Tolaga Bay mural that divided Māoridom officially launched 38 years later

It's taken 38 years but John Walsh's giant A Portrait of Uawa, Tolaga Bay painting has finally seen the light of day.

More than 300 people attended the official launch of the 18 metre painting at the National Portrait Gallery in Wellington this evening.

Many guests were subjects of the mural, which features 60 portraits of Tolaga Bay locals and some supernatural and fantasy characters.

The depiction of the small East Coast town in 1980 was made by John Walsh to be exhibited on a wall of the local marae for his iwi, Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti.

"I really wanted to do something to bring the place up to date… I just wanted to start to communicate on a different level through this big work," Mr Walsh said in 1982.

But some elders rejected the piece, politely saying the mural was better suited for the community than the marae, Mr Walsh said.

"I was quite upset to tell you the truth," he said at the time.

Of contention was the inclusion of Pākeha alongside Māori and the mixing of painting living people with the afterlife. Elements of space exploration and make-believe also caused controversy.

"Thirty-eight years on, it's almost dogma now you know, those things are stuck in the culture and a lot of people don’t give a damn and other people are still thinking it’s not the thing to do," Mr Walsh told 1 NEWS.

"At the time a lot of change was going on within Māoridom and a lot of marae around the country were taking on contemporary art with open arms and some like my marae, just wanted to stay calm and hold the line."

Mr Walsh said while there are still elements that iwi attending the launch of the artwork was a significant step forward for acknowledgement of his piece.

The piece has been kept in storage and maintained a great condition. Each panel takes four people to lift, Mr Walsh said.

"Looking into it and all the faces of the people that's what really makes it that good, you know," he said.

Mr Walsh wanted the artwork to include elements of space exploration and the popularity of Christianity at the time.

The mural starts with a young man receiving guidance from his ancestors about what he should do with his life. A creature is painted in the middle, made up of many faces with 'start' and 'exit' signs.

"Overall it stands out pretty good to me. I’m pretty happy with it," Mr Walsh said.

This is the first time John Walsh’s portraits have been exhibited together.

Curator Helen Kedgley hopes the event will bring healing.

"I think for John it’s very important that it’s shown again and that it’s finally found it’s place in the world," Ms Kedgley said.

"The community seem to be most excited that they’re going to see it again after all these years."

Former iwi member Wayne Ngata said it’s time for the community to own the story of its people depicted through the piece, rather than talk about the controversy it caused.

"Those are our parents and their thoughts of the time… We have to be really careful about judging it from 2018," Mr Ngata said.

"The fact it’s coming out now, and its history as well, may cause some more debate but I hope it’s more constructive." 

As a member of the iwi’s arts group Toi Hauiti and chair of the Māori Language Commission chair, Mr Ngata said there’s been talk for a number of years about exhibiting the mural.

"This is a milestone, it's a great milestone. It opens it up, it shows it again to the world, not just to Maori and New Zealand," he said.

Mr Walsh said he "doesn’t give a damn" if the piece is displayed at Hauiti Marae in the future.

"It’s a long, long process and I’m just happy that it’s up and everyone gets a chance to…" Mr Walsh said, his voice trailing off into a chuckle.

John Walsh's 1980 Tolaga Bay mural is finally being celebrated after a contentious beginning. Source: 1 NEWS