The death of New Zealand poet James K. Baxter in October 1972, at the age of 46, was a triggering event for his friend Colin McCahon. Because their relationship was strained at the time of Baxter’s death,
McCahon spent the following year in a haze of guilt and remorse. From within this haze, McCahon produced Jets to Cape Reinga, a work from a series of drawings collectively titled Jet Out, which McCahon produced over Easter 1973.
Each of the works in this series explores the Maori belief that the wairua (soul) leaves the body after death and migrates to an afterworld known as Reinga. This migration takes place along the western beaches of Muriwai and Ahipara, and up to Haumu Hill. The wairua travels northward and eventually reaches Cape Reinga, the final leaping place, where it throws itself into the realm of death. McCahon discovered a rendition of this belief in the text The Tail of the Fish: Maori Memories of the Far North by Matire Kereama, 1968.
Baxter was buried in Jerusalem, Whanganui, on Maori land, in a ceremony which reportedly combined both Maori and Catholic traditions. This combining of traditions is abundant throughout the Jet Out series. In Jets to Cape Reinga, three simplified ‘jet planes’ are ascending over the ocean, each one simultaneously representing a plane, a bird, a soul and a westernised Christian cross.
This cluster of motifs connecting Baxter, the afterlife, beach walking, the stations of the cross and Maori mythology strongly informed McCahon’s artistic production during this time as he pondered not only the death of his friend but his own eventual ‘walk up the beach’.
By Amanda Morrissey-Brown
Charcoal on paper
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