the return of the moa reviewed by Jamie Hanton

Review by Jamie Hanton
The Return of the Moa / A Wry Look at the Future
Exhibition by Jane Zusters
August 2010, Quiqcorp Gallery, Christchurch

One guardian only, O son, had this land,
The Kura-nui, the bird of Rua-kapanga.
Destroyed by your ancestor, by Tamatea, with subterranean and supernatural fire,
The fire of Mahuika, brought to this world by Maui.
Thus were they driven to the swamps and perished;
Thus was the species lost, O son (1)

Mystery surrounds the moa. Questions concerning its extinction abound. And in a land as primordial, rugged and vast as New Zealand it is entirely possible that parts of the moa population, sensing danger ducked into hiding, waiting to come back at some point in the future as a harbinger of a new age. Certainly, in Jane Zusters’ eponymous work Return of the Moa, moa seems to be making its way back to the surface via a maze of aquifers that spread across the large unstretched canvas having, perhaps the moa escaped down a tomo (cave entrance) to avoid the fire of Mahuika – indeed the myth the poem refers to describes the moa as bird nearly impossible to trap or capture. The supernatural fire can be read as destructive fire of humankind that destroyed the Guardian of the Land – the moa.

returnof moa

Geological and archaeological processes are suggested in Return of the Moa, the work portrays a subterranean cross section of terra firma, earthen red paint is layered, mirroring the strata and accreted sediment. Such processes embody the passing of time. The eons of involved earthly formation stand in stark contrast with the relatively short period of time humans have inhabited the earth, consuming resources as they go. If the moa reappears, the land may once again have its guardian, and in conjunction with its restored dominion a more natural state of being may be realised. A state where the environment is prized and birdlife is treasured. In the Return of the Moa / A Wry Look at the Future, Zusters attends to this very belief – a belief deeply connected with the threat to water in the South Island.

wai wurri

Wai Wurri, a portmanteau of Maori-New Zealand English vernacular can be read as Why Worry? Or alternatively Water Worry, and continues Zusters’ clever subversion of environmental discourse. The work itself is ambiguous, white striations that could be tears or tears mark the canvas, You Are Not An Island You Know and Not An Island use similar markings, though in these two works the patches stretch out to reference islands in a body of water, moving Zusters closer to a direct representation of landscape. All the works in The Return of the Moa engage with the landscape whether in its altered state, or its original form. And throughout the paintings the moa stencil hovers on the edge, intent on re-entering the fray, a messiah in our time of need.

While there are messages to be read in Zusters’ work, as there has been for the duration her prolific and illustrious career, her paintings are just as much about the process of painting: an exploration of a medium that seems to hold endless discoveries. The grids of her earlier work have collapsed and the canvas now integrates numerous disparate elements reflecting a more holistic worldview. An environment where the link between cause and effect is unmediated, where chaos occurs in a system in flux.


The system is represented in Waimakiriri, Our River, Our Lives, where the labyrinthine lines that divide the canvas can be read as drains diverting water from the surrounding flora and fauna to feed the insatiable irrigation appetite. Outlines of birds long dead are rendered in UV paint, thus under the right light (at the right time) the birds will glow seemingly returning from their slumber. While the birds are stencilled in – concrete, scientifically accurate specimens –the surrounding areas, in contrast, receive a looser, more expressive treatment. Splatters and drips add a gesture quality to the works suggestive of all over painting, indicative of an energetic, passionate working style, an element that has been ever-present in Zusters’ work. As was reported almost thirty years ago in an interview with Rhondda Bosworth in Art New Zealand, (2)

The point that I find most fruitful to work from’ she says, ‘is that between what I intend and what happens. There is a point at which I don’t know what is going to happen. In the best things, you have this merging of what is intended and what happens. There is a point at which I don’t know what is going to happen. It’s being in touch with one’s unconscious self. My work quite often has elements in it I don’t initially understand myself.

There is a harmonious combination of form and feeling throughout Zusters’ practice, which has retained the visual qualities of her earlier photographic work, one need only think of I’d Rather be Swimming, to identify the aesthetic connection. In both there is an overwhelming sensuality that comes through first in the textuality – scratches, paint applied light and airy and dark. And then in the palette – reds and blacks play off greens and blues. Our Rivers, Our Lives is a celebration of azure saturation: the blue of a summer horizon frames the sapphire of the deepest river. Such lyricism is not an exaggeration; the words are necessary to describe the poetics of Zusters’ colour. As Philip Guston once remarked, ‘Look at any inspired painting. It’s like a gong sounding, it puts you in a state of reverberation.’ (3)The spiritual dimension should not be ignored, one need only think of Barnett Newman, or closer to home, Judy Millar, Gretchen Albrecht or Jane Zusters to understand the power of paint. It may just be that the sounding of the gong is the call to the moa to……
[1] From Transactions of the NZ Institute, Volume 48, 1916.
[2] Rhondda Bostworth, Jane Zusters, Art New Zealand, Number 17, Spring 1980.
[3] Philip Guston in Jonathan Fineberg, Art Since 1940, Strategies of Being, Prentice Hall, Upper Saddle River, 2000, p.504.

we love you moa

return of the moa

we cloned that moa DNA
they’re running round again
the oils all gone
life’s rather raw
we get our tucker
from those moa
dairy cows have killed the plains
there aint no water
but we’ve got moa

Jane Zusters

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    Nice site, nice and easy on the eyes and great content too.

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