Manu-Kahu by Brett a'Court

Brett a'Court

Manu-Kahu, 2007, Oil on canvas, Private Collection, © Brett a'Court

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Christ on High

Commentary by
Read by Chloë Reddaway

This striking image of an airborne Christ is by New Zealand painter Brett A’Court. It is part of his visual research into how to bring together the spiritual insights of the indigenous culture of the Maori people and those of Christianity.

In cultural terms it is a hybrid image, something that occurs when two cultures are in a process of mutual re-assessment. It is an exploration that has the potential to be offensive to either culture, but one that also carries the potential for new forms to arise that express the insights of both traditions.

Such imagery also responds to the colonial suppression of local cultures, allowing for innovations to arise from outside the usual orthodox channels. A Christ figure flying in the sky like a kite is such a form. It is a new thing, a potential aberration, but one full of potential for new insight.

The ‘Manu-Kahu’ in Maori culture refers to the Harrier Hawk, a bird considered to provide a spiritual connection to the divine. It also refers to the Maori cultural practice of making kites, which is a common recreational practice but has traditional religious meaning. Historically, massive kites were produced for significant ritual occasions. These could carry the weight of a human person, and in their ritual role were flown with up to a kilometre of rope to command vast terrains. These kites were considered in Maori beliefs to access the supernatural life force associated with animals, birds, and the dream of flight. For the artist, this provides an appropriate connection to a Christ figure who 'holds' the land with benevolence and grace.

This new and surprising iconography dislodges any colonial mentality that considers a European way of seeing things to be the only authoritative one. A’Court’s is a thoroughly contextual Christ for New Zealand, the land where birds have become the dominant species. Here we do not encounter an introduced species, carrying a foreign spirituality. This is Christ at home in the physical landscape of the Pacific.

For viewers in other contexts, it serves to expand our sense of encounter with a God at home in the world, an incarnation that honours the material world we inhabit, and that raises up the viewer’s gaze towards a spiritual horizon.

And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself. (John 12:32)

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