Two Fa'afafine (After Gauguin), 2020, Yuki Kihara. Photo / Supplied

What Is New Zealand's Artistic Identity, Really?

Ginny Fisher finds shades of our colonial past, while the present is highlighted by Maori, Pasifika and migrant contemporary artists, intent on changing the narrative

There’s a painting I remember. A portrait of an elderly Māori woman chugging on a pipe. I recall her moko and intricately tattooed lips holding the pipe, smoke rising from a dull ember. The folds of her lemon scarf complement the warmth of her wrinkled skin — her cheekbones are smudged with light.

It wasn’t a Goldie. And it fooled a few when I took it with me to live in New York many years ago. I watched with glee when expat visitors spotted it with puzzled interest. Was it, could it be… how was it here?

It was in fact a lovely copy painted by my mother of a portrait by Charles Frederick Goldie, a both maligned and revered New Zealand painter who passed away in 1947, known for his detailed, realistic, some say romanticised portraits of Māori in the early 1900s, a race he thought was destined for decline.

The name of the Māori woman was Ina te Papatahi, one of Goldie’s favourite muses and the niece of two prominent Ngāpuhi rangatira (chiefs), both signatories of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi. It is currently in the collection of Christchurch Art Gallery.

The painting was also part of my history, and yet I didn’t know how to articulate its complexity — it was an artifact from my childhood, visual evidence of a culture I wasn’t part of, but had observed from the sideline. Our colonial history was never discussed in my Pākehā farming family.

Ina te Papatahi, a Ngapuhi Chieftainess, 1902, Charles Frederick Goldie. Photo / Supplied

I struggled and still battle to see where I fit into the fabric of our complicated culture, except to accept that I am part of a nation of immigrants, and that I am descended from colonists. But now I see this portrait for all it might represent. And how art can help us gain a better understanding of ourselves.

Goldie could be seen as another white male profiting from what he believed to be a race in jeopardy — shamelessly documenting colonial racism as it progressed throughout the 1900s; or perhaps the portrait records Māori culture in all its rich detail and serves as a moving visual record for Ina’s ancestors to treasure.

Reflecting on our history, how it’s been portrayed and by whom, and the communication of ideas beyond the written word are at the nexus of all decent art. The tricky thing is, who decides what’s decent enough to be looked upon and who gets to access it? The director of Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki Kirsten Lacy says the recent border closures due to the pandemic led to art collectors looking within New Zealand for new acquisitions.

“There’s a group of new collectors that speaks to a trend of people of excess wealth not being able to spend it on other pursuits. In saying that, the art market has always been strong here.”

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Leigh Melville, one of the founders and directors of Auckland’s secondary market art auction house Art+Object, can attest to this increasing local interest in New Zealand art first-hand.

“During the pandemic people turned to art. Stuck at home, they had more time to embrace it and what’s come into focus is the benefit art can bring,” says Leigh. “The internet has allowed us to keep running our business, and artists to keep making art, and it’s made buying art feel more like a level playing field. People can often be a bit shy to go into a gallery or auction... [on the internet] you can pour yourself a glass of wine and swipe. We’ve noticed many new collectors joining the auctions.”

You might have required a bucket of whiskey before bidding at their recent auction. Ralph Hotere’s Black Window fetched a whopping $181,050, Bill Hammond’s Watching for Buller went over what was expected at $137,598, while Gordon Walter’s Maho NFT (non-fungible token) — the first for the auction house — sold for $36,210.

Five Cubes to Black: Daylight to Nighlight, 1976, Bill Culbert. Photo / Supplied

There’s nothing really new in our adoration of New Zealand art, according to Leigh. “Lately there’s been a flight to quality. Ralph Hotere has had a real resurgence in popularity. New Zealanders love their own culture, and we have expat clients who are often buying. It demonstrates an appreciation of our history — but that comes with a questioning of our past too.”

