Some time after losing her husband Tane to illness in 2020, Wairoa-based artist Joanne Tokona’s practice evolved into painting large-scale, expressionist works.
The move to working with large-scale canvases freed up the act of painting for Tokona, whose exhibition The Face of My Space opens at Wairoa Museum today.
“I put a lot of energy into my work,” she says.
“It’s very physical and the scale of it lends itself to the work. With the scale, you throw yourself into it. You’re in it, you’re immersed.”
The pictured work is a 6mx2m landscape. Suspended by wires the work is a free-standing wall.
“People can touch it and walk around it,” says Tokona.
“It’s more like an installation.”
Physicality in the painting can be felt in the fluidity of ruched, veined, muscular landforms, the boiling river, the livid sky in which clouds part to reveal a vaguely human-form while, almost obscured in the flux, is a house at the foot of the hills. Everything is in upheaval. It’s almost fitting the painting had to be transported by horse-float to the gallery.
Tokona gave up full-time art teaching at the beginning of the year to devote more time to painting. And drumming. She plays drums with two covers bands and an originals band. Tane, too, was a drummer and performed with David Kilgour and The Heavy Eights.
“My husband was quite big in the Dunedin music scene,” says Tokona.
The artist and the drummer met at Dunedin venue The Empire when Tane performed there with The Strange Loves. They married three months later.
“This is a grieving process for me. We were together for 27 years. We were very close. His death was a total shock. No one got to say goodbye. I carried on teaching for a few months then I couldn’t do it. I began painting large-scale works during lockdown.
“It had to be big because everything has been big. Everything since that time has been massive. I couldn’t carry on with small works”
She also began to play on the 1965 Rogers drum kit Tane had set up.
“David helped me. I sent him clips of me on the drums. Now I get my hands into the paint and use my hands as brushes. Quite often I’ll drum, go and paint then drum and then paint some more.
“And surfing. That is a neat thing to do after drumming. That all flows into the painting. To be fit for drumming, the surfing works. They’re all very in the moment.”
That must be both therapeutic and emotionally painful.
“It’s life,” says Tokona.
“What Tane had was terminal. How it ended was horrific for family and friends. No one could say goodbye. I’ve used these things to deal with it myself. As soon as you go to the water it’s a healing thing. So is the music. Musicians come to the house. Music is a collective thing.”
Prior to taking a more physical and experimental approach to painting, Tokona’s work was more structural, she says.
“At art school I did a lot of illustrative work and portraiture. It was kind of abstraction mixed with portraiture. I painted portraits a lot as my kids grew up.”
“This is when I was a young mother, inspired to illustrate my whanau and extended whanau — their beliefs, place in environment — slices of domestic moments from a bi-cultural perspective,” writes Tokona elsewhere.
In her school teaching life, Tokona was the first Maori dean at Oamaru’s Waitahi Boys High where Tane took on the role of kaitiaki.
When Tane and a mate went to Wairoa on a hunting trip, Tane fell in love with the place. When he returned to Wairoa with Joanne she fell in love with it too and landed a job as art teacher for years 7 and 8 at Wairoa College.
“With the support from this community and with the drumming and surfing it’s been amazing,” she says.