Leading Pacific Islander artist captures the ambiguity and the splendor of his tiny, magnificent homeland in transformative, deeply spiritual paintings
WHAT’S GOING ON: John Pule is perhaps one of the best-known artists in Oceania. A native of Niue, he had lived in New Zealand most of his life but made a point to return home and practice his art in Niue later in his life. Apart from being an artist, John Pule is also a writer and filmmaker, but we’ll address his written and moving image work at some other time. It’s only fair that the introduction to Pule’s immense talent is through the visual enchantment of his paintings and collages. Canvases filled with exotic overgrowth, blistering colors, and subdued tiny human figures are just the latest in Pule’s diverse body of work.
WHAT’S ON VIEW: It’s only lately, after his return to the ancestral land of Niue, that John Pule began making paintings with bright green, blue and yellow-hued magical landscapes. They give the viewer the fuzzy sensation of being blinded by the sun, looking up. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, but before his works were not as colorful. His paintings were usually tinged with vegetable dye tones and reminiscent of traditional ornaments. Meanwhile, his collages were the muted terra cotta tones of traditional figurines. Dazzling stuff, none the less, but it’s as if Pule’s soul had only come truly awake when he was able to step on Niue’s ground.
WHY DO WE CARE: Pacific islands have a rich decorative tradition, which doesn’t get as much acknowledgment as it should. So to be able to see Niue’s visual heritage reflected in the work of a contemporary artist, who also has a very idiosyncratic understanding of the visual mediums, is a treat. As a person existing at the intersections of colonial existence and migration, Christianity and island spirituality, and the earth and the ocean, Pule has a particular outlook. That outlook populates his many paintings with scenes of Biblical iconography, ancestral apparitions, wild nature, tamed humanity, and a whole lot of humor. Simultaneously full of spirit and profoundly sad, Pule’s paintings are a magical evocation of his homeland’s noble struggle.
WHY YOU NEED TO PAY ATTENTION: Looking at Pule’s paintings, one gets a much clearer, unobstructed view at the core of Niue than any google photographs, as drool-inducing as they are, would be able to provide. The results of Pule’s practice are like shamanistic visions that he generously offers to the public, with the particular naming as a sort of road map. Some of his pieces’ names serve to transmit their cryptic origins, such as “A Clear View of Another World, Another Time” and “Providence.” Others deal with specific spiritual considerations that Pule lived through, such as “I Was Born With Wings In My Hands” and “Language Came Later To My Mouth.” Others still are light and prosaic, like “So On And On We Walked” and “Carry the Bike Across.” But the ones that I particularly like are all named after locations, each with a specific meaning for Pule’s own experiences, and they serve as a sort of transportation devices. The transcendent loneliness of being in Niue, an awe-inspiring island on the brink of depopulation, is communicated in Pule’s imaginative landscapes exceptionally well. Engaging with John Pule’s art, looking at the fecund pods bursting with seeds and the sheltering leaves that he paints is rewarding and transformative. Just click through some, and you’ll start feeling like you’re stepping over an overgrown swimming hole along with Pule’s little figures, or maybe the artist himself.