This is Life on Earth is a suite of paintings by artist Chris Heaphy. They construct poignant worlds of familiar and unfamiliar cultural icons and symbols of New Zealand. From his perspective as an artist of Māori descent, Heaphy’s use of iconography unveils the often-unseen dynamics of cultural exchange between Māori and Pākehā upon his canvases. As in previous iterations of Heaphy’s practice, we may instantly recognise the surface meaning of these symbols; however, it is the quiet associations Heaphy makes through paint and the proximity of one symbol to another that as a whole reveals a deeper, more nuanced outcome.
The silhouetted figures that populate Heaphy’s earlier paintings return as shadowy characters on the margins of the canvas, but it is the dominant Māori profiles at the core of the compositions that have grown the most since Heaphy’s last exhibition Bloom. Some of these silhouetted images are referencing early New Zealand paintings, which portray Māori and Māori way of life, but often these European artists misunderstood or misrepresented Māori through what they observed because of their own colonial Eurocentric world view. By using and reinterpreting these images Heaphy is perhaps readdressing the past and returning these images to their rightful sense of place and showing us that the exchange of ideas and cultures is an ongoing, never ending process. Where previous paintings have featured opaque black figures, in these new paintings the artist has employed expressive paint applications and loose, sweeping glazes in deeply pigmented reds, greens, and ochres. It is as if he is embracing the figures, shrouding them in plant forms and the richest tones from nature.
Heaphy’s colourful and exuberant paintings, icons in themselves, are instantly recognisable. They symptomatically suggest at something hidden, yet revealing at the same time. They are paintings which speak of place and whakapapa and the slippage of the relationship between past and present, knowing and unknowing.