Thinking through New Zealand art

During the symposium accompanying the opening of HEADLANDS Daniel Thomas made the observation that when a nation matures and gains confidence then humour and wilfulness have a chance to come into play. For him, the high seriousness and moral earnestness which have informed evaluations of New Zealand art in the past now seem to have been leavened by a welcome measure of whimsy and largess. This observation is not only evidenced in the way this comprehensive exhibition has been curated – the premises upon which it has been conceived – but it also applies to the actual selection of over one hundred exhibits and their juxtaposition with each other.

Bernice Murphy and Robert Leonard are the principal curators of this major survey which covers three decades of art practice. From separate sides of the Tasman, they have focused their dialogue on a country which has so often been compared with Australia, one which shares a similar history of colonisation,  has close geographical proximity, but which is so distinctively different. Assisted by advisers, both Maori and non-Maori, the curators have deconstructed and intellectually probed time-honoured cultural myths associated with the development of modernism in New Zealand. They have exposed friction and unease in what used to be considered a classless utopian society and acknowledged the embodiment of inevitable contradictions in the imagery produced from Australia's near neighbour. Although there is no longer the xenophobic search for national identity, perceptions from the past have been identified and necessarily reviewed. Two are extremely obvious to outside observers; firstly, the all-pervading landscape metaphor for regional identity (conveyed by Colin McCahon and Rita Angus), and secondly, the weight of Christianity on the creative imagination (again McCahon and his 'biblical wilderness' exemplifies this).

Although I have been speaking here from the standpoint of a Pakeha (a person of European descent), HEADLANDS is most importantly about 'how the cultural traditions of Pakeha and Maori have interacted and evolved new forms, exceeding the earlier repertoires of each'.1 The cross-fertilisation which has occurred during the period under review between the indigenous peoples of New Zealand/Aotearoa and their white counterparts has challenged preconceptions, exposed prejudices (not least, issues of racism), in the process of articulating the dynamics of a particular society.

Let me describe several of the encounters which I personally found revealing among the many dialogues exposed by the HEADLANDS exhibition. (I should point out here that such encounters are not necessarily typical of shows or permanent collection displays in New Zealand institutions). It has taken the foresight, if not daring, of an agency elsewhere (the MCA) to encourage and accept idiosyncratic and fresh juxtapositions of taonga (prized cultural products) for an Australian and in turn New Zealand context. One involves the oral tradition of the tangata whenua, or indigenous peoples, counterpoised with the written word conveyed through a largely Protestant sensibility. Both are to do with story-telling and imparting knowledge in a direct and urgent manner. The works in question are McCahon's monumental painting Practical Religion: The Resurrection of Lazarus showing Mount Martha (1969-70) and Shona Rapira Davies's full-scale ceramic figures Nga Morehu (The Survivors) (1982-88).

McCahon's message wrestles with moral dilemmas in 'A landscape with too few lovers' (to borrow a phrase from the artist's North/andPanels), occupying territory with text adapted from biblical sources. From a Maori perspective, Davies's women form a chorus enacting the karanga (ceremonial calling) to initiate a young female child into the suffering that the tangata whenua have sustained under Pakeha domination. Each figure is inscribed with both Maori and English messages of protest. These women are grouped in formation on a woven flax mat in front of Practical Religion as though moving through the landscape, eloquently voicing their own experience. Through the coupling of works produced over a decade apart we are presented with characteristics and issues of bi-culturalism which New Zealand negotiates and endeavours to come to terms with today.

A further encounter in HEADLANDS which illuminates our understanding of the complexity of cultural exchange in that small yet vibrant country across the Tasman, is typified by the collaborative work of Ralph Hotere and Bill Culbert. Both can be classified as senior artists from New Zealand, although Hotere is Maori (of Te Aupouri descent) and has chosen to live in a fairly remote part of the South Island, and Culbert has been so long away from his country of origin that a London (more particularly Putney accent) inflects his speech. On this occasion, both men merged their respective aesthetics and working methods in two installations which served a particular social/political agenda. Pathway to the Sea – Aramoana and the P.R.O .P. (Society for the Protection of Observation Point) assemblage of 1991 addresses pressing conservation issues and questions regarding Maori land rights, interweaving attributes of an urban Westernised culture and those of an indigenous tradition. Hence, lengths of illuminated neon tubes lie alongside native paua shells, carved to expose the iridescent underside, in an uninterrupted line. For one Maori visitor to HEADLANDS, Pathway to the Sea was a reminder of the numerous land marches of her people this century, calling attention to Maori rights under the terms of The Treaty of Waitangi.

