Northland artist Rua Paul is making tangible the kaupapa of generations.
By Sandy Myhre.
Photo: Rua Paul. It is March 1973. The SV Fri, the former Baltic trader acquired by Greenpeace and made sea-ready in Opua and Whangarei, set sail from Auckland bound for Mururoa Atoll to protest France's nuclear testing programme in the Pacific. On board making his first blue water journey is a teen-aged Rua Paul and at the time he probably didn't realise what a significant catalyst he and many others were to become in shaping New Zealand's international standing.
Neither did Rua Paul then know he was destined to become a carver, an artist, an artisan of considerable note nor that throughout his lifetime he would continue to etch his seafaring capabilities onto other oceans. His early ambition was to become an All Black until Clive Williams, the rugby coach at Kamo High School, introduced him to art.
When he returned from Mururoa he began an apprenticeship under the guidance of master carver, Paki Harrison, one of the most widely-respected artists of his generation. So began what Rua Paul describes as a 'serious pedigree' in the traditions of Maori art and carving which continue to this day. His work is intrinsically Maori derived from his genetic Ngati Hine, Ngati Wai and Ngai Tahuhu heritage and yet he extends these indigenous boundaries by infusing neighbouring Pacific cultural elements within the framework of his pieces.
Some describe that as edgy, others suggest it brave but he's pushed the borders of his exhibitions too, with a consciously dramatic use of multi-media presentation. Now he's developing his art using different host materials.
"I did a map of Able Tasman's and put it on to material which was interesting and I've got this whole production thing going from a little factory in Indonesia which manufactures really beautiful things and the artwork on the material reflects the design on the solid pieces."
He's built boats in the past and he's still sailing. Last year he was a member of the crew of Haunui, one of seven Pacific Voyager Society waka moana that in four months crossed the vast oceanic swathes from San Diego to Tahiti. He calls these 70-foot-long waka 'basically big cats'. Each hull holds eight crew and if the craft are of high-tech construction, from a distance they look original. For part of the trip they navigated by the stars alone, thus corroborating a centuries-old tradition through a palpable, spiritual connection with the ancients - indeed the raison d'etre of the entire journey.
Off the Baja Peninsular they filmed whales, tiger sharks, rays and dolphins for Our Blue Canoe, an upcoming cinematic feature documentary that chronicles the voyage. They visited Cocos Island which was the template for Daniel Defoe's fictional Robinson Crusoe. There is treasure reputedly still buried there but would-be bullion-hunters are inevitably stymied by the two-year process it takes to get permission from Costa Rica to land, if it's granted at all.
"Cruising in on the waka was cool. Nothing's been done to the island since the buccaneer days hundreds of years ago and on the rocks you can see where they've scratched the date of their arrival. There was this incredible feeling of untouched ancient history."
Next stop was the Galapagos Islands.
"It's like a zoo and amazing to see the giant turtles. It has good surf, too," he adds by way of throwing into the conversation that he still does that as well. He disembarked in Tahiti and carved a pou that stands in the town square of Papeete.
The peripatetic mariner, surfer, carver and artist has a shop in the Maritime Building in Paihia and when the sailor is home from the sea he'll prepare for more exhibitions. As he speaks of these things his features soften and his eyes convey the artist's inherent nature absorbed from the kaupapa of generations and which today he brings tangibly to our attention.