Blowing on the embers

By Adam Gifford

Chris Bailey is inspired by books on archaeology. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Chris Bailey is inspired by books on archaeology. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Chris Bailey moved from construction work to sculpture six years ago - but first he had to find his identity as a Maori.

There's something raw about Chris Bailey. It's not just that he still looks like the burly construction and demolition worker he was for most of his working life.

Bailey became a sculptor just over six years ago when he was 40, and his career has moved quickly. He's on the roster at FHE gallery, alongside Ann Robinson and Ans Westra. His work is in overseas collections, and a large set of carved poles has just been installed in the Britomart precinct.

His latest show at the gallery, a mix of stone and wood pieces, asserts its Maori identity, with the gallery adding some artefacts and Ans Westra photographs so the point is not lost.

As Bailey tells it, he found his identity as a Maori first. His mother was Te Aupouri, Ngati Hako and Irish, his father Ngati Porou. He grew up in working-class West Auckland.

When he turned 30, he felt "it was time for me to learn, time for me to get back to my roots".

"I looked around and realised that while we were seeing on television these famines overseas, there was a cultural famine amongst my own mates here in Auckland.

"Being of the urban Maori, I was starving for my culture."

Bailey enrolled in Te Ataarangi language course at Hoani Waititi Marae run by Pita Sharples.

"I did three years full immersion, so by the time I was in my third year we were doing some very deep Maori conceptual studies and because I really couldn't get my head round it intellectually, pretty much the creative side kicked in."

That creative side was fuelled by further studies at Auckland University, where he credits Dante Bonica, the tutor in Maori material culture at the Maori studies department, for "blowing on the embers".

"He got me to understand stone and timber from a stone-age world view; what were the methods of tool construction, of timber construction.

"To understand old forms, you needed to understand how they were constructed. That got me going.

"Then I met artists like Colleen Urlich, June Grant, Manos Nathan. They switched me on to Creative New Zealand grants, the Toi Iho mark [authenticating work by authentic Maori artists] and it went on from there."

The wooden works in the FHE show include three square poles and two which have been shaped into canoe profiles, like the wornout waka used as tohu or markers of boundaries or graves.

The wood, totara pulled out of the ground under old pine plantations in the King Country, is carved by chisel in big regular depressions, mimicking adze cuts in a pattern known as mamaku, after the fern.

Bailey says he drew inspiration from the urban environment.

"I'm urban Maori, you know what I mean. I was looking at things to do with urbanism and getting contemporary on traditional.

"Nga korero tupuna translates to ancestral stories. What inspired me to kick it off is the relevance of myths and legends. Ancestral stories were a lot more potent for me as tools and messages for the kids, so Tatai Arorangi [the words carved at the base of the poles] is about the almanac.

"The planets and stars told what time to plant your kumara, when there would be a dry summer coming, when to harvest and sow the seed."

The poles feature a variant of the poutama staircase pattern, referencing the ascent of Tanenuiarangi to the heavens to find the three baskets of knowledge. It's the sort of schoolbook myth that was in play in Maori contemporary art a couple of decades back, but Bailey's contemporaries have moved on.

He looks blank when I ask him whether his work is a conversation with any other artists.

"I've never really done that, had other people to inspire me. Some of my bros, I love them. Roi Toia does amazing stuff. Louis Gardiner in Rotorua does some pretty inspiring stuff. We've all exhibited together through the Toi Iho mark.

"When I'm around those guys I get inspired by their enthusiasm and their love for it, but when it comes to my own, I don't draw a lot of inspiration off other artists creatively that is going to affect my piece. It's more their energy."

Where he does draw from is books on archaeology, with many of his stone pieces referencing archaic adzes, hooks or ornaments. He says the idea for a giant stone lure came from Roger Duff's record of artefacts unearthed on the Wairau Bar, the site of one of the earliest known settlements in Aotearoa.

"That's where I get a lot of my inspiration from, archaeological writings and photos. Duff found a whole lot of these lures and realised they were pre-moahunter, based on the hook and lure design.

"They didn't have the mother of pearl shell they were used to, so they started looking to local resources. Someone cottoned on to a pohutukawa shank with paua."

Bailey also helps with the carvings at Piritahi Marae on Waiheke, where he lives.

"The good thing about working on a house, you're with other guys and their creative processes, following a leader," he says.

FHE director Kathleen Fogarty says she picked up Bailey because she saw him as having a distinct and individual voice saying something she hadn't heard before. She feels the work has an aura.

"People want something that is beyond themselves. You might have no idea what these sculptures or marks mean, but you do feel you are in the presence of something greater than yourself," she says.

- NZ Herald

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