Category Archives: visual arts

Geoff Walker – side by side with Uganda

By David Famularo

Sitting down to some chips and pizza in a Masterton cafe with Geoff Walker, he hands me a stapled five sheets of A4 paper headlined “SidebySideUganda – Projects: A 4 year vision”. It’s an intriguing list of 16 projects over the next four years. It’s an eclectic mix that includes four containers of educational, humanitarian and farming goods over four years, 7000 Wairarapa school students supporting the education of children at Awere Primary School in Ludok Village, recording the experiences of refugees, and a business making reusable sanitary pads.

Geoff is the first to admit he’s not your conventional aid worker, but he has managed to whip up a lot of support for his projects already, and just as importantly, he has built connections between residents of the Wairarapa and around the village of Ludok in Uganda where Geoff has made his home away from home.

This incredible journey began in 2012. A friend from Denmark had made a number of trips to Uganda to deliver containers of donated goods. “She had travelled to Uganda a few times and had always said ‘Come and take some photos.’ You always go ‘yeah yeah, I will do that some time.’ Then in 2012 she was going again and maybe this would be her last visit. She said ‘You should come’ and I thought ‘what a good idea’ – getting away from here. 2012 was an interesting time.” Geoff is referring to the Carterton balloon disaster he had witnessed first-hand just 10 months earlier, photographing the passengers before the flight, as he always did.

“I went there [Uganda] for about three weeks, got introduced to different people and ended up in this area in the north so then I went back in 2013. I thought ‘what a nice place, the people are great.’ I felt compelled. Here’s my friend doing something, these people have been hard done by, we are one world, we are one family. They have a strong connection to us because of the Commonwealth and we’ve done nothing. Because of the Commonwealth connections there are a lot of things that make doing things a little easier, they even drive on the left hand side of the road like us, stuff like that which makes engagement a little easier. So that’s how it started off!”

young geoff walker

It was all a new experience for Geoff. “I’d never done anything like this before. I was in the Lions Club and that’s about serving your community. There’s a picture of me in the Wairarapa Times Age, I must have been about nine or ten, outside our house in Cole Street, in presenting a bag of money to the IHC director because I had raised money by having a cake stall and stuff like that outside our house.”

At this point Geoff breaks into a hearty laughter, much as he does throughout the interview. “Where it comes from, David, I’m sure, is people have been really kind to me, people have been really, really kind to me. I’ve had an interesting life, that’s for sure.”

Along with an altruistic streak, Geoff has always been a creative free spirit. “I’ve always been creative. I’ve been into photography for a long time, a long, long time, even at school (Wairarapa College). I met Doctor Roger Freeth one time who said ‘You don’t know how far you can go until you have gone too far.” Geoff follows up that comment with another hearty laugh.

“I’ve meet lots of interesting people in my life. I had the only the third digital photo printing machine in the world in my shop in Auckland. It cost $300,000 which was a lot of money. I had a photo shop in Remuera, one in downtown Auckland before that. Things had gone to crap. Things had gone not very well for all sorts of reasons so I came back to the Wairarapa [in 2001]. “In 2000 I stopped drinking, that’s a good thing, and I even I’ve stopped smoking.”

Geoff is not averse to taking detours along the path of the interview and at this point takes the opportunity to slam the influence of alcohol on society. “Alcohol is an avoidance of reality and that’s why governments like it. It’s easy to control people. Look at the Aborigines, look at what’s happened to them. Same thing’s happening in Africa. They have got a horrific drinking problem. That includes Uganda. “It’s soul destroying. Drinking is soul destroying. that is what had happened to me, it was destroying my soul. Now it’s not (laughs) and that’s great.”

As can be seen from the preceding comments, Geoff is not impressed with some of the changes Western culture has had on Uganda. “It’s getting worse and worse, Westernization is destroying the culture. What do Westerners do – go and conquer places and look what we are doing – we are destroying the world. It’s not working, what we are doing is not working.”

“I feel quite pleased that when I decided to go the first time, I thought long and hard about it,” Geoff reflects .“I looked up about Uganda because like you I didn’t know much about it. It had been kept pretty low key. Religion has been through there like a dose of salts as well, so they are confused by that. What does religion to tell? – that you are bad and you are going to go to hell. Guess what, bad is a judgement and religion says don’t judge. It’s taken away their way which worked very well. Bits of their culture are still there but it’s being eroded away, and that’s sad. Look at here, we are trying to get our culture back.”

At this point Geoff takes a sudden 45 degree turn at that last thought. ”How cool is this – at the signing [of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement between Wairarapa Maori iwi Rangitane and the Government in Wellington] they have got me as their photographer. What an honour, how humbling, what a wonderful honour.”