Another dialogue which I observed (and of course there are many more engendered through this exhibition) was one which, as a former curator in New Zealand, initially angered rather than intrigued me. Examples of the Emblem and Element series of paintings (1963-66) by Milan Mrkusich and his Painting: Blue of 1976 were hung adjacent to Terrence Handscomb's Christic Phallus and 0 Hymene of 1986. It was not so much the collapsing of an age barrier and professional experience between artists (Mrkusich 's career in abstraction straddles some forty years) that seemed so wrong, rather that such different sensibilities were forced to coexist. The discipline of New Zealand art history had, as demonstrated here, been wrenched apart and reassembled into a bricolage of discontinuous visual statements. Such material had been segregated and ordered very differently in the past. On reflection , there is of course common ground ; Mrkusich and Handscomb have been associated with one another for a specific reason. They remind us that although works of abstract art may share a certain visual currency, the content of individual bodies of work is culturally and time specific, developed from particular frames of reference. Mrkusich drew on Jungian psychology to clarify his symbolism, while Handscomb's huge drawings serve as an arena for the clash of hermetic formulae. He, like Julia Morison who is represented in the exhibition by her 55 sheet pyramid titled Vademecum (1986), employs other logo and textuality to create alternative cosmologies.

Feminism is another area of specific focus in this survey. The mid-1980s witnessed work by women photographers throughout New Zealand who broadened the nature of the medium and gave it an insistent feminist voice. To indicate this activity, the curators of HEADLANDS have included imagery by Christine Webster (A Woman, A Place 1–5, 1986), Marie Shannon, and Merylyn Tweedie who nowadays, under the name L. Budd, defies any convenient form of classification. Through her use of conflicting fragments of text and ready-made elements (tinged with irony and humour) this latter artist dispenses with fixed notions of authorship, nationalism, regionalism and any other questionable means of codifying art practice.

Importantly, HEADLANDS has succeeded in integrating rather than compartmentalising (and in some instances marginalising) areas of creative activity and distinctive bodies of work. What is most impressive in this regard is the sensitive coexistence in this survey of expressions of Maoritanga and those with a commitment to other, more internationalist, discourses. Among the advisers for HEADLANDS, and himself a participant, was senior Maori artist Cliff Whiting. Together with other members of Te Waka Toi (the Council for Maori and South Pacific Arts in New Zealand), he commissioned the carver Lyonel Grant to design and construct an interior within the exhibition which was based around the cross-section of a wharenui (Maori meeting house). Here, with Grant's Whaaia ko Tawhaki, new materials were employed and a fresh approach given to 'marae art' without relinquishing tribal traditions.

What does appear to be an omission in this otherwise excellent show is the lack of examples of a broad spectrum of Pacific Island artists. The Polynesian community (in Auckland particularly, comprising large numbers of people from Samoa, Tokelau, Tonga, Fiji and the Cook Islands) has a culturally rich identity as was demonstrated in New Zealand last year with the Sarjeant Gallery's touring exhibition Te Moemoea No lotefa.

Accompanying HEADLANDS is a 230 page book with exemplary essays by the curators and New Zealand writers Priscilla Pitts, Alexa Johnston, Rangihiroa Panoho, Christina Barton, Tony Green and others. This publication will have currency long after the exhibition closes. In addition, there is an auxiliary program of films curated by Jonathan Dennis in association with Merata Mita and Roger Horrocks. Titled Moving Images from Aotearoa/New Zealand, this series indicates a further area of strength when we look at and through New Zealand art.

HEADLANDS is the most comprehensive exhibition of contemporary art practice from New Zealand to be shown abroad. Furthermore, it could be argued that it is the most successful of its type in terms of curatorial enquiry, selection of exhibits and accompanying documentation ever to have evolved from that country. Organised by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, HEADLANDS was significantly chosen to be the first international exhibition at that venue.


1. Bern ice Murphy, "Figuring Culture: Introduction to HEADLANDS", in HEADLANDS: Thinking Through New Zealand Art, [exhibition publication], Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, 1992, p. 12.