John Hovell and the art of kōwhaiwhai

The Passing WorldI’ve been interested in maori mathematics for a while, though in a very vague way (I haven’t yet researched it properly)… anyway, this book caught my eye as a result:

The Passing World The Passage of Life: John Hovell and the art of kōwhaiwhai – by Damian Skinner. (Rim Books: Auckland 2010)

It’s really interesting – and the paintings are beautiful, too, of course! I’m pulling a couple of statements out here – and hope that doesn’t remove them from their context too much. The paintings are Hovell’s – taken from those available on the net just to give a sense of personality to what I’m quoting here from Hovell and Skinner – but you really need to look at the book to see the works Skinner uses to illustrate what they write. Anyway:

Hovell writes: “In coastal Māori arts it was essential to support each kind of art form, each discipline, with whakataukī. Every figure, every woven pattern, each painted design had a pēpeha associated with it. The benefits of this underpinning of the mahi (work) with the kupu (word) were twofold: an explanation of the tohu (sign) was provided; and the information was able to be committed to memory. The viewer, knowing the pēpeha, contributed his share to the understanding and thus knowledge was preserved. Many of the designs that embellish the buildings on a marae are not, in fact, simply attractive passages of decorative filler but are functionally educative devices, like visual mnemonics, to preserve and pass on vital information about ‘this house in this place’.” (Hovell, p.9)

hovell_john-horoera_waterfall_series_i~MN4a8168~10695_20100420_a3-affordable-art_58The fact that the painted rafter touches the head, the sacred part of the poupou (carved ancestor), means that the mind, will and intention come within its sphere. The carving is a set piece with the potential for action contained within. The tukutuku (woven panels) are the field of action within which the protagonists perform, also set pieces with the ciphers keyed in. The role of kōwhaiwhai patterned onto the rafters is to set the whole in motion. To use a modest, modern simile, the kōwhaiwhai is like the operational button on a calculator.
It is not possible to make any sense of the arts within a whare whakairo (meeting house) without seeing all three disciplines in relation to one another. Kōwhaiwhai is the most enigmatic art form of all, partly because the decorative impulses of generations of artists have carried the patterns far from the initial motif source, and partly because the designs themselves are about transience and process – the ‘operations’ without which all the other parts are consigned to stasis.” (Hovell, p.10)

The floral species most closely associated with kōwhaiwhai is the hue (gourd – Lagenaria vulgaris) and this association reaches far back into the mists of time into the Lapita roots of Polynesian origins and Austronesian migration. The beauty of the gourd was increased with decoration: the growing flesh of the gourd fruit was often marked with scarification. The memorized Lapita designs were transferred from clay pots to dried gourds (and even to living gourds) as the material culture changed to adjust to new climates and newly discovered floral species.

There is an ancient proverb, ‘From whence came the tendrils of the gourd?’ The tendrils are the chiefly lines of the people. And gourd symbolism has led to the flourishing of curvilinear elements in all Māori material arts. I can see the feasibility and the appropriateness of this imagery: the white tendrils that have not yet greened with the sun or hardened into fixed position, reaching out, holding fast, climbing with tenacity; the side shoots coming off the main stem and they, too, reaching out, claiming, consolidating. It is a metaphor for acquisition, exploration, even dynastic foundation; and the fattening white bulbs of the gourdlets represents a victory over the hazards of pollination and the mischance of regeneration.

But I cannot see the operational function, as it is here represented and so closely tied to one vegetative species, being adaptable to all and other environmental phenomena. There is movement, yes, but it is too slow for the eye to see; and identifiable, visually continuous movement is at the heart of tuhituhi (the physical production of kōwhaiwhai).

John Hovell - A coastal progress

I believe that land-based, inland and bush-setting marae use the symbolism appropriate to their environment: and that coastal marae use the symbolism appropriate to their sea and shore environments, establishing a lexicon of patterns in the mid to late nineteenth century based on the restlessness of tides and on the daily close observation of the tides, reading from them the signs, beneficial or not, for fishing and shellfish gathering.

It is my considered belief a sea people, in daily contact with waves, with surges through channels, sea-drained caverns, with the fling of foam and spume up beaches, with harvesting the shallow waters, would be intensely aware of the fast-moving surfaces of waves and currents, and of the marks made by human intervention. The swirl, te auau, at the wake of a launched canoe or a beaching canoe; the swirling spirals formed by the dip of hoe (paddles), or steering oar; the changing foam patterns on the surface directed by currents beneath; such things were watched, and watched carefully – for they could attend situations of danger or survival.
This is my contention: that the ‘operational’ drive of kōwhaiwhai patterns signifies the hand of man working upon natural phenomena, with intentional purpose. It was always something done, of cultural necessity, a change effected and its effect gauged. And it had to be an effect, seen and known by all, collateral to, or corresponding with, a necessary, though natural, thing. Kōwhaiwhai provides the running commentary on whatever else in happening, had happened, or is about to happen in the carvings or weavings associated with it.” (emphasis in blue, mine: Hovell, p.12)

“Threading its way upwards through the heke is the manea or hau or spirit. This is also referred to as the manawa, the heart and breath of connectedness. So rich in metaphorical associations is the concept of manawa to kōwhaiwhai that the whole business might be called whakamanawa.

