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Sailing with the ancestors

Among artist John Walsh's works in an eclectic exhibition at the Paul Nache Gallery is a large canvas called Sailing With The Ancestors.

A woman at the bow of the waka hourua (twin-hulled, ocean-going canoe) leans forward slightly as if to peer more clearly across the luminous spume of sea and pou-lined river and into a dark land where, upstream, whare and smoke from fires can be seen.

The subterranean and submarine colours that often feature in Walsh's darkly mythopoiec paintings are here too — except for the flash of reds, yellows, oranges and whites in a lei that seems to hang from a mast. To the left, too, is an abstract, embryonic swirl that seems to be trying to configure itself into the form of a tiki.

“You, the viewer, are on the waka behind the girl and forward mast, coming to a new land after a long voyage,” writes Walsh. “The wairua of the land and inhabitants greets and challenges you and determines how you approach.”

In an essay titled Sailing with the Tahitians and the Ancestors, Walsh tells the story of his 10-day voyaging experience on Tahitian waka Fa'afaite from Kororareka, the Bay of Islands, to Meretoto and Picton, and his encounter with a series of prints from original paintings by Hawaiian artist Herb Kane, a principal figure in the renaissance of Hawaiian culture.

This was the inspiration for Walsh's Sailing With The Tahitians and the The Ancestors paintings.

“They were beautiful, magnificent, quietly hovering in this hive of indigenous art making and I was back at sea with the ancestors,” writes Walsh.

“So I began painting my experience.”

One striking image from the essay offers a possible window into Walsh's — sometimes ominous, sometimes mischievous, often both — grabs from the collective unconscious.

“The full moon in the east would glow as it emerged from the last squall, throwing silver shimmers across black waves. The sky was charcoal with an orange from the Australian fires. As the moon reached the edge of the clouds it created great taniwha staring down at us. Then the next time you looked up it had morphed into a souring (sic) bird alighting onto . . . Homer Simpson — what? Anyway, there are many images to play with.”

The Paul Nache Gallery exhibition includes Charting, a collection of exuberantly coloured abstract works by Evan Woodruffe, and new visceral, oozing clay, resin, and glaze works by Virginia Leonard until January 30. Paul Nache Gallery, Wednesday-Friday 11am-5pm and Saturday 11am-2pm. Private viewings by appointment only.

I'M ON A BOAT: Standing in front of John Walsh's large canvas, Sailing With The Ancestors, the viewer feels part of an uncertain moment in which a waka hourua is about to sail into a dark land. Picture supplied