see. Kehe Tau hauaga fo’ou was my attempt to talk about world conflicts and what happens to peoples of war-torn countries when they run away and enter other people’s lands without permission. How does the host country treat exhausted exiles? Lifting the large canvases around my small studio was a bit like lifting weights at a gym. I like to enjoy the painting, I like the searching, the waiting, the spontaneity, impulsive attitude of being alone and finding out what I have learned.

Kehe tau hauaga foou (To all new arrivals) 2007
enamel, oil, pencil, pastel, oil stick and ink on canvas
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki, gift of the Patrons of the Auckland Art Gallery, 2007

FF: You have worked with oil paint, lithograph, etching and woodcut, plus the traditional Polynesian form of drawing on tapa, or in Nuie called haipo. And you are also a writer and poet. Can you discuss how you approach each form, and how you know in which medium you’d like to express particular ideas? How does your approach to poetry intersect with your approach to the visual arts? And how does the intersection of cultural encounters resonate for you as an artist?

Drawing came first as a kid, then poetry came after that. I’ve told this story many times. When I started writing was when I discovered poetry in the NZ Listener and liked the strangely arranged words that had meaning as individual words. Later I tried to keep the mediums of painting and writing separate because I thought it was not possible to do both, as time went by the two merged and I’m comfortable mixing poetry, oils, soil, sky, sea together.

Being Niuean is foremost important to me. Where I’m from is foremost as well. This is the foundation that I work from. European literature, post-colonial literature plays a big part as well. These four plateaus combined enriches my poetry and art, and much later when I woke up to the magnificent islands of the Pacific … I haven’t really left the well-trodden road that my peers walked on. I’m relearning to speak Niuean, how to look at land, ocean and sky, and eventually I like to write poetry in Niuean.

On poetry and words on the page


FF: Let’s talk about your writing specifically. You’ve been writing since you were a young man, and your epic love poem, ‘The Bond of Time’, was written in your 20s and issued in its third edition by CUP in 2014. This poem is as full of imagery and ideas as your paintings: the natural world, the layerings of relationships, the expanse of ocean and time. You’ve called it your ‘writing journey’. What do you see as similarities or differences between the contents and ideas of this work and your visual arts? And has your attitude towards it changed over time?

JP: ‘The Bond of Time’ is my coming of age poem. I wrote it when I was 20, living in a state house in south Auckland Otara. For me it was a spontaneous movement in automatic writing where the first thoughts are written down and no editing takes place. My only plan was to write in five-line stanzas, and use any imagery that I came upon. I spent a lot of time in the Auckland Museum, looking for images. I was young, threw my job at the freezing works away, and embarked on an exciting road of meeting like-minded individuals. Decided I would pursue poetry and never had a 9-5 job since I was 18 years old. I used the same method of automatic writing for my novels so it became easy as words would flow onto the pages and the hardest part would be the editing, which I’m not very good at and don’t have the patience for.

With ‘The Bond of Time’ I was asked by a generous woman who ran a photo copy shop on Kyber Pass Road if I wanted this poem collated into a book in 1985. 100 copies were printed in the first edition. Many years later I returned to pay my debt – I owed monies for the print run – but the shop had closed down.

In those days I did a lot of my own printing and posters. I would find abandoned buildings, and use one of the rooms to exhibit my paintings. One such building was situated on Great South Road. Cleaned it up and gave the name Ika Lologo, which means ‘singing fish’. I asked a friend who worked installing paintings at the Auckland Art Gallery to hang my paintings. And my friend Tony Fomison opened the exhibition in 1988.

In an abandoned building built in the 1850s in Parnell, and owned by the Catholic Church, I had an exhibition that was once again opened by Fomison in 1989. My entire family turned up. I called this temporary space Fale Liku.

On continuity and departures


FF: Finally, what themes are you thinking about today? And how do they weave together with past themes you’ve explored: history and memory; migration and movement; religion and colonisation; past and future?

JP: Your last question: What does an artist do. Well I don’t paint every day. I can have months away from the easel. And in my present situation living in Liku I take part in community activities when I can. I try and find ways to help or support community; at the same time I am inspired by helping. I have two writing projects on the go. I’m working on a novel with the tentative title of Fonua Galo, which literarally translates as ‘Unknown Lands’. Fonua Galo is a mythical place that some people say Niuean originates from because of the exploits of two gods.

More of John’s paintings grace the March 2018: PASIFIKA issue of Flash Frontier.

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