How many times in your life do you stand in front of a work of art so extraordinary that you are left speechless? Not many, maybe a handful. After a quick discussion we came up with Rogier van der Weyden’s The Descent from the Cross at the Prado and Jackson Pollock’s Lavender Mist at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Then there was Picasso’s Guernica in the Reina Sofia in Madrid, McCahon’s The Lark’s song in the Auckland Art Gallery and Matisse’s Tea (the one with the dog scratching in the foreground) at LACMA. But what about Manet's Asparagus at the D'Orsay and his Woman with Parrot in the Metropolitan, Ana Mendieta's Alma Silueta works, and the bust of Nefertiti at the Neues Museum in Berlin, can't leave them out. OK, it's more than a handful, but not so many more.
This debate was inspired by seeing one of these overwhelming works over Easter weekend in the Wairoa Museum. We had seen this carving of Te Kawiti (originally from the meeting house Te Poho O Te Kawiti) when it was allowed to leave Wairoa on loan for the exhibition Mau Mahara. Twenty-one years later Te Kawiti is no less extraordinary than on first sight. Carved some time in the eighteenth century with stone tools, this work has the same grave timeless beauty you see in the great art of the Egyptians, the Etruscans, the Greeks. And there it is, one of the world’s great artworks, in a small town south of Gisborne, waiting for you to encounter it any time you choose.Image: Te Kawiti, Wairoa Museum