Hands up. Who’s Rongo?
Answer: A god, the god of agriculture in the Māori pantheon. Rongomatane in full, creator of the kumara and associated with the concept of peace. We are deep inside Māori mythology here.
If you are looking for some iconic representation of the god, there are plenty extant, everything from carvings to cute cartoons and back, all depicting the deity, stylistically in very traditional, conventional modes.
Artist Margaret Aull, who is showing at Wintec’s Ramp Gallery, has eschewed such methods of representation and chosen something more modern and abstract. Her painting of the god (acrylic on board) updates the old and presents the figure as blocks of paint predominately black and white with blue and pink bleeding in from the background. Overlaying this configuration are thin white lines that recall carving grooves while at the same time alluding to simple abstract cyphers.
This is the artist employing contemporary notations and putting them to work to depict, pictorially, a figure from mythology that might speak more directly to a modern audience. This is makeover time. This is Māori renaissance attempting to reconnect to the past but in an up-to-date way.
To make the point apropos of the subject, a floor sculpture was installed that covered the whole gallery space, consisting of small piles of dirt, cone-shaped, gridded out across the wooden surface that patrons had to negotiate when viewing the works.
We are deep inside nature here. One couldn’t get more earthy.
The exhibition is entitled, ‘Aria’, meaning a shield, a barrier, a screen that protects against unwanted “pests”, perhaps, if we are talking crops. Obviously, this has a much wider application, a metaphor for the culture itself, but in the first instance, nature and the ecosystem is highlighted particularly in the work of the second artist showing at the exhibition, Aimee Ratana. Her mural-size digital print on vinyl called ‘Rautawa’, presents traditional Māori motifs overlaid and camouflaged with the long narrow leaves that belong to the Tawa tree whose berries are a favourite of the Kererū. Her digital photographic prints of the bird marry up with the mural thematically.
Zena Ellliott, the third member of the exhibition, continues the concept of the shield with her work, ‘Kirihuna’, meaning camouflage. In nature, a disguise is often employed as a means of survival and Elliott plays with that notion when she takes conventional Māori carvings and reworks them in strident colours. Another update with a sly reference to mask and allusion to cultural endurance.