New Zealand history is viewed through a prism in Whanganui artist Peter Ireland's new book, The Weight of the Captain's Wrist.

The book has special relevance to the Tuia 250 commemorations that began on October 5.

The Tuia 250 events began 250 years after the first meeting of James Cook with Māori at Tūranganui-ā-Kiwa (Poverty Bay) in October 1769. They aim to celebrate all Pacific voyaging, with a flotilla of waka hourua and a replica of the Endeavour sailing around New Zealand until December, and land-based events as well.

However, when the Endeavour arrived in Gisborne in early October, it was met by 150 protesters who did not welcome it. They said Māori had suffered tremendously from colonisation.

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Northland iwi at Mangonui don't want the Endeavour replica in their harbour at all.

The commemorations would have gone better if the Ministry for Culture and Heritage had started talking to the right people early enough, Ireland said.

"We should know by now that sometimes it takes a long time. If you don't wait, they don't co-operate, and why should they? We are always going on about being bicultural, but it's always on our terms."

If the Endeavour attempted to come up the Whanganui River protesters might well throw stones at it, Pākaitore Historic Reserve Board chairman Jay Rerekura said.

He doesn't agree with the way the story of Cook is taught in schools.

Jay Rerekura was present at the occupation of Pākaitore in 1995, aged 14. Photo / File
Jay Rerekura was present at the occupation of Pākaitore in 1995, aged 14. Photo / File

"We share this narrative that a European traveller came and discovered Aotearoa, even though it was occupied when he discovered it.

"I don't care for giving that narrative any mana. How do you discover something that's already occupied?

"And [Cook] has done that right through the Pacific, and not done some very nice things along the way either."

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Rerekura would like mana given to the oral history of his people, and for that to also be taught in schools.

"It doesn't get passed on, unless you put yourself in particular circles, and it shouldn't be that way."

The Tuia 250 events could get people talking.

"I think anything that incites discussion is probably a good thing, because it gives us an opportunity to raise awareness around things like the telling of indigenous and local histories, and giving mana to oral history," Rerekura said.

If Tuia 250 gets people talking it will have achieved its purpose, Ireland says. Photo / Lewis Gardner
If Tuia 250 gets people talking it will have achieved its purpose, Ireland says. Photo / Lewis Gardner

The discussions could be painful, Ireland said, but if they happen, the commemorations achieve their purpose.

His book consists of 69 oil paintings done since 1991 - about a third of his work during that time. The paintings were shown in The Presence of Time exhibition at Russell's Te Whare Taonga o Kororāreka from July to November last year.

Ireland calls the style symbolic realism, with its partial portraits, silhouettes and landscapes not the main point. The partial portraits are intended to reference a portrait, without distracting the viewer by a face.

"I have taken it somewhere else, and it's the somewhere else that's important."

The paintings contain symbolic objects, like the skull on Cook's ring on the book's cover. Reflecting the title The Weight of the Captain's Wrist, Cook rests his hand on a map of New Zealand, "claiming it, in a way".

There are Pacific people depicted as well - Tupaia and Omai from Tahiti, and two "cool young dudes" from Northland, Tuai and Titere, who spent eight months in England courtesy of the voyage.

Ireland used historic sketches by early travellers like Augustus Earle and Edward Ashworth as the basis for his landscapes. When he made a trip to the Bay of Islands, he was blown away to find the outlines were still accurate.

Often the landscapes are upside down - because we live "down under". Some are attractive, but he wanted them real, rather than sublime.

The paintings also reference 14th and 15th century Italian art, and religious art. Jesus and his sacred heart are depicted at Waitangi.

They move from early encounters into later history, with the Waitangi Wallpaper series. The legal personhood of the Whanganui River is a modern addition, with the landscape taken from a photograph by Tania Warbrick, and a sprinkling of symbolic "h"s.

Some paintings are in chequerboard fashion, or dotted with cards and dice, symbolising the nature of political games. Some are jigsaw puzzles, symbolising the many pieces that make a complete history.

The publication of 1000 copies, by Rim Books, cost $22,000. It was funded by Ireland, his friends and supporters. As far as he knows, it's the first book about a Whanganui artist to be published during the artist's lifetime. It is available at Paige's Book Gallery.

Whanganui has been Ireland's base since 1995. He's now 72, and getting the book published was now or never. It seemed to him a perfect matcher with Tuia 250.

He learned very little New Zealand history at school, but got interested later while collecting images of early New Zealand. In 1990 he was living in Gisborne, when the 150 year commemorations of the Treaty of Waitangi raised all the same questions as Tuia 250.

"I'm not one of those people who thinks history is then. The past is part of our existence and worldview. Some people are a lot more aware of it than others."

He has shaken the hand of someone who shook the hand of Governor George Grey, which told him the colonial past is not that long ago.

Peter Ireland has no regrets about choosing life as an artist. Photo / Lewis Gardner
Peter Ireland has no regrets about choosing life as an artist. Photo / Lewis Gardner

Ireland has been an artist - painter, curator and writer - since 1976. He's managed to sell most of his work but said he has "lived below the poverty line" for more than 40 years.

"Although it was a pain in the arse at times, I never regretted it because I have been able to do what I always wanted to do. I can't wait to get to work in the morning, even on a Monday."