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Object: Karakia

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Title Karakia
Production Walters, Gordon (artist), 1977, Christchurch
Medium summary acrylic and PVA paint on canvas
Materials acrylic paint, polyvinyl acetate, canvas
Classification paintings
Dimensions Support: 1525mm (Height) x 1145mm (Width) x 30mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 1978 with Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand funds
Registration number 1978-0019-1

At just over a metre and a half high by a metre wide, Karakia is at the larger end of the scale at which Gordon Walters worked. It is a size that gives the optical pulse of the painting — the interplay of black and white, of circle and line — a kind of quiet grandeur. It also allows the painting to fill the viewer’s perceptual field in a way that turns the activity of seeing into a bodily experience. Scale is important in understanding Karakia in another way, too, given the intense labour Walters brought to his paintings. His working method began with rough sketches, from which possibilities would be developed and tested through numerous small collages and ink drawings. Once an idea for a painting had been satisfactorily resolved, Walters then completed a full-scale drawing and transferred this to an impeccably prepared canvas. The work would then be hand-painted with up to five successive coats of acrylic in order to achieve the final, pristine effect.

Karakia is a reworking of an earlier painting, Black on white, 1965 (private collection), which was among Walters’ first fully realised koru paintings. The gestation of the series began with a series of ink drawings in 1956, although its origins lay further back. Visiting Europe in 1950, Walters was deeply struck by the work of abstract artists such as Sophie Taeuber-Arp and Victor Vasarely. In Europe he also came to recognise the uniqueness and vitality of Oceanic art — especially Maori art — that he had first encountered as a child exploring the old Dominion Museum in Wellington. The combination of the two, Walters later noted, offered a solution to ‘the dilemma of what to paint in New Zealand’.(1)

Walters’ adaptation of aspects of Maori art was viewed as problematic by some commentators in the 1980s and 1990s, and the artist was accused of insensitive appropriation. Responding to this, Walters said, ‘In my case all I have done with the koru motif is make a reference to it and naturally, since I’m a contemporary Pakeha artist, the result is not Maori art. It’s not supposed to be. In my koru paintings I’ve been trying to make sense of my own, Pakeha, response to this tradition, which after all surrounds all New Zealanders. Traditional Maori art means a lot to me — it is the one distinctive art style that we have in this country… What I have done is a kind of tribute to this tradition’.(2)

William McAloon

This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. Gordon Walters, draft letter, [c.1989], Gordon Walters papers, CA37/1/1, Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa archives.
2. Gordon Walters, to Michael Smythe, 10 February 1993, cited in William McAloon, Gordon Walters: Prints and design, Adam Art Gallery Te Pataka Toi, Victoria University of Wellington, Wellington, 2004, p. 11.

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