Taking Wing – Christ on High

Brett a’Court - Manu (Kahu) Oil on Canvas, 2007
Brett a’Court, Manu (Kahu), 2007. Oil on canvas. Private collection.

This striking image of an airborne Christ is from New Zealand painter Brett a’Court. It is part of his investigation into a way of bringing together the spiritual insights of the indigenous culture of the Māori people and that of Christianity brought to New Zealand by British settlers. In cultural terms, it is a hybrid image. This is something that occurs when two cultures are in a process of mutual re-assessment. That sort of conversation is full of conflict and critique but also allows for the potential for new forms to arise that express the best of both traditions. A Christ figure flying in the sky like a kite is such a form. It is a new thing, a potential heresy or aberration, but one full of potential for new insight and spiritual refreshment.

Christianity has expanded over recent centuries into a world religion, bringing with it European visual forms. At times these have been part of the conquering ideology as European colonial expansion has repressed the cultures of indigenous peoples seeing them as backward, pagan, or even demonic. As a result, objects were destroyed or burnt, cultural practices repressed or forbidden, and mythic narratives banned. In its place peoples were Christianised, therefore ‘civilised’, and presented in newly-minted European clothes and behaviours. Now, in this current post-colonial period, there has been a recognition of the violence done to people through denying them their own culture. In New Zealand since the 1980s, there has been a revival of traditional indigenous forms. New Zealand now seeks to be a bi-cultural nation, using forms from both traditions to mark out its national life. This hybrid Jesus, therefore, speaks to this new period of cultural re-formation offering new possibilities in deepening spirituality that arises from within this complex and newly emerging situation.

The ‘Manu-Kahu’ in Maori culture refers to the harrier hawk, a bird associated with being a spiritual connection to the divine. It also refers to the cultural practice of making kites, which was not only a common recreational practice but also a religious one as massive large-scale kites were produced for significant ritual occasions. These could carry the weight of a human person and were flown with up to a kilometre of rope to therefore command vast terrains in their ritual role. These kites ‘evoked the supernatural powers indicative of the Māori life force and associations with animals, birds, and the dream of flight. Used as communication devices to their gods, Māori kites became a link with the great natural powers which ruled their life’ (John Tarlton, ‘Ancient Maori Kites’, Art New Zealand, December, 1976). For the artist, this provides an appropriate link to the cultural place of the Christ figure who holds the land with benevolence and grace. It is also a visual statement of confidence in Christian spirituality as a relevant force in contemporary society, particularly during this period of post-colonial reformation.

Brett a’Court has created something new. It is a surprising innovation and unsettles traditional iconographical conventions. It disturbs expectations and could therefore be considered a threat to correct theological form. It also dislodges the colonial mentality that considers the European way of seeing things to be the correct and authoritative one. It is also something curious and worthy of consideration – a Christ figure in flight, who brings together belief and the physical environment in which people live. This is a thoroughly-contextual Christ for New Zealand, the land where birds have become the dominant species. This is a Christ at home in this particular cultural landscape. This is not an introduced species carrying an exotic spirituality. This is Christ at home in the physical landscape of the Pacific. A’Court shows his respect for the great innovative New Zealand painter Colin McCahon by using the device of speech bubbles echoing biblical quotes, which were part of McCahon’s innovative and hybrid response to colonialism. For viewers further afield, this work serves to expand our sense of encounter with a God at home in the world, an incarnation that honours the material world we inhabit, a Christ both particular and universal, both newly strange and safely familiar.

Reposted from ArtWay.

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ROD PATTENDEN IS AN ARTIST, ART HISTORIAN, AND THEOLOGIAN INTERESTED IN THE POWER OF IMAGES. HE LIVES AND WORKS ON AWABAKAL LAND.
Brett A’Court is a New Zealand painter who has been active since 1995 holding a series of successful exhibitions in his home country. His work draws on popular and historical fragments to explore issues of spirituality and meaning. He is interested to explore this in the context of the bi-cultural nature of New Zealand/Aoterora, ‘dissecting the imagery to unveil the light within, aware also of my place in Aoterora, soaked in Māori and Christian spirituality’.

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