She points to the work of New Zealand artists of Māori descent — Lisa Reihana, Shane Cotton and Ralph Hotere, all of whom are sought after and who examine issues of colonialism and place. Other popular artists at auction include the now passed photographer Peter Peryer, Dr Fiona Pardington, Karl Maughan and the late light-installation artist Bill Culbert. But it’s not all about the market and what it demands.

Our art plays a pivotal part in our cultural education and Kirsten says there’s still work to be done by public art institutions, including Auckland Art Gallery, to re-examine New Zealand art of the 20th century — the same is true of museums across the globe.

“It’s not just about taste or social politics. We know that in the 20th century some histories were more visible than others. Our team is focused on having a better representation of those art histories, particularly
pre-1950s. We have to do better in understanding indigenous collections.”

Then there’s the LGBTQIA movement. “Pre-1950s, artists weren’t free to approach this subject matter honestly… the migrant story is another key narrative.”

Add to this environmental sustainability and you’ve got some pretty heavy pillars for discussion.

It is, of course, the role of public art institutions to put this work into the public domain. Sarah Hopkinson, the founder of Coastal Signs gallery on Auckland’s Anzac Ave (previously of dealer gallery Hopkinson Mossman), says separation between the art market (dealer galleries and individual collectors) and art institutions, such as public galleries and museums, is vital for artists.

“There’s a lot of money sloshing around but only a small number of artists represented by commercial galleries, and their programmes are quite conservative, so it’s up to the institutions’ collection budgets to create a space for artists that are not necessarily collectable. Museums here have been quite good at focusing on acquiring important work that most private collectors can’t accommodate. The market shouldn’t always dictate the practice. And we need to ensure we are creating good conditions for young artists coming through to thrive.”

Sarah’s gallery is formed on a new model, a hybrid between an artist-run space and a dealer gallery, to give artists more control over their practice and the exhibition programme. There are eight artists on her team — four New Zealand-based and four abroad, including painters Emma McIntyre in Los Angeles, Milli Jannides in Stockholm, Luke Thompson in London and Ruth Buchanan in Los Angeles (excitingly, she’s just been picked up by top London gallerist Maureen Paley).

Blissing, 2022, Emma McIntyre. Photo / Supplied

“They act as a conscience for up-and-coming projects. We operate with more transparency than a dealer gallery — everyone knows how much it costs to run a gallery, and how much I get paid. We also profit share. We all get to decide what we do with any extra money — do we give ourselves a bonus or do we re-invest in the gallery programme?”

Up until now it’s been the latter. “This could be the model of the future,” she says.

For any artist wanting to gain exposure abroad, most agree it’s still necessary to move closer to the action — that means Europe or the US. For established artists like Simon Denny, who has a solid international market for his work, according to Simon Fisher, international art advisor and founder of global art platform Ocula, that has meant a permanent residence in Berlin.

Kirsten points out that for New Zealand artists to gain recognition abroad it’s also vital they are curated into international shows.

“We have a number of New Zealand curators working in senior roles in Australia. This can be a gateway to international opportunities for our artists. While the past few years has seen a re-investment in the idea of nationhood due to the pandemic, the ability of our artists to work across geographies is most useful — we are, after all, a migrant nation.”

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Sure, there are some contemporary artists who draw on their national identity, but many don’t. Auckland gallerist Gary Langsford says “not all of our artists are concerned with New Zealand or Pacific stories but for our gallery, the obvious ones are John Pule, John Walsh and Shane Cotton”.

Indigenously influenced art sits on a slightly different trajectory and looks to be gaining momentum. In February this year, the Christie’s auction Oceania Now: Contemporary Art from the Pacific saw a number of high-profile artists such as John Pule, Fiona Pardington and Shane Cotton, alongside fresh talent, such as Māori contemporary aute (barkcloth) artist Nikau Hindin and hiapo (Niuean decorated barkcloth) revivalist Cora-Allan Wickliffe, an Aucklander of Niuean descent. The latter uses techniques derived from indigenous artistic traditions such as painting on barkcloth with natural pigments and traditional motifs, but fusing these motifs with modern abstraction.

