Stay, or go
Essay by Nicholas Thomas
For over thirty years, John Pule's painting has returned, time and again, to Niue, and especially to Liku on the island's east coast, the place of his birth and his family's ancestral lands. His paintings have not offered literal depictions. In earlier works, localities were mapped through a visual idiom inspired by the grids, plant motifs and written names of hiapo, the nineteenth century Niuean painted barkcloths distinctive less for structured design than quirky freehand illustration. Often, botanical designs were interrupted by some motif such as a ship or compass that represented maritime trade, indeed globalization. In the same way, Pule's work has represented Niue, but never just Niue: migration, missionary colonization, global conflict and violence ostensibly driven by faith are part of the story. That story has also, throughout Pule's career, been energized by a personal mythology. His spaces are neither simply natural environments nor theatres of purely human interaction. They are also populated by hybrid, voracious beings (somewhat like Maori manaia): his worlds are sensual but also scary, they incorporate scenes of sexual acts, but also of creatures devouring.
From the outset, Pule has been preoccupied with conflict and migration. At the very heart of his work has been the issue of loss - the irretrievable personal loss of the death of a child, and also the loss of ancestral gods and sovereignty. These are constants in his art, as has been a commitment to making large paintings, which happen to be on the scale of many hiapo, and could be seen to have the dazzling impact on a community or public that, historically, the optically-dynamic painted barkcloths once had in Niuean ceremonial settings.
Yet the artist has never stopped reinventing forms and styles that express those constant concerns. Through the early 1990s, he used oil paints to create mostly monochrome sienna, green, red and black works on unstretched canvases, which often 'looked like' hiapo, even though their constituent motifs were actually personal inventions, not even loose adaptations of the customary designs (as Pule's interest was always in something less predictable than art as revival of cultural identity).
Those canvases themselves were relentlessly shape-shifting, but in the early 2000s, Pule turned the very constitution of his paintings inside out. The map-like imaging of ancestral lands inhabited by scenes, symbolic motifs and predatory creatures gave way to a profile view of the heavens, made up of extraordinary cloudscapes. Clouds like those seen from the side, out of the window of a plane, were scenes of cosmic interactions, conflicts, esoteric rites and edifices. Over the last few years, the painter has returned to earth, to islands specifically, and to islands bursting with ebullient plant life. Along the way, he has turned to varnish and enamel paint, interspersed fine ink drawings among big painted motifs, and manipulated paint poured directly on to the surface of works that are now always stretched.
The paintings which make up this exhibition centre upon a famous and extraordinary dimension of Polynesian history. For two hundred and fifty years, European travellers and scientists, and Islanders themselves, have been astonished by the voyages over millenia that led to the settlement of the sea of islands. Questions of exactly where Islanders came from, when and how they voyaged, and why they might have left former homelands to attempt passages across vast expanses of open ocean have long been vigorously debated. Over recent years, archaeological research has done much to refine understandings of Oceania's maritime past, essentially in support of the kinds of narratives of deliberate, exploratory voyaging expressed in traditional history and myth.
The first Niueans were said to be two young demi-gods, Huanakai and Fao, who were wearied by endless conflict, but sought support in each other and eventually decided that the best course of action was to leave their home island, Fonuagalo. They swam around the Pacific and at length discovered a reef, which they stomped on and thrust up and after much shaping created the island of Niue.
The paintings evoke an island environment that is lush and extraordinary. The plants are gigantic. Some erect, some pendulous, they are fleshy, overripe, on the point of exploding into a shower of seeds. It is arresting that the island that bears this vital, fecund flora is Fonuagalo, the land which the young demi-gods must leave. In the big red work, Still not close enough, Huanakai and Fao are shown consoling each other, seemingly consumed by grief as they realise that their only escape from incessant struggle - which across Polynesia was always about land and other resources such as reefs, water and trees, as well as chiefly titles and sanctity - is to enter the sea and depart. Whereas the literature about Islanders' voyages of settlement over the course of Pacific history emphasises the heroism of ancestors and navigators, and the incredible achievement of sailing across, in some cases, thousands of kilometres of open ocean, for Pule the issue is the pain and loss of being forced to depart.
This vibrant evocation of the strife and the passage that led to Niue's formation is an allegory of more recent times, and the challenges that Pule himself has faced. All his work speaks from the predicament of those who left island homes and became immigrants. Such passages always involved loss, fear and hope. Migrants have dreams that do not become real. Those who at some stage in their life return to their place of origin often suffer new challenges. What was given up, on departure, cannot be retrieved through return.
If these paintings, like so much of Pule's work, express the permanence of loss, they are also joyful. Strangely so, since they were created during the pandemic, when people everywhere underwent immense suffering. Even those fortunate enough to be essentially safe suffered separation, isolation, fear, frustration and anxiety. Pule was affected by all that; yet these works are all the more urgent and optimistic. Their titles acknowledge impossible, yet inescapable choices: Stay, or go. Yet they revel in beauty and look towards the future.
Nicholas Thomas is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge. His books about art and history in the Pacific include Hiapo (2005), co-authored with John Pule. Over 2018-19, he co-curated 'Oceania' with Peter Brunt for the Royal Academy of Arts and the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.