Tūhoe country: Colin McCahon and his Te Urewera paintings

Tūhoe country: Colin McCahon and his Te Urewera paintings

Mātauranga Māori curator Matariki Williams (Tūhoe, Te Atiawa, Ngāti Whakaue, Ngāti Hauiti) dives into a series of paintings by Colin McCahon, commissioned by the Urewera National Park Board in the 1970s.



…. THE


… so said Colin McCahon in 1975. And, to many Tūhoe this would be the case, minus the hesitant ellipses.

There is no single maunga

When I was in a bilingual class in form two (showing my age, this is now known as year 8), we spent the first part of the year learning and reciting our mihimihi. My teacher was a whanaunga from Tūhoe, Jack Te Moana, and one thing he taught us has stuck with me, “Don’t say ‘te maunga’ or ‘te awa’, say ‘tōku maunga’ or ‘tōku awa’. Our maunga and awa are not the only ones.” I took from this that, just because Ōhinemataroa is an awa I identify with, doesn’t mean it’s everyone’s.

Another lesson I took was that within us we hold multiple identities: Taranaki is a maunga I whakapapa to on my koro’s side, Ōhinemutu is my tūrangawaewae on my kuia’s side. So it is that I am in conflict with McCahon’s assertion that Tūhoe are the people.

Painting featuring an orange panel taking up the top quarter, yellow taking up the bottom three-quarters, and the words 'Tuhoe are the people' written in black
Colin McCahon, A poster for the Urewera no.1, 1975, acrylic and graphite on paper. © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Te Papa (2016-0009-1)

An outsider looking in

Elsewhere in McCahon’s Tūhoe-related works, inscriptions proclaim that “Tuhoe are the People, Rua is the Prophet”. For the Urewera triptych, text sprawls across three panels reading: “Ko Maungapohatu te maunga Ko Tutakangah (sic) te tangata. Tuhoe The People Tuhoe Tane Atua Our land comes from Toi or Potiki or Hape Our Prestige Comes from Tuhoe Rua Te Kooti Tuhoe The People”.

More of the same is repeated across the three panels of the Urewera mural, made after McCahon was controversially commissioned by the Urewera National Park Board to make a work for the new Department of Conservation visitor centre at Waikaremoana. The theme given for that commission was ‘the mystery of Man in the Urewera’, a line I genuinely do not understand but can see how it led to the mass of words repeated in his paintings.

When read en masse like this, McCahon’s words offer no reflection of my Tūhoe identity, they read as they are: an outsider reconciling their understanding of a landscape and people who they have developed a feverish interest in.

There is no single man

Each of the words inscribed reflect a huge aspect of Tūhoe history, each of the people mentioned being influential in different ways. Showing my bias for personal history, I want to focus on the inclusion of the Tamakaimoana rangatira Tutakangahau, from whom my koro is a direct descendant and after whom my older brother is named.

Of all the names mentioned in the many Tūhoe-related works in McCahon’s catalogue, Tutakangahau has the dubious significance of being the only one whose name is misspelt.

Outside of Tūhoe, Tutakangahau is possibly best known for being an informant of the 19th century ethnographer, Elsdon Best. In her book Encircled Lands: Te Urewera, 1820-1921, Judith Binney attributes McCahon’s focus on Tutakangahau on Best’s relationship. Elsewhere in the book she questions Best’s thinking that “he could judge who were the ‘mohio’ among Tūhoe.” That is, Best assumed he could determine who, among the Tūhoe rangatira he worked with, were the most knowledgeable about Tūhoe history, politics, and society.

A century later, Best’s writing potentially led to McCahon’s overrepresentation of Tutakangahau alongside prophetic leaders and tīpuna from whom Tūhoe descend or whose religions they follow.

This overrepresentation resulted in a request from another Tūhoe leader, John Rangihau, requesting that Tutakangahau’s name be removed – why? Because just as there is no single maunga, no single awa, there is no single person.

Hand written note that says "Here me o south wind, the stone mountain is the mountain, come - prepare food for our illustrious men: the time has come for food and games. Hear me! Tuhoe are the people and Rua is their prophet. See the stirring of the lake'
Colin McCahon, Hear me O south wind no. 2, 1977, pencil on paper. Gift of an anonymous donor, 1978. © Courtesy of the Colin McCahon Research and Publication Trust. Te Papa (1978-0010-1)

Yet, despite this interjection, McCahon continued to make reference to Tūhoe, Tutakangahau, and the geographic features of Te Urewera.

Two years after making A poster for the Urewera no.1, Urewera triptych, and Urewera mural, McCahon produced a series of 14 drawings for Peter McLeavey Gallery titled Hear me O south wind. Two of these drawings are in the Te Papa collection.

Reading his inscriptions, it’s obvious to me from the opening lines that these drawings refer to Tutakangahau and the Tūhoe maunga, Maungapohatu. Is McCahon also asking readers to ‘see the stirring’ of Lake Waikaremoana?



Come – prepare food for
our illustrious men:
The time has come
for food & games


See the stirring of the lake.”

– C McC 73

A home for Tūhoe

Writing this was a chance to look into some of the depth of Tūhoe history, a depth that surpasses what is found in McCahon’s work, for you will never know Tūhoe, or Te Urewera, by looking at it through a Pākehā man’s interpretation of it. Maybe McCahon himself is the Man in Te Urewera, his own mysteries being reconciled on canvas?

Whatever the answer, for me the truest indication that McCahon had learned anything from his interactions and time in Te Urewera is his begrudging addition of an ‘IR’ in the Urewera mural. Justin Paton writes in McCahon Country that the addition came at the request of ‘Tūhoe elders’, possibly referring to the aforementioned incident with John Rangihau.

Here, ‘THE LAND’ was amended to ‘THEIR LAND’, taking it from a monolithic entity to one that is better understood as how it is: a home for all Tūhoe. Our maunga, our trees, our rivers, our lakes, our home.



View Urewera triptych, 1975 on the Colin McCahon Online Catalogue

View Urewera mural, 1975 on the Colin McCahon Online Catalogue

Colin McCahon at Te Papa

To mark the occasion of his 100th year, we’re hanging a group of Colin McCahon’s paintings in Toi Art. We’re also planning some public programmes over the course of the year and we’ll be publishing a McCahon blog a month over the course of the year – in which curators and conservators, as well as writers, artists and historians, write about a specific McCahon artwork from Te Papa’s collection.

More information about Colin McCahon at Te Papa

Previous blogs:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *