The human being, creature of eyes, needs the image. Leonardo da Vinci

Brett a’Court: Manu-Kahu

ArtWay Visual Meditation July 28, 2019

Brett a’Court: Manu-Kahu

Taking Wing - Christ on High

by Rod Pattenden

This striking image of an airborne Christ is from New Zealand painter Brett a’Court. It is part of his investigations into a way of bringing together the spiritual insights of the indigenous culture of the Maori people and that of Christianity brought to New Zealand by British settlers. In cultural terms it is a hybrid image. This is something that occurs when two cultures are in a process of mutual re-assessment. That sort of conversation is full of conflict and critique but also allows for the potential for new forms to arise that express the best of both traditions. A Christ figure flying in the sky like a kite, is such a form. It is a new thing, a potential heresy or aberration, but one full of potential for new insight and spiritual refreshment.

Christianity has expanded over recent centuries into a world religion, bringing with it European visual forms. At times these have been part of the conquering ideology as European colonial expansion has repressed the cultures of indigenous peoples seeing them as backward, pagan, or even demonic. As a result objects were destroyed or burnt, cultural practices repressed or forbidden, and mythic narratives banned. In its place peoples were Christianised, therefore ‘civilised’, and presented in newly minted European clothes and behaviours. Now, in this current post-colonial period, there has been a recognition of the violence done to people through denying them their own culture. In New Zealand since the 1980s there has been a revival of traditional indigenous forms. New Zealand now seeks to be a bi-cultural nation, using forms from both traditions to mark out its national life. This hybrid Jesus, therefore, speaks to this new period of cultural re-formation offering new possibilities in deepening spirituality that arises from within this complex and newly emerging situation.

The ‘Manu-Kahu’ in Maori culture refers to the Harrier Hawk, a bird associated with being a spiritual connection to the divine. It also refers to the cultural practice of making kites, which was not only a common recreational practice but also a religious one, as massive large-scale kites were produced for significant ritual occasions. These could carry the weight of a human person and were flown with up to a kilometer of rope to therefore command vast terrains in their ritual role. These kites ‘evoked the supernatural powers indicative of the Maori life force and associations with animals, birds, and the dream of flight. Used as communication devices to their gods, Maori kites became a link with the great natural powers which ruled their life.’ (1) For the artist, this provides an appropriate link to the cultural place of the Christ figure who holds the land with benevolence and grace. It is also a visual statement of confidence in Christian spirituality as a relevant force in contemporary society, particularly during this period of post-colonial reformation.

Brett a’Court has created something new. It is a surprising innovation and unsettles traditional iconographical conventions. It disturbs expectations and could therefore be considered a threat to correct theological form. It also dislodges the colonial mentality that considers the European way of seeing things to be the correct and authoritative one. It is also something curious and worthy of consideration; a Christ figure in flight, who brings together belief and the physical environment in which people live. This is a thoroughly contextual Christ for New Zealand, the land where birds have become the dominant species. This is a Christ at home in this particular cultural landscape. This is not an introduced species, carrying an exotic spirituality. This is Christ at home in the physical landscape of the Pacific. A’Court shows his respect for the great innovative New Zealand painter Colin McCahon by using the device of speech bubbles echoing biblical quotes, which were part of McCahon’s innovative and hybrid response to colonialism. For viewers further afield, this work serves to expand our sense of encounter with a God at home in the world, an incarnation that honours the material world we inhabit, a Christ both particular and universal, both newly strange and safely familiar.


Brett A’Court: Manu-Kahu, 2007, oil on canvas.

Brett A’Court is a New Zealand painter who has been active since 1995 holding a series of successful exhibitions in his home country. His work draws on popular and historical fragments to explore issues of spirituality and meaning. He is interested to explore this in the context of the bi-cultural nature of New Zealand/Aoterora, ‘dissecting the imagery to unveil the light within, aware also of my place in Aoterora, soaked in Maori and Christian spirituality’.

See also Peter Crothall’s article on the artist on the Artway website:

1. John Tarlton, ‘Ancient Maori Kites’, Art New Zealand, December, 1976.

Reference: Colin McCahon: A Question of Faith, Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, 2002.

Rod Pattenden is a curator and art historian interested in the power of images and the manner in which they work in the context of spirituality and religion. He is minister of the Adamstown Uniting Church in Newcastle, Australia, where he has developed a vibrant community arts program.



1. THEOLOGY AND MODERN IRISH ARTISTS – In Theology and modern Irish art Gesa E. Thiessen explores central issues in the dialogue between theology and art, paying special attention to the spiritual aspects of a number of modern Irish painters. Theology and modern Irish art is an exploration of modern visual art as a ‘locus theologicus’. The author’s guiding interest is to demonstrate that the work of art, the visual image, like the written word, is and can be used as a challenging and relevant source in theology. It is an extensive, pioneering study of the work and lives of ten leading modern Irish painters from a theological perspective: Mainie Jellet, Jack B. Yeats, Louis le Brocquy, Gerard Dillon, Colin Middleton, Patrick Collins, Tony O’Malley, Patrick Scott, Patrick Graham, Patrick Hall. Extensive research and numerous interviews contribute a unique insight into the faith, spirituality and theological aspects of the artists and their works. The author introduces readers to theologians who have actively engaged with art in their work. She is concerned with central issues in the wider dialogue between theology, art and aesthetics: the contemporary context in which theologians and artists operate, the role of the imagination in theology, method and hermeneutics in a theology of art, the quest for holistic theology, and theological dimensions in twentieth-century art. Read the first chapter of the book here:

2. ARCHITECTURE and ART AND THE CHURCH Talks in GERMANY – July and August, Marktkirche Hannover, Hannover: MODERNE KUNST UND KIRCHE - Vorträge und Gespräche in der Marktkirche Hannover. Die Vorträge werden sich mit den Themen Architektur und Kirchenbau, Kirchenbaugeschichte, dem Dialog von Kunst und Kirche, der Spannung zwischen Gegenwartskunst und alten Kirchen sowie Kirche als Gottesdienstraum befassen. Die Expert*innen werden Aspekte aus ihrer jeweiligen Perspektive und Fachdisziplin beleuchten. Im Gespräch miteinander werden Fragen auftauchen, die die Marktkirche und das Reformationsfenster von Markus Lüpertz betreffen. Programm:

3. RELIGIOUS ARCHITECTURE CONFERENCE IN PORTUGAL - 10 October – 12 October, Porto, Portugal: Sixth International Conference on Contemporary Religious architecture, 'Architectures for a New Liturgy - Religious Heritage Actions after Vatican II'. The objective is to reflect on the footprint left by the renewal of the Catholic liturgy after the Second Vatican Council, especially in buildings of high heritage value. And on the regulations issued by the different agencies responsible for their custody or on the relevance of contemporary artistic interventions in them.

For more exhibitions, lectures, conferences etc. inside and outside your country, click here

ArtWay is a website with resources for congregations and individuals concerned about linking art and faith.


Other recent meditations:
- August 2019: Gao Zhen: Execution of Christ
- August 2019: Johannes Wickert: Beggars
- August 2019: Tim Harrold: The Centurion
- August 2019: Lika Tov: Psalm 139

For more Visual Meditations, see under Artists