The hidden artwork

On a building at the end of Opua Wharf there is a very special artwork, tucked out of sight but visible from the water, full of interesting stories.

If you are walking Te Ara Roa, taking the cycleway to Opua, or just doing the coastal walkway from Opua to Paihia, it is well worth stopping off to look at this lovely artwork.

The mural was painted twelve years ago by local artist Helen Pick, helped by student Asche-Rose Steadman for the R. Tucker Thompson to acknowledge the ship’s transfer into a charitable Trust for the people of the Te Taitokerau Northland region. However, most people were unaware of its existence, hardly noticing it unless they sailed into the Bay of Islands and cleared at the port of Opua.

When the Trust embarked on building their new whare (building) at the end of the wharf, they asked Helen if she would renovate the artwork, which was quite faded due to the harsh sun. Helen generously agreed, a task that was to take her a significant amount of time over several months. When the building was officially blessed in September 2018, the artwork was on display inside. People marvelled at it, amazed at the beautiful and vibrant panels, they had never noticed it before!

When Helen originally came up with the design, she used images and stories from the ship’s past, as well as stories from the local area. The result is a triptych which features the differing elements on each panel that informs the view of the history of the ship and the Bay of Islands.

Helen says “I wanted it to be like three pāreu [lavalava or sarong] hanging on the building, to welcome the sailing boats when they arrive at Opua after their journey across the Pacific.”

People on land don’t realise the panels are there. If they walk down the wharf, they don’t often go round to the seaward side of the building, and if they do they generally don’t look up at the artwork or understand its meaning. The best view is actually from the pontoon, although people on the car ferry between Opua and Okiato also get a good view of it as well.

On the left hand panel, the story tells of the history of the place – i nga wa o mua in days gone by. It tells the stories of the voyaging waka who came to Ipipiri from Polynesia. The Taikoerau Northland landscapes are acknowledged with the maunga hills from Whangaroa. Also referenced is battle of Ruapeka in 1845 with the cannon and fortified Pa at the top right. In the centre marks the confluence of the Taumarere, Waikare and Waitangi rivers which meet near Motutokape (Pine Island). The steam train brought the coal from Kawakawa down this wharf and modern ships such as the Clansman transported goods from this very wharf. At the bottom, the clematis flowers acknowledge those ancestors both Māori and Pākehā who have gone before.

On the right hand panel, the voyaging history of the R. Tucker Thompson is depicted. It shows the ship passing under Tower Bridge in London where she travelled in 1987, crossing the Pacific Ocean, then through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic, before returning back to Australia and New Zealand in 1988. The procession of ships and the Peace emblem represents the journey the ship made to Moturua with the fleet to protest French nuclear testing, with the nuclear cloud showing behind the palm trees. It also shows the many voyages to the Pacific the ship has made. The hibiscus flower at the bottom of the panel acknowledges our link to the Pacific.

The centre panel shows the ship today, Taitokerau Northland’s proud tall ship. People are enjoying her, climbing the rigging, jumping in for a swim, riding the bowsprit and generally having a wonderful time. At the bottom, pukutakawa flowers acknowledge the Bay of Islands coastline, spectacular red blooms which flower over summer.

One the outside of all the panels are unique and untamed kowhaiwai, patterns which adorn Maori artwork.  These were created by Asche-Rose when the panels were first painted.

The Trust uses the artwork at the start of each youth voyage to explain to the sail trainees who are embarking on a life changing adventure more about their voyaging ancestors, the story of the ship and their place as trainees on board.  So if you are in Opua, head down and take a look at them for yourself.

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