A Wahine Christ

Listener – September 9, 2000

A reinvention of the 14 Stations of the Cross.

Above the altar at St Luke’s Anglican in Waikanae, images of early patriarchs Wi Parata Te Kakakura and missionary Octavius Hadfield flank an image of St Luke in stained glass. Wi Parata, who was elected to Parliament as the member for Western Maori in 1871, gifted the land for St Lukes to be built. He is Hariata Ropata Tangahoe’s great-great-grandfather, and this is the church that Hariata attended as a child. It is also the seedbed, for “Anahera Te Pono”, a remarkable work of art that tells the story of Anahera, “a faithful brown angel”. 

Made up 14 sandstone tablets, “Anahera” was originally shown in the basement St Paul’s Anglican Church in Auckland two years ago. Now it is being shown in the Michael Hirchfeld Gallery of Wellington’s City Gallery in which Tangahoe also has a painting (“Expulsion from Paradise”) in the “Parihaka” exhibition. She is linked to the Parihaka prophet Te Whiti through Te Atiawa. 

“Anahera Te Pono” is a reinvention of the 14 Stations of the Cross, from entrapment and torture to redemption and freedom. In effect, Anahera Te Pono is a Wahine Christ. But the works are not carved in wood, as in the mainstream male Maori tradition, and they have in part an eastern look. They resemble dug-up relics that recall an ancient time, although Tangahoe sees time as an impediment to reading the work, which to her is a continuing personal story. 

As the story goes, Anahera is one of the guardians of the heavens. She floats above the congregation of the church and the patriarchial “wordbearers of the institution”. Her job is to catch the “bad words”. Unhappy, she tries many times to escape before finally breaking free to join her whanau. Home, for Tangahoe, is where the heart is and the heart is the church. 

The work, while subversive, has a transcendental beauty. On one hand it challenges the doctrinal, but on the other it follows Christ’s journey to the crucifixion and ultimate victory over death. To my knowledge, Tangahoe is the only woman from Aotearoa to render a version of the 14 Stations of the Cross; the only major New Zealand artists to take the journey have been Colin McCahon and Nigel Brown. 

Tangahoe (Te Atiawa, Raukawa, Ngati Toa, Tuwharetoa) returned to her homeplace last year to study at Otaki Maori University Te Wananga O Raukawa. She had left Waikanae with her mother to live in Auckland when she was a teenager. 

She married artist and book illustator Murray Grimsdale in the early 1970s and met, among others, artists Tony Fomison, Philip Clairmont, Colin McCahon, Dick Frizzell and Barry Lett, who encouraged her obvious painting talent. Her first solo exhibition was in 1980 at Outreach in Auckland. Since then she has lived in Taranaki and Hamilton and exhibited at various North Island public and dealer galleries. She had work included in “Nga Taongo a o Tatou Kuia” (The Treasures of our Grandmothers) at Govett-Brewster Gallery in 1987 and “The Innocent Eye” at the Dowse Art Museum in 1988. 

Now she’s sitting in Wellington’s Civic Square, opposite the City Gallery, two weeks before “Anahera Te Pono” opens. Four young Maori men carrying cartons of beer are standing at the top of the steps at the harbour entrance. Noisily, they hail another group entering the public library on the other side. In the middle of the square, a Maori schoolboy, energised by the exchange, starts to do a haka. The figures at the top of the steps are highlighted by Para Matchitt’s totems on the city-to-sea bridge. “What a wonderful photograph that would have made,” Tangahoe says – and soon she has gone after the group with a camera. 

So how did “Anahera” come about? 

“‘Anahera’ was a dream. I was at a loss to know what I was going to do for the year to complete my masters. I wasn’t sure, but I knew it would have to be something about women. 

“Then I bumped into a friend, Lani Hunter, who is an ex-television journalist, who was working in the English Department at Auckland University. I hadn’t seen him for about 15 years. He was a friend of my husband and me, but after we split up I lost contact with him. I told him about the dream and what I had to do and that I wasn’t quite sure. And he suggested that I write a story. So I started writing, and he became my editor and a guiding factor in the work. 

“I had been playing around with the stone beforehand. I wanted to carve and had all this sandstone that was recovered from the old Auckland Town Hall. I was having fun, but didn’t know what I was doing, but after we worked out the story and split it up I found my direction. 

“We worked it out by using the story of the 14 Stations of the Cross. Obviously it’s a religious story, because of my religious upbringing, but it’s also a woman’s story, about my grandma, about her dying and how I felt alone. I was also thinking about McCahon and Nigel Brown who had done it. So I thought I would do my take on it. I wasn’t consciously thinking that I was presenting a female Christ, but in the end that’s what I was doing. And my story was personal. There were always women in my early life. There weren’t many men. My mum was a solo mum and my grandmother was on her own, because her husband had died. 

“The story had actually came from grandmother, who talked a lot about guardian angels and how we were always protected by them. It’s a woman’s story. Lani gave me the framework and set me on my way.” 

Greg O’Brien, in his book “Lands and Deeds”, wrote: “Tangahoe’s paintings can be the most innocent and, at the same time, the most knowing of things. They address, with equal amounts of urgency and lyricism, what literary critic David Sexton calls ‘such shabbily unprofessional topics as life and death’ which tend to inspire a ‘standard aversion among salaried critics’.” 

Tangahoe says in the same book: “The myths I use in my painting come from within, but they also relate to Maori mythology and the mythologies of other cultures. It all comes from my ancestry which as well as a Maori side, has an Italian and Welsh side. Everything is stored in me and images just flow out. I can’t get away from these visionary ideas, and don’t ever want to.”

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