Kōwhaiwhai is reliant on two things: one is the shapes, relative to the other art forms nearby (and secured by the huahua, the preliminary drawing of outlines, and the production of a template, te papa tauira); and the other thing is colour (or, in black-and-white patterns, the absence of colour).
There is always a tendency, human enough, to see the colour elements, whether red, blue, black, brown, or ochre, as the positive element, and to see the white as background or negative elements, the parts left out. In fact it is more likely in most houses and in their patterns for the white part of the designs to be the breathing passage of the pattern.

In the colour scheme of red, black and white, the red often stands for mana, the pulsing blood, while the black stands for gravity, and for potentiality, for all things unrealised in the potent, cosmic Pō, and ponderous balance like a weighted flywheel that moves by mobile inertia; and it is the white that gives the breathing space, the airflow that must not be obstructed. We take for granted the air around us. We do not have to remind ourselves to breathe. Only when obstructions impede our air supply are we made aware of its importance. 

This is very much the same with the white elements on painted rafters. The old artists did not like to see the progress of the white up the rafter cut off or stopped, for that would choke the design to death. Black and red are busy counterbalancing each other, sparring and trying to knock each other out, while the white slips by unnoticed.” (emphases in blue bold mine: Hovell, p.13)

Damian Skinner writes: “In 1986 John Hovell began working on the kōwhaiwhai for Tāne-nui-a-rangi, the whare whakairo (decorated meeting house) produced under the supervision of Pakiriki Harrison for the University of Auckland. As part of the kōwhaiwhai (painted patterns) that decorate the heke (rafters), Hovell has painted ten figures above the poupou (carved panels) on the left side of the whare whakairo. These ‘stylised painted male figures… represent tribal informants… who interpreted the ancient knowledge to Pakeha scholars, enthusiasts or collectors throughout the nineteenth century and into the early decades of the twentieth century’. Hovell has named all ten men, including Te Kahui Kararehe (Taranaki iwi, Ngāti Ruanui). ‘These figures,’ he writes, ‘are fittted within the ovals partially formed on the lower side by the ruawhetu, the curved depression in the head of the carved poupou, traditionally a favoured spot for making a strong statement about the carving below, the ancestor concerned, a particular incident, a personality trait, a social comment, a historical fact.’ In this case the figures are all the same, distinguished only by the ‘tribal or canoe insignia’ that surround them, such as kūmara, tapa, nets, birds or sea creatures.

From the Whalerider Prologue - John Hovell (acrylic on hardboard 1986)

Hovell doesn’t appear to be making use of the ruawhetu in Tāne-nui-a-rangi as a site for comment on the tūpuna (ancestors) represented in the poupou below, or as a place for ‘social comment’ or ‘historical fact’. Undifferentiated from one another visually, distinguished only by name, these figures seem to be a subdued engagement with the possibilities and potential of the ruawhetu. In 1982 Hovell wrote: It has been characteristic to place small comic interludes in the house patterns in certain places of intimacy (like having a wart under the armpit), and these are generally incorporated in the single unit pattern at the teremu of the rafter [the ruawhetu], or more particularly at the base of a poupou. I suppose that is because we sit back or lie resting close to them around the perimeter of the house, and these curious details afford some light relief when the going is heavy: a parallel with the strange gargoyle figures of 14th Century misericords that gave the devout some respite during interminable prayers: a marginal side-show to refresh the mind.

For Hovell, kōwhaiwhai are like banners waving above the more static arts of carving and tukutuku [-p.23] (weaving), a place to express ‘a Rabelaisian attitude to the vicissitudes of life’. Kōwhaiwhai is an art of humour, of the fleeting and incidental, a kind of graffiti within the high seriousness of the whare whakairo.” (black bold in original indicating Hovell quote; emphases in blue mine, pp.22-23 The Passing World)

“Hovell’s art varies from the grandly sized and very public to the intimate and domestic. It is, however, always caught up in a cultural politics of iwi and hapū, and how they inhabit and belong to specific environments.” (Skinner, p.123)

NB I believe John Hovell writes the first section of this book: ‘Kōwhaiwhai, John Hovell’ pp.6-13 – and hope I am correct in attributing these statements to him, rather than to Skinner!

Kupu – according to the book:

kōwhaiwhai (painted patterns)
heke (rafters)


About backyardbooks

This blog is a kind of electronic storage locker for ideas and quotes that inform my research... literary research into fiction for young adults (with a special focus on New Zealand fiction). Kiwis are producing amazing literature for younger readers, but it isn't getting the academic appreciation it deserves. I hope readers of this blog can make use of the material I gather and share by way of promoting our fiction. Cheers!
This entry was posted in art education, Maori learners and education, Mono- Bi- and Multi-culturalism, Understanding literacy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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