Someone posted a Colin McCahon painting on Facebook recently and I found myself feeling that familiar deep-seated response I get whenever I encounter his work, even as Facebook fodder on a phone screen. It’s a kind of nostalgia for a country you no longer live in but have unconditional love for, a feeling that is utterly lacking in critical thinking. It’s guided by the same part of my brain that makes me cry whenever I encounter tui in pohutukawa trees.
Aotearoa New Zealand is currently in the process of deciding whether to change the country’s flag. I’ve tried to think about this critically, without lurching immediately into the McCahon-response, but it’s hard. After an exciting and probably deeply misguided democratic call-out for designs, a shortlist of forty was chosen. Now it’s been whittled down to four.
Three of the four flags that will go to a referendum to then decide which will be put against the current flag are variations on a singular theme – silver ferns – with and without reference to the red and blue of the old flag, and the southern cross. But not the silver fern-on-black flag that has become a ubiquitous alternative seen on rooftops and out of the windows of utes every time we win the rugby, because too much black carries potentially unsavoury associations, apparently.
And the fourth?
Well it’s a black koru, which is a young fern, unfolding.
Suddenly that which is much loved has become politicised, branded and polemical in the most banal way. This touches my McCahon-response wellspring deeply in a way that I don’t like. What do I want from the flag? The kind of feeling I get when I read this excerpt from a poem by Toss Woollaston in McCahon’s Toss in Greymouth, 1959:
alit on the flax
a tui at dusk
and broke the late evening open with song.
Flag Consideration Project, Referendum One, 20 November – 11 December 2015; Referendum Two, 3 – 24 March 2016, New Zealand.