The show had mixed results but the standout sale was John Pule’s We Stayed All Day, 2021, a painting that sold for a staggering 119,700 euros.

“The spectacular result for John Pule’s work reflects Europeans’ interest in Oceanic art in general,” explains Gary. “European collectors have been fascinated by art and artifacts from the Pacific for over a century and many important historical works have found their way into significant collections in France and Germany. It’s no longer politically correct to keep some of those items in Europe and many are being brought back to New Zealand to be housed in museums here.”

We stayed all day, 2021, John Pule. Photo / Supplied

Nikau Hindin, a Gisborne-based Māori contemporary artist, sold all four of her works in the same Paris auction, yet she’s not overly interested in commercial success — and has chosen not to sign up with a dealer gallery. Nikau sells most of her aute to her mailing list of followers and uses her social media channels to provide her art to those who are interested in being “guardians” of her work.

“I wanted to give people overseas the option to buy work from a living Māori artist, rather than have our taonga stolen from us. In this case, it was a consensual exchange. I sell in order to make. I find it more validating to teach young people my skills and to share my work with people at home.”

Nikau’s recent, non-commercial, international exhibitions include the Winnipeg Indigenous Triennial, followed by the Kathmandu Triennale in Nepal, and in July this year, she travels to Japan for the Aichi Triennale. “The tide is turning, the art world is changing, minorities are coming forth. People want to support Māori artists, and that’s never happened before.”

Globally, the focus is also shifting. Just look at the 59th Venice Biennale, the world’s most renowned art event. The fair has included indigenous artists before, but this year the Nordic Pavilion (usually Finland, Norway and Sweden) changed its name to the Sámi Pavilion — the indigenous Sámi people’s identity transcends territorial boundaries, so this has been seen as a gesture of recognition from these Nordic nations that many Sámi see them as colonisers.

New Zealand’s Venice Biennale representative Yuki Kihara is also a game-changer. She is the first fa’afafine artist and the first of Samoan/Japanese descent to fly the flag for New Zealand. Her stand Paradise Camp features luminous photographs of fa’afafine inspired by Gauguin’s colonial gaze.

This reversal of the colonial gaze is now a global phenomenon in the art world; the marginalised are finally telling their stories, environmental damage is being surveyed. The times they are a changin’, crooned recording artist Bob Dylan 60 years ago, and they continue to do so. Ina te Papatahi would this time be looking at Goldie and the smoke from her pipe would be obscuring his view of the world. The future would be a little misty, and that would be about right.

The work art insiders are following

Anna Dickie, content director for art platform Ocula, is a fan of Wellington-based painter Christina Pataialii who cites her Samoan/Pākehā upbringing as an important factor in her artistic practice.

Photo / Supplied

Leigh Melville, managing director and part-owner of Art+Object, follows and collects two New Zealand painters based abroad: LA-based Emma McIntyre and Stockholm-based Milli Jannides.

Photo / Supplied

Hamish Edgar, trustee for the Arts Foundation, follows the Arts Foundation Springboard award recipient, photographer Chevron Hassett, an early career artist of Māori (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Rongomaiwahine) and Pākehā (Irish) heritage.

Photo / Supplied

Kirsten Lacy says Auckland Art Gallery just acquired sculptural works by New Zealand Korean artist Yona Lee.

Photo / Supplied

Gary Langsford has most recently purchased a painting by Chris Heaphy, a New Zealand artist of European and Māori descent.

Photo / Supplied

Ginny Fisher, arts editor for Viva, follows and collects Malaysian-born, New Zealand-based figurative painter Gavin Chai and multi-disciplinary artist George Watson (Ngāti Porou, Moriori, Ngāti Mutunga).

Photo / Supplied

This story was originally published in volume eight of Viva Magazine.

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