At first glance this intriguing painting, a disrupted kowhaiwhai, appears fragmented, bursting beyond its frame but it is also constrained by its Maori theme of protest. The convoluted kowhaiwhai-based pattern is much more multi-layered than those usually seen in wharenui. Those highly ornate examples usually have a downward flow from the apex of the wharenui's pitched and gabled roof. Often called heke (descent) by Maori who use one of many whakapapa-based points of reference within the building that itself personifies at least one ancestor. Buck Nin's kowhaiwhai does not have the same function. Nor does it have the same visual flow. It symbolises cultural disjuncture, rather than continuity. Rightly so, its disrupted state echoes the damage done to Maori culture over which many protest campaigns that have taken place since Pakeha arrival.
This political kowhaiwhai is not without hope, however. The embryonic forms within it indicate that life prevails despite damaging counter forces. Set within a clouded sky over a dark sea or land surface, it hovers, protesting not for protest's sake but for redress, for change to an unjust hegemony in Aotearoa. Perhaps the red koru in the centre of the painting is a symbol of a once strong culture that spiralled back into itself in defence against colonialist oppression. Now the way forward incorporates two pathways for Maori people, one of their tupuna (ancestors) and one of a new world where Maori must continue with the new challenges they encounter in partnership with Pakeha, where a relationship of mutual respect and equality prevails. JD
The Fletcher Trust Collection
Buck Nin was born at Kaikohe. His father, Choung Nin, born in Canton, China, married Pare Hikanga Tatana, of Raukawa and Toarangatiira descent, defying Chinese tradition by marrying outside his culture. Buck Nin's highly influential teachers at Northland College were Selwyn Wilson and Kataraina Mataira, both pioneers in their field. By contrast, at Elam School of Fine Art, Auckland Buck felt marginalized and isolated from his own culture. He finished his academic training at Ilam School of Fine Arts, Christchurch where he felt more encouraged. Thereafter he taught for 30 years at Kawakawa and at Church College, Hamilton.
In the 1970s, Buck Nin went with his family to Hawaii and then to the University of Texas, where he completed doctoral studies. On his return he and Rongo Wetere established Te Wananga o Aotearoa, an independent art education training project.
Buck Nin was always a politically engaged artist, identifying in 1975 with Whina Cooper and the Hikoi marchers and with those involved in the Bastion Point protests that began in January 1977. It is likely that this banner painting was raised in protest at the momentous events that took place at that time. The solemn, brooding landforms and cloud shapes that lie behind the horizontal kowhaiwhai 'flag' may owe something to McCahon's structural methods and manipulation of tone. PS