The wharenui (meeting house) is minuscule in the vast expanse of the painted canvas. Tiny delicate strokes with a thin brush render its familiar profile.

The painting is Tūrangawaewae (2003), an early work by local artist Andrea Hopkins, who currently has a must-see retrospective exhibition at the Whangārei Art Museum.

This work exemplifies what I think is most successful about Hopkins' paintings: the contrast between fine delicacy and broad, expansively painted backgrounds.

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This is a visual thing. It simply provides interest and pleasure for the eye to scan a large painting from further back, grasp its essential structure, then discover the small figures, patterns, symbols and landscape features embedded in the canvas.

To see properly you have to get up real close. This has the effect of making the experience personal and precious, like examining a piece of fine jewellery.

But it's not just a formal device, it works metaphorically as well. In Tūrangawaewae, the effect is to locate the wharenui, that emblem of Māori cultural continuity and renaissance, in a boundless universe of space and time.

Andrea Hopkins, Things are Looking Up, 2011, acrylic on canvas. Private Collection
Andrea Hopkins, Things are Looking Up, 2011, acrylic on canvas. Private Collection

When we stand somewhere (tūrangawaewae means "the right to stand in a place"), we only occupy a small space physically but a massive one culturally. We are tiny in the grand scheme of the universe, yet wondrously endowed with a cultural heritage. Language, art, ways of thinking about the world, were established before us and will continue after us.

The wharenui, a symbol of human culture and working together, exists within something much larger. It is dwarfed by and also protected by the immense space Hopkins evokes in her paintings. To return with a jewellery analogy, it's like a precious ring displayed on a large felt-covered pillow.

In the sky section of the painting, again requiring us to get up close, is a reccuring motif in Hopkin's work, a Māori kite (manu tukutuku).

These kites, abstracted and original, fly high and often in Hopkins' paintings. And they are always a delight. They represent the creative spirit, a spiritual soaring.

Yet the kite flyer always has their feet on the ground. They can observe and imagine the experience of flight, without actually doing so.

The kite is a wonderful symbol of our desire to transcend our physical earth-bound selves, even though this is impossible.

We remain both of the sky and the land, of the spirit and the soil, of Rangi and Papa. The truth and beauty lies in the mutual harmony of opposites. Hopkins portrays these opposites powerfully in her best work.

What I often admire about Māori artists, is their willingness to use symbolism that contains big ideas without any hint of irony. And so I find Hopkins' work to be philosophical in a way that speaks to me as a non-Māori.

But to someone who is Māori, who lives in the culture, who has participated in kapa haka, like Hopkins herself did for many years, then these paintings must surely speak even more powerfully.

In particular, I'm thinking of her paintings featuring female figures, dancing and strutting in the landscape. They most often wear knee-length skirts, smart designer tops and high-heeled boots.

They look like middle-class office workers, teachers, hospitality managers, small business entrepreneurs, who easily transition from work to café to nightclub.

These are confident modern women with a proud Māori identity, shown by their faces, which recall carved imagery of classical Māori design with a touch of Picasso-like abstraction thrown in.

Kii Raro (2010), Mai Wahine (2010) and Things Are Looking Up (2011) are masterworks which delight in optimism and spirited play.

As always, a review of an exhibition with a large number of works is impossible. Hopkins' work has changed and evolved over the years, different paintings make different statements.

You have to visit the exhibition to create your own experience of the work.
I can assure you, though, you'll be uplifted, provoked and satisfied. The universalism present in these paintings speaks to us all.

Hopkins is a kite flyer, a skilled one, who deserves our admiration.