Colour extends to more than art

One critic says Red Peak marginalises the black colour. Gosh.

OPINION: Colour can be a very emotional quantity, so much so that some artists have almost made a fetish out of it. One famous group of early 20th-century German expressionists went so far as to name themselves by a colour. They were known as The Blue Rider movement, because the leader of the group (Kandinsky) loved the colour blue so much. For him it held spiritual significance, associated as it was with the abode of God in the azure heavens, and the colour connected with the Virgin Mary. He even wrote a book on the subject, where he outlined his symbolic colour coding system, which included musical notes that evoked different hues. The sound of a flute suggested a light blue shade, while an organ conjured images of the darkest cerulean. His paintings thus became musical symphonies.

When one learns that the man suffered from a mental condition known as synaesthesia, it explains a lot. But one doesn’t have to suffer from a perceptual aberration for colour to work in strange and sometimes dangerously absurd ways.

Gangs, for instance, have their colour identities. In some parts of this country, you could suffer serious harm for wearing the “wrong” colour, like the boy who was assaulted for wearing a red shirt, deemed hateful by the gang who “live, die and steal” for blue. A man innocently walking his dog was also accosted by a Black Power associate because the leash was red.

It gets worse. Schools in certain towns have to choose their house colours with care, apparently. It’s reached such farcical lengths that red and blue have had to be eliminated from school uniforms, such is the toxicity and violence surrounding the tints for those for whom it assumes irrational significance. Foetal alcohol syndrome has a lot to answer for.

Ironically, blue and red are the colours of the two main political parties. These particular gangs have visited, over the course of history, mayhem on a long-suffering populace.      

New Zealand’s favourite colour, of course, is black.  It began with the All Blacks and went from there, spreading to other sports: the Black caps, Black Sox, Tall Blacks, the Black Sticks. The black singlet is ubiquitous and our most famous artist, Colin McCahon, painted predominantly black abstract works.

Its symbolism ranges across everything from death to rebellion. Whether that reflects on us as a somewhat dour, Presbyterian and pessimistic species, or alternatively a bunch of hell raisers, is open for debate. Colour psychology is not an exact science. 

But its popularity here was reinforced recently when Mitre 10 polled customers asking suggestions for paint names with a Kiwi flavour. The most popular with punters were two shades of black, one called McCawesome, the other, Carter Mana. Enough said.     

But the most bizarre example of a colour reading came from Maori broadcaster Tu Harawira recently, when he revealed to the nation that the “Red Peak” flag option is racist because the white triangle pushes the other colours, black in particular, to the margins. What we have here is someone suffering from a mental condition known as paranoia. At this point, when you start seeing grievance everywhere, it’s time to call the men in white coats. Oh no, another racist insinuation. It’s obviously a Pakeha conspiracy. 

British Mersey poet Adrian Henri treated the subject comically in 1967, writing “White Americans will demonstrate for equal rights/in front of the Black House.”

Colour can be complicated, nuanced and fraught, particularly when it comes to identity issues; people are easily spooked and jump at shadows. Time to turn down the volume and take the tablets. Which might be good advice to some Toti members in this town, with their snipping about the proposed colourful sculpture to commemorate the fallen horses that served during the First World War?  

Colour can add vibrancy to a city and the recent Hamilton Street Art Festival did just that with many street artists making their rich multihued marks around the CBD. Over a dozen new murals now decorate huge wall spaces around the inner precincts. One of my favourites is the stylized dancers beside the pedestrian walkway on Claudelands Road painted by Eliza Webster. Check them out at Street Art.

The last word must go to American novelist William Gass, who wrote a 91-page philosophical inquiry on a single colour called On Being Blue, dedicated to “all those who live in the country of the blue”. Colour, he demonstrated, is a complex, polymorphous, joyous multitude.

by Peter Dornauf



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