John Puhiatau Pule

b. 1962, Liku, Niue

John Pule was born in the village of Liku in Niue, and immigrated to New Zealand at the age of two in 1964.ᅠ Pule first visited Niue as an adult in 1991 and has since returned a number of times.ᅠ This triggered a strong interest in the history and mythology of Niue which continues to inform his work to this day. Pule is an accomplished painter, printmaker, poet and writer.ᅠ His work is highly inventive, particularly in its adaptation of traditional Pacific art forms.ᅠ It is also challenging and provocative in content.ᅠ

Much of Pule's early painting focused on the legacy of Christianity and colonialism in the South Pacific, as well as his personal perceptions of romantic and sexual love.ᅠ Pule depicts the introduction of Christianity into the Pacific as a tragedy and his frequent inclusion of grief stricken figures represent Pacific Island people grieving from multiple psychological wounds.ᅠ Images of Christ reflect similar ideas, “I depicted him as a sickly, unhealthy person, being carried by Islanders, and also hanging loosely on the crucifix . . . he's up there for ages . . . no one wants to bring him down.ᅠ No one wants to have anything to do with darkness.ᅠ It's a dark subject, even though Jesus is supposed to generate light.” (John Pule, artist statement, 2001)

Following in the lead of artists such as Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere, Pule later began to include his poetry on painted canvas.ᅠ These were political works, written in both English and the Niuean language, allowing Pule to further express his ideas and visual triggers.ᅠ “They hemmed in and held down a bristling alphabet brittle to the point of fracture.” (David Eggleton, 'John Pule: And the Psychic Territory of Polynesia', Art New Zealand, 2001, p.63)

Pule is perhaps most well known for his use of the aesthetics of Hiapo (Niuean tapa cloth).ᅠ Hiapo is cloth beaten out of paper mulberry bark, felted into rectangular sheets and then painted freehand following a loose grid-like pattern.ᅠ Traditionally Hiapo imagery depicted narratives of the journeys and history of Niuean people.ᅠ Pule extends this narrative into contemporary times, expressing his personal experiences as a Niuean living in New Zealand.ᅠ Pule also contemporises this traditional art form by substituting barkcloth for canvas and adapting its layout, forms and palette of ochres and earthy reds.ᅠ In 2005 Pule published the book Hiapo: Past and Present in Niuean Barkcloth in collaboration with Australian anthropologist Nicholas Thomas, documenting almost all painted Hiapo they located in their ten years of research across the Pacific, North America and Europe.

Over a period of time Pule has developed his own lexicon of geometric motifs and figurative elements.ᅠ Some of the figures in his work come directly from the Niuean mythology and others from his imagination. They include hybrid creatures incorporating birds, lizards, monsters and humans.ᅠ Human figures also enact performances that are explicitly sexual, such as the "missionary position", a provocative suggestion of the continuing domination of the church.ᅠ At other times they enact images of tears or death, suggesting the dislocation, pain and loss caused by migration and amalgamation with Western beliefs and society. “His paintings are miniature museums of ethnology. . . . Now and again, there is rupture and erasure, rubbing, smearing, blotting, but all done with delicacy and finesse-with ironic control.” (David Eggleton, ibid. p.65).

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