Utamaro at Waitangi

There’s one other part of our trip up the North Island I want to write about, while at the same time feeling nervous about doing so ... identities need to be protected here, there are equivocal events involved, perhaps the story is not mine to tell. But I will give a version of it anyway.

We were staying with friends in the Thermal District, so called – that part of New Zealand where the crust of the earth thins and hot mud, hot steam, hot water, geysers erupt or seep or bubble from underground. Our friends live in a small village at a bay on one of the lesser lakes. Near their place is a hot stream, where we went to bathe the night we arrived.

A house used to stand here, and the residents had partially walled the deepest pool; below that is a race of smooth rock with hot water running over it. You can slide down this on your back, on your front, facing forward, facing backward. Jesse did it again and again – at the end you just splash into yet another warm pool.

Further down is a pool with a bottom of hot mud which we scooped up and slapped on our bodies; further up, the water becomes so hot you can scarcely lie in it. This is where I went, crawling like a lizard in the shallow water, to soak, while Jesse played on the slide and my friend looked after Liamh.

The stream, which seemed empty when we got there – it was a cold, dark, starry night – was home to loving couples, sitting face to face, speaking softly and embracing just like the couples you see carved here and there in wood or jade. There was a sense of antiquity, lovers have been coming here at night like this for hundreds of years.

Afterwards we went back to the house, put the kids to bed and sat up talking and listening to music for a couple of hours. I was to sleep in a small guesthouse halfway up the hill at the back. A bare wooden hut with a bed, a candle, a bookshelf, an old school desk, a chair – and an Utamaro print on the wall.

This print, showing a kneeling woman combing the hair of another woman kneeling in front of her, had been stolen out of a touring exhibition of Japanese art from a New Zealand gallery some fifteen or twenty years before. It was taken for a particular reason. The thief had recently seen, in company with several other radical Maori, Kenji Mizoguchi's film Utamaro and his Five Women.

They had all felt a sense of identity with the artist, whose censorship by the Japanese authorities in the early 1800s seemed to them reminiscent of the ways Maori have been treated in this country; they felt that Utamaro was a kind of Maori, or perhaps that they, as Maori, were a kind of Japanese (the reasoning may be dubious, the power of the emotional identification cannot be doubted).

Therefore, when one of these saw, just a week later, the exhibition of Japanese art, he felt he had a right to take an Utamaro. He chose the one he wanted, removed it from its frame, threw the frame away, folded the print, concealed it under his clothes and left with it. Later he gave the print, which still has fold marks on it, away to an artist friend. She had just given it to my friend and only that week had it found its home, pinned on the wall of the whare manuhiri where I was sleeping.

I won’t try to describe it; I couldn’t do it justice. All I can really say is that its beauty and subtlety, especially of the colours, was of an order you simply do not see in reproductions in books. To sleep with it over the bed was to dream in another world – Ukiyo-e, the floating world, but equally, the hot pools at Waitangi where lovers murmured to each other.

When I woke at dawn next morning, everything outside was white with frost, there was ice on the small veranda of the hut and I could hear the children crying out from the house: Dad, dad, the grass is frozen!

No comments: