This painting instantly brings to mind our tupuna whaea (grandmothers) who have now passed on. It is the intimacy of this conversational moment that reminds us of them as well as the heads wrapped in scarves, loose fitting shawls and long skirts. However, this captured moment seems somewhat deceptive and contrived; its mood is perhaps too light. Although the heads are inclined and the faces darkened and un-detailed, the clothing colours are bright, to complement the landscape background. The artist has deliberately drawn attention to the bright and happy contrasting red scarf and orange skirt.
This is very different to another kind of picture, one even more familiar to many Maori people of my generation who associate their grandmothers with mourning black. We remember the kuia on marae wearing black garments and scarves, greenery draped around their heads and in their hands, calling visitors in, often for tangihanga. Looking back, they seemed always to be in mourning - there were too many untimely deaths that often reflected the plight of socially and economically disadvantaged people. Our kuia's conversations were not always of a tone as charming as the one depicted here. They often spoke of injustice and frustration with events that threatened their family-based concerns including kaitiakitanga (guardianship) of valued taonga. Edith Collier may offer us a happier representation of kuia and their korero, perhaps in the interests of painterly form rather than social message. For many Maori who view this picture, the full story of kuia and their korero will inevitably include far less comfortable associations and memories of sad times. JD
Sarjeant Gallery Te Whare O Rehua Whanganui
In 1927, Edith Collier and her friend Eulalie Goldsbury moved from Whanganui to Kawhia. In the previous year, Collier had felt humiliated by ill-informed critics who criticized her work as following a slavish fad for modernism when she exhibited as part of the Whanganui Arts and Crafts Society at the Sarjeant Gallery. In addition, she had been appalled when her conservative, prudish father, ashamed at this public criticism of his daughter, burned many of her finest paintings, mostly female nudes. Ironically, her stay in Kawhia came to an abrupt end when she was called home to Whanganui to nurse him.
The Korero, one of a series of works made during this extended stay, is painted on the cliff that leads from the town of Kawhia itself to Maketu Marae. In the blue distance, behind the group of women, are the hills of the eastern side of Kawhia Harbour. Among them is Hautapu, a high limestone formation above Hauturu, containing the burial caves which were looted by Andreas Reischek in 1882, their contents being deposited later in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna. While it is unlikely that the artist was aware of the significance of the siting of her cheerful painting, her subjects certainly would have been. PS