Fine food and Paratene Matchitt too. Our art commentator Roy Dunningham raves about the Paratene Matchitt exhibition now at the Black Barn Gallery until 5 February.

Paratene Matchitt At His Finest
By Roy Dunningham

Some artists burst upon the scene like supernovae and then spend the rest of their lives wondering what to do next, like Robert Delauney or Andre Derain, or self-destruct like Jackson Pollock or Van Gogh. While others, like Rembrandt or Paratene Matchitt, quietly grow in strength over the years and just get better and better.

Te Kooti Series 43

Napier artist, Paratene Matchitt, has been around for a long time but his latest showing at Black Barn Gallery sees him at his finest.

Matchitt was one of a group of talented, young Maori artists who emerged from Teachers’ College in the 1950s and 60s. The enlightened National Director of Art Education (is there even such a position now?), Gordon Tovey, encouraged these artists to draw upon themes and motifs of Maori Art in their own work. This practice would certainly not have been encouraged in the University Art Schools at that time. Indeed, as recently as 1982 the two leading books on New Zealand art, one by Keith & Brown, the other by Docking, mention only one Maori artist, Ralph Hotere.

In spite of this lack of official recognition these artists were to change the face of New Zealand art as they employed imagery from both traditional Maori art and European Modernism to express increasingly political ideas. In so doing, they also inspired a younger generation of Maori artists.

Matchitt doesn’t use overtly Maori motifs such as kowhaiwhai in these latest works, but there is a strong feeling of the chevron and spiral sections of whakairo and the geometry of taniko patterns. What he does do is use the Catholic and Zionist symbols appropriated by Te Kooti and his followers, who found parallels between the struggles of the Israelites and those of colonised Maori. Te Kooti knew his Bible and even translated some of it into Maori.

The works in this show are based around the theme of Te Kooti and his white horse “Pokai Whenua”. Te Kooti identified with the rider of the White Horse in the Book of Revelations and believed his horse had supernatural powers. In Matchitt’s work the horse and rider are heroic figures, personifying ideals of belief, strength and defiance in the face of adversity. This theme also has a precedent in European art depicting leaders, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon.

One of the most engaging aspects of Matchitt’s work is the interaction he creates between positive and negative spaces – i.e., the filled in bits and the plain bits or background. What he doesn’t do becomes, in a way, as important as what he does do. His decision making in design is unerring and strikes just the right balance between excitement and harmony, while his unlikely choices of colour are interesting to say the least. One astute viewer was heard to say, “He challenges us with his colour selection.” But, again, it works.

Te Kooti Series 45

You can enjoy these works from several different viewpoints: their political strength and Maoriness, their sense of history, or for their ancestry in European Modernism. Better still … enjoy them for all those reasons.

One thing is certain, if you are seriously interested in contemporary New Zealand art, you should see this show which runs till 5 February. Paratene Matchitt is one of our greatest living artists at the top of his game.

Roy Dunningham

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