The Bountiful and Beautiful Bush
Nigel Borell's Pirirakau

NGARINO ELLIS

Within the Maori worldview two things are essential: whakapapa (genealogy) and whenua (land). For Ngai Te Rangi and Ngati Ranginui artist Nigel Borell, these elements became very clear whilst on an artist’s retreat in Northland last year. The result was the exhibition Pirirakau (Bush Beautiful) at the Lane Gallery over September to October 2006.

NIGEL BORELL Puhoe 2 2006
Mixed media, 300 x 600 mm.

Borell was initially trained at Robert Jahnke’s Massey Campus where he achieved a Bachelor of Maori Visual Art, followed by a Master of Arts with Honours from the University of Auckland. He has curated several exhibitions as well as written critical reviews and essays, such as those for Tu Mai. Last year he was one of the Field Directors for the popular Maori arts series Kete Aronui which profiled a range of Maori artists for Maori Television. This year he has returned home to Tauranga, where he has taken on the role of Co-ordinator of Aka Rakai Toi at the Bay of Plenty Polytech, a Diploma of Art programme. His artist profile is also on the rise—April 2007 sees the release of Taiawhio II by Te Papa Press, a sequel to the popular Taiawhio, both of which highlight Maori artists of all generations.

Pirirakau (Bush Beautiful) was the culmination of several threads of research which Borell has undertaken through this educational and employment experiences. During the retreat in the North he was influenced by several key figures. Jeweller Alex Nathan and others guided Borell and colleagues around Waipoua and emphasised the whakapapa links that both Borell and he shared through a number of tipuna stretching up to the Te Rarawa region as well as to Hokianga. Staying at Matatina Marae located in the heart of the forest, Borell has gained a better understanding of local history and more specifically the effect of colonial history on the local people, and particularly their taonga—waka koiwi (carved burial chests) form some of the most significant parts of their cultural heritage. Their importance to the identity of the local people became even clearer when they were illegally removed from the area over a period from 1902-7, events which have only recently been addressed through Te Roroa’s Waitangi Tribunal claim. Borell’s foray into this tribal area last year augmented several years research on tiki figures which he had undertaken for his Bachelor of Maori Visual Art.

NIGEL BORELL Waewae Kaka 5 detail 2006
Mixed media, 300 x 600 mm.

But it was not only the historical forms which interested Borell. During a bush walk led by Steve King, the environmental manager for Waipoua Forest Trust (a bi-cultural partnership between conservationists and Te Raroa iwi), Borell was taught about the unique plant life of Waipoua and the ways in which it remained untouched for many centuries. One of the plants which captured Borell’s eye was the waewae kaka (parrot’s foot fern), after which seven paintings in Pirirakau are named. Others which were included were the puhoe, liverwort and the purple-berried turutu plant. Their delicate nature and fragility was presented in the exhibition in two ways: through the process of making his paintings as well as depictions of them.

Borell has always been interested in the way in which paint is applied to the surface and what can be achieved through a layering of surfaces. His earlier works have explored the ways in which Maori termed the actual process of painting from scraping pigment onto the surface to layering thin washes. Through his own paintings he was able to mix theory with practice and forged new ways in which Maori paint-making could be assessed and appreciated.

NIGEL BORELL Liverwort 2006
Mixed media, 560 x 710 mm.

In Pirirakau Borell has assessed the physical appearance of his subject matter, in this case a range of delicate native plant life, and applied this not only to the way in which he has placed the paint, but also the way in which he has added extra details to emphasise their fragility. Borell admits that this made him re-think his modus operandi, forcing him to take his time because of the media which he was using— stitching canvas is a most time-consuming passion.

Pirirakau (Bush Beautiful) re-uses key elements which Borell is becoming known for, such as the smearing of thick globs of paint, the use of strong colour and the layering of thin washes. But in this exhibition he takes his interest in the surface of the paint a step further with the inclusion of nonindigenous man-made materials, specifically the silk and cotton thread and the beading. In doing so, it invites the viewer in for closer inspection of the painting, and once there the power of the greenery is overpowering, as if we are in the bush with him.

NIGEL BORELL Liverwort—detail 2006
Mixed media, 560 x 710 mm.

To highlight the frailty of the plants, Borell used what he calls ‘pretty elements’ such as glass beads, glitter paint, iridescent threads and ribbons. In doing so, he juxtaposes the exterior world of the forest, one which is similar to that encountered by Maori hundreds of years ago, with the domestic world of the interior, one where elements such as beads and ribbons have played such a pivotal role in the making of items for domestic use, such as doilies, coasters and lace-edged tablecloths. He could be seen to be making a comment on the duality of his cultural heritage, proud of being Maori and Pakeha, and the ways in which descendents of such relationships deal with having such whakapapa.

Colour was another important aspect of Pirirakau. Borell deliberately chose a range of vivid greens to layer onto his paint surface in order to emphasise the way in which the bush is so essential to this group of works. By doing so also, he negates the expectation of some to see a heavy use of the Maori tricolour (red, black and white). By venturing into the realm of the green, he is also putting a serious spin on otherwise ephermeral subject matter. For Maori, the colour green denotes death as greenery from the bush is used to make headdresses worn by mourners when attending tangihanga.

NIGEL BORELL Turutu 2006
Mixed media, 560 x 710 mm.

Borell here plays on the term ‘waewae kaka’, with its close linguistic ties to another plant, the waewae koukou. This plant is known particularly in the North. At Te Rawhiti where I am from, for instance it has dual functions: it is used as decoration of the wharekai for celebrations, but is also worn during tangi and placed at the foot of the coffin once inside the house. Borell explores these dualities of naming in his work.

In a similar way, the term ‘pirirakau’ had double meanings for Borell. Translated it means ‘to cling to the bush’ and in this way reflects how the artist felt about his experience in Waipoua and just how painting about his time there could help him maintain a link with the North. On another more personal level, Borell’s hapu (sub-tribe) in Tauranga is called Pirirakau, one of six of Ngati Ranginui. The term here describes historical events where Ngati Ranginui were ejected from the area by Ngai Te Rangi but then turned round and attacked them from the bush. In this way the forest has strong associations with whakapapa and tribal histories.

NIGEL BORELL Pirirakau (Bush Beautiful) 2 2006
Mixed media, 1800 x 2000 mm.

The term ‘bush beautiful’ comes from Borell’s cousin Suaree and which the artist has interpreted as referring to the beauty of the bush in Waipoua and the ways in which the surfaces glitter and shimmer and have a beauty all of their own.

In this exhibition Borell takes his interest in the surface of the paint a step further with the inclusion of European craft materials. As if to emphasise the primacy of the bush as inspiration for the exhibition, Borell has included real plants within the space, placing them next to works which they are derived from. Some may have seen this as an unnecessary factor, playing out to an audience who may be unfamiliar to the plants from which the works are derived or rather made in homage. Others may have regarded it as continuing the Maori tradition of decorating spaces with the natural environment. Whatever the case, in Pirirakau Borell has demonstrated importance of whenua, in this case the bush, to his whakapapa, specifically his hapu from Tauranga, and the ways in which they are inextricably linked and provide a platform in which to enjoy the fruits of Tane Mahuta, whilst at the same time not to take them for granted. A retreat his time in Waipoua was for Borell, but through his works we can also retreat and dream of being enclosed by filigrees of sparkly greenery.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 123 Winter 2007