Sunday, December 11, 2011

Portraits, faces, aspects....

This is William Colenso in the form of a pou (post). It was made for Maraenui School here in Napier. It is a te reo school, ie a school devoted to the flourishing of the Maori language and this photo was taken by Gillian Bell, a direct descendant of William Colenso when she visited the school recently. (See her moving account of the visit at the end of this post below) 

The pou was carved by person or persons unknown who were on periodic detention. The conception behind the pou is of William Colenso as a bearer of knowledge. 

What fascinates me about this visualisation of William Colenso is its feeling of both sadness and endurance. I don’t know if I am reading this into the representation - I could well be. But the downward inflection of his eyes and curves of his face seem sad to me. 

Yet there is a real power in this realisation. In particular I love the way his body morphs the lower down you get until by his legs he has effectively changed into something Maori, a taniwha rooted to the earth and to place. 
It is, in its own way, very powerful and probably an insightful commentary into the way Colenso became rooted to place - in more ways than one.

I wondered if the carver had seen a photo of Colenso in a book - perhaps the Lindaeur portrait (though this pou-Colenso, while elderly, appears to me to be younger than the 81 year old man who Lindaeur painted.)

What also fascinates me about this is the way it contrasts and complements the most recent re-imaging of Colenso. This was by contemporary artist Gavin Hurley who did the sensationally large painting of Colenso for the Hawke's Bay Museum Trust - a preparatory version of which is on the cover of my book. 

There’s a real power in Hurley’s portrait too - a sense of almost blind force in the wide-awake eyes. This image of Colenso comes from a conversation the first photographic image of Colenso that we have: this was from a time before he knew disaster and defeat. (I have included the minister of arts, Chris Finlayson and Douglas LLoyd Jenkins in the photo so you can get some sense of the sensational scale of this contemporary portrait. Colenso really does seem to peer over their shoulder and is Mao-sized.)


Gavin Hurley's Colenso could keep going, regardless of what obstacles lay in his path. In a way, Colenso's own obstacles were part of his personality - like all of us really, he was flawed. But as both these representations show - he was highly memorable and - worth remembering. 

I guess, my book is another version of a portrait, each in their own way different and differing in perspective and understanding of this remarkable man.

I think too the perspectives from this time on will multiply...which is how history - the telling of stories - works.

But this is what I like - the dynamism of a portrait, the way a historical character keeps changing. I think personally this is a salute to William Colenso’s density of thought and dynamism. 

If he were static and uninteresting, we would  feel we know everything there is to know about him. Interest would fade away. But as these portraits show, the representations just keep on multiplying and changing...

By Gillian Bell written for the extraordinarily enriching Colenso emagazine edited by Ian St George.

I met this William while in Napier recently at Te Kura Reo Rua o Maraenui (school). He stands as a two metre tall, intricately-carved pou (pole), passed by pupils on their way to classes. The imposing carving in a golden wood, was created some years ago & resem- bles the Lindauer portrait in that
this is the benign elder Colenso with hair to his shoulders, a broad brow, kindly blue eyes & a gentle mouth. There is a hint of jacket lapels, creases in cuffed sleeves, a finely-patterned stave, & carved on one leg, an open book. The skill & care that has gone into this depiction is truly amazing.
Gwilym Colenso & I stood awestruck until urged to touch him, stroke him & finger the carvings whilst unbeknown to us, we were being watched by a group of 10 to 13 year olds. Their kaiako (teacher) came out of their whare (classroom) & invited us in.
She told the class of our connection to William Colenso & invited us to talk about where we came from so Gwilym explained his Welsh name & London base while I told of growing up in Otaki opposite Rangiatea Church. The kaiako said the children would sing for us &, as she picked up a guitar, the children quickly stepped into lines, girls in front, boys at the back.
Suddenly, miraculously, voices burst forth strongly in a waiata, bodies swayed, hands fluttered, feet moved. I saw before me the descendants of Colenso‘s pupils— &, without embarassment, large quiet tears slid from the corners of my eyes. At the conclusion, my small very sincere voice said ―Thank you. Thank you SO much, that was beautiful.
We left Maraenui School quiet & reflective. Surely, to honour this ―Bearer of Knowledge with his passion for education & the written word—this, THIS is where it starts, in a school in Te Awapuni.
And the response from these children to our visit, ―that little old lady, she was beautiful, she cried for her tupuna (ancestors).


  1. This is interesting Peter, and let me tell you how much I am enjoying the book. I am even reading it slowly to savour it.

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