Arataki means ‘to guide’ in English, and is a fitting title for this collection of works from Chris Heaphy. The silhouetted heads that float on the canvases in Arataki are motifs which have surfaced throughout Heaphy’s practice. Through this repeated use over years, the artist has blurred and shifted their original contexts, setting the images adrift and creating space for new, alternate meanings to develop. As the exhibition title suggests, Heaphy guides our looking, but leaves it up to us to decide what we choose to see and how we interpret it.
Referencing early European portraits of Māori, the silhouettes recall the images of tūpuna that have places of honour in the wharenui. As visual representations of whakapapa that stretches into the past, these ancestor images are reminders of the foundations from which new generations spring. In Heaphy’s paintings, strange plants bloom out of the ancestor-heads. Leaf-like attachments unfurl from the central stalks into an assortment of abstracted shapes that are often mirrors of free-floating forms inside the silhouette. In Arataki (2020) the plants have broken through the outlines of the shadow-head but the painter’s subtle use of colour emphasises their intimate connection. Whanake Black (2020) takes this a step further, the head nourishing a full-grown tree as well as another sprouting up. They are indeed “family’ trees.
Heaphy has often referenced the work of Gordon Walters in the past and in Arataki we see Walters’ signature koru forms appear once again. As well as being traditional signifiers of new life and growth, they refer to the artist’s own art history and experiences. These are joined by Heaphy’s interpretations of Polynesian and Micronesian tattoo patterns. In the original, these speak to the wearers’ whakapapa and the corresponding natural environments. The patterns and motifs are physically inscribed into the body of the wearer: the narratives become literally embodied. Here, they are laid across a painted surface and without somatic reference points (like the heads themselves), need to be re-contextualised.
The silhouettes themselves are alive with colour and movement. Translucent, textured layers of paint and painterly mark-making are foils for the razor-sharp outlines of both the head and the plant forms. Drawing upon this, each painting has a tense, energetic equilibrium and we feel as if we are looking at one version of a story that is in perpetual motion. The strong lateral forms Heaphy integrates into the climbing plants work with the other abstract ‘leaves’ to build the internal structure of the paintings. The laddered block colours and clean-cut shapes temper the gestural backgrounds within and without the head shapes, providing a sense of visual balance. Within the carefully composed interiors, we discover some of Heaphy’s familiar symbols - walking sticks, anamorphic shapes, koru - but need to ask how they are related to one another. As suggested in Everything in its Right Place (2020), there is sense to be found, if we learn how to look.