In Kōwhaiwhai – The Spirit of Survival Israel Birch has explored “the foundational language of kōwhaiwhai.” It “acknowledges the clear messages and teachings from our ancestors hidden within the layered depths of kōwhaiwhai,” and this “has played a very significant role in visualising our mātauranga knowledge systems, and also our dreams and aspirations. Where there has been a space to assert tino rangatiratanga, kōwhaiwhai has performed an important part in affirming our message visually. Our ancestors rendered patterns down to their most clear, concise and potent expression for delivering an idea. Kōwhaiwhai speaks to us and reminds us to persevere, innovate, adapt, and grow, reflecting a spirit of survival.”1
“Kōwhaiwhai is te reo o te taiao – the language of the environment. Knowledge and language travels through the space of Ranginui (sky) which arrives into the whare tipuna (ancestral house) entering into the head of the house. This knowledge streams into the house along the tāhuhu (backbone) of it from the front to the rear wall. During this process, the knowledge transforms visually into kōwhaiwhai, this then streaming down the heke (ribs) of the ancestor house and into the head of the poupou (carved ancestral figures) running through them and down into Papatūānuku (earth mother), who is the library of knowledge. Throughout this process, knowledge transforms from kauae runga (spiritual, celestial knowledge) which is intangible, to kauae raro (physical, terrestrial knowledge) which is tangible. The process also reveals kōwhaiwhai as a visual language of the taiao. Most of the patterns which stream through the whare tipuna are based on the environment, thus showing us that the most important form of knowledge is from the taiao. Ko te taiao te tohunga, ko te tangata te tauira: the environment is the teacher, and we are the student.”2
Liquid and alive, subtle and softly weighted, rippling with light and luminous colour; resonating with meaning, rich with symbols and spirituality, and the architecture of the wharenui, Israel Birch delivers an exhibition like no other due to the leaping development of his vastly increased visual effect complexity and the subject focused, coherency of the works themselves. He alters spatial depth, shifts perspectives and densities back and forth and builds endless illusions of depth and space so that we glimpse the ineffable. Transitioning between worlds and existence, Birch harnesses the language of abstraction, using pattern and optical rhythms, with his technical control now so adroit that we see images, patterns and whorls advancing and receding side by side. This significantly increased holographic presence and complexity adds layer upon layer of symbolic nuance, spiritual sensation, and visual experience to each of the works. These are paintings where the surface of the steel has been carved, where the side-by-side presence of geometric patterns and organic whorls in each work, establish and emphasise the tactile presence of the making process. We sense the ebb and flow of energy essential for all life: physical, emotional, spiritual. In the exhibition Kōwhaiwhai – The Spirit of Survival Israel Birch connects us to the past, present and future and to the states of being.