Reviews, News and Commentary

Roger Mortimer’s medieval colonisation of New Zealand

Roger Mortimer, Onepoto

Roger Mortimer


Foenander Gallery, Mt Eden

Until September 25

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

In the middle of last century the poet A R D Fairburn wrote about New Zealand ‘There is no golden mist, no Merlins in our woods”. This was an acknowledgement that the myths and narratives of Europe had no  place in the New Zealand. At that time we had created a new set of notions about the country which was a mixture of Maori and Pakeha concepts about of the natural world and an almost common history.

There were taniwha throughout the land and the ghosts of the departed seen in the graveyards which dotted the countryside along with monuments to the past. It was thought that Europe had no place here.

Roger Mortimer has changed that. In the series of paintings he has produced over the last few years he has transposed and integrated something of a parallel history of mankind and religion creating a new fantastic history where nineteenth century New Zealand has been colonised by medieval Europe.

In his latest exhibition “Houhora” he uses cartographic maps of New Zealand which look  as though they are from another time. He has populated these maps with images and narratives derived  from the Bible and Dante’s Inferno / Divine Comedy. The figures are in the style of medieval artists and the artists of the Trecento with several of the scenes worthy of the creations of Hieronymus Bosch.

He has produced something of a parallel universe which sees numerous spirits inhabiting the land, precursors or ancestors of taniwha with the paintings that acknowledge  settlements mainly in the upper part of the North Island such as  Te Awanga, Onepoto and Ahipara

He also includes large mandala like compass indicators which owe as much to traditional nautical design as to Maori kowhaiwhai. The painting also contain random numbers indicating depth or distance and in Ahipara (($14,000) a line of marks indicate the course of an old sailing ship.

The works are filled with individuals and angels or spirits which look as though they have come from art works of the Trecento, simple figures engaged in enigmatic or puzzling activities as in Onepoto ($11,000) where men are involved in a Herculean task transporting large rocks or  Te Awanga ($14,000) where a woman cuts down a bleeding sapling and a man fishes for a monster. In Ahipara ($14,000) the two figures gliding heavenward looks as though they could have come from a Chagall painting.

Most of the paintings have setting in Northland but Kirirua ($14,000) is set around an island on the Southland coast. The work is populated with a mixture of figures including a classical soldier, a centaur, a griffin along with a couple of brutal deaths observed by angles. Omapere ($14,000) includes a Bosch-like scene of a centaur threatening  a group of lost souls.

The most impressive work in the show is the large tapestry Houhora ($26,000), which is appropriate inclusion as some of the most impressive art works of the medieval period are tapestries which were filled with  ancient tales and figures.

The paintings are all watercolours, the figures and vegetation carefully described along with washes of colours as well as  gold for highlight. This use of the gold is reminiscent of the way in which medieval scribes used gold to adorn sacred books. It is also a nod to Fairburn’s “golden mists”

The mixture of Christian iconography, mythical creatures, angels and demons seems appropriate and relevant at this time of global unease over Covid 19. It parallels the insecurity which  affected the medieval view of life where the dangers of war, plague and famine were constant reminder of a dangerous and unsafe  world.

The imagined worlds of Mortimer’s art works conflate various aspects of New Zealand –  the mythic view of a country populated by medieval figures before the arrival of the Maori, the use of Maori place names along with the events activities of angels and demons.

Another reading of Mortimer’s works could be along the lines of Jungian psychology in which alchemical philosophy forms a natural continuity in the shift from religion to science and where the psychological aspects of metaphysical symbols can be seen as  counterweights to the literal truths of science.

By johndpart

Arts reviewer for thirty years with the National Business Review

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