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In 1982 Robyn Kahukiwa, of Ngati Porou, Te Aitangaa-Hauiti, Ngati Konohi and Te Whanui-o-Ruataupare descent, was awarded a Maori and South Pacific Arts Council grant to undertake a series of paintings celebrating female deities in Maori mythology. The series had been in gestation since 1979, and the grant enabled her to withdraw from secondary school art teaching and paint full time.
The series of eight large paintings and related drawings, depicting Te Po, Papatuanuku, Hine-ahuone, Hine-titama, Taranga, Mahuika, Murirangiwhenua and Hine-nui-te-Po, was shown in Kahukiwa’s 1983 national touring exhibition Wahine toa — ‘women of strength, power, courage’. The images were provided with explanatory texts written by the Maori author Patricia Grace. Wahine toa: Women of Maori myth, the book of the series, was published in 1984.
Taranga, the fifth painting in the series, highlights episodes in the narrative of the legendary hero and demigod Maui. Maui-patiki is born prematurely to the aging Taranga, who, believing he is stillborn, cuts off her tikitiki (topknot), places him on the mat of hair and casts him adrift on the sea. (The figure of Taranga standing with her legs apart is based on a poutokomanawa, the centre post figure in a meeting house, attributed to a Ngati Kahungunu carver in the Te Papa collection.) In Kahukiwa’s painting, the zigzag taniko pattern ‘aramoana’ symbolises the ocean. The boy, henceforth known as Maui-tikitiki-a-Taranga (Maui of Taranga’s topknot), revives and is rescued by Tama-nui-ki-te-rangi, who brings him up as an adopted child. On reaching adulthood, Maui seeks out and is reunited with his mother and his four older brothers. He meets his father, Makea-tutara, after changing his form into that of a kereru or wood pigeon and, basing the colours of his plumage on those of his mother’s apron and girdle, follows Taranga into Paerau – the underworld. There he is led to his father who acknowledges Maui as his son.
The narrative aspect of the paintings and their combination of realism, stylisation and decorative patterning were out of key with the abstract tendencies of recent New Zealand painting and were not well received at the time. In due course, however, the series established Kahukiwa’s reputation as a major force in contemporary Maori art and indigenous politics and, internationally, as a significant artist ‘of colour’ in the women’s art movement.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).