Anyone familiar with Geoff on Facebook will know that he loves taking and posting photos of his everyday life. “People appreciate what I am doing because I am living in the village, I am there as a participant, not as an observer. “I’m sharing their life, I live like they do. I live in a hut, I eat their food. We don’t have power.”

geoff walker home

What’s in  your hut? “Oh yeah, a mattress. We are fenced off, they connect and we are continually building more fences around ourselves and we wonder why we have problems. We are not connected any more. “Guess what? We are like molecules, the Earth is such a small dot within the context of the solar system, the galaxy etc, we are nothing, and yet we are everything at the same time.”

“But look at our society, we build more and more fences and we have more and more rules, they’re stupid rules. You can’t protect people from themselves and life still happen, accidents still happen. “In the context of the village they work with nature, not try and force nature – that’s what we need to learn from them.”

I have to confess that I quite like my fences but I appreciate what Geoff is achieving in building bridges between the two communities. I ask him what he has to say to people might ask why they should give money for his projects when there are other established aid agencies they can donate to. “Because there’s value in connecting people with people, you know? Making it a personal thing. It’s taking away the fence between us, its opening up that channel again, and I think there is a lot we can learn from each other, that’s really the key. Aid agencies do great jobs. I’m not putting them down, but those [personal] connections are what we are missing in the world.”

Geoff has been organising a more formal structure for his projects. By the time you read this, a Charitable Trust called the Sidebyside Foundation will have been established. “From my own point of view, because it’s gone big, it needs that structure,” Geoff says. “It just means it is moving to another level –I’m really proud of that. It’s not about me, it’s about doing the good stuff and that’s a wonderful thing.”

As highlighted earlier, there are certainly an interesting variety of projects on the go, other’s being LEAP – Lions clubs supporting the empowerment of Albinos in northern Uganda and Coffee Kids – ten children supported from cafes in the Wairarapa. It was interesting to hear an interview on Nights With Bryan Crump on Radio New Zealand where he interviewed the founder of an aid project that simply donates cash to those who need it, with the faith that they know best what to use the money on and will spend it wisely. A similar sort of philosophy informs Geoff’s projects. “Instead of us saying they should do this and that, just let them do what they need. Actually, we can learn a lot from them. We’ve got a lot to learn.”

On the other hand, Geoff has been grateful for the huge support he has received from Wairarapa residents. “I just talk to people, people are enthusiastic. The Wairarapa has great people.” He cites Farmers4Farmers where Wairarapa farmers and others will support a programme of $15,000 over four years to revitalise and develop the farming capacity of Ludok, the village he lives in, assisting in its recovery from the civil war in northern Uganda from 1996 to 2006 between the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and government of President Yoweri.

“Most of the projects are designed as a four year thing, to get people going again thing. Then we will see what happens. They have had enough aid and dependence on aid for too long. “All the projects have the aim of being self-sufficient. We surveyed 128 kids and their families around the village last year. The average family income is around US$200 a year. It’s all subsistence. I was  aiming for grass roots [assistance]. It started with wanting to support the kids and the farming was their idea. I said ‘What do you really need a hand with and what could really make a difference’ and they said ‘Help us to get our farming going again, and educating the kids.’ So that is what they wanted and everything else has flowed from that. Because they lost all that stuff in that war and it still hasn’t been returned. There is a whole range of projects but they are all interlinked. It’s just connecting the dots.”

boy with chicken

Geoff remembers a former boss saying he could sell anything, even sanitary pads, which fate has proved true. Lions and Lioness clubs are supporting the development and implementation of a programme for the manufacture and supply of reusable sanitary pads as a small business, along with tailoring, enabling female students and others to lead full lives free from the constraints menstruation can cause, saving money and creating a small business. “I knew that was a something that was needed and it was something simple.”

There are also plans for a “Heather Burgess Nursery School” comprising three rooms and named after a Featherston woman. “Just ten days prior to her passing, Heather asked me to visit her. She’s always followed me and chipped in $20 bucks here and there – someone with a heart. When I came back ‘I thought must go and see her.’ I hadn’t picked up how sick she was. A few weeks ago I get a message on Facebook. ‘Look Geoff, come and see me before I die. I want to give you some money.’ We had a chat and then she got tired as you would expect and then she gave me some money because she knows I don’t have any money. It was very touching and humbling.”

Geoff is open about how he has managed to come so far without having a full-time job. “I’m trying to support myself by selling my photos. I get asked ‘How do you support yourself?’ A friend of mine drank himself to death a few years ago. He was a smart money person. He gave half of his estate to ten of his friends. It was nearly up to six figures I got, so that has enabled me to do this. And his brother goes, ‘This is so cool. He would be delighted by what I’m doing’ – that’s true. What a nice thing! “That enabled me to do it, buy the tools I needed. I haven’t gone on a cruise or something self-indulgent. It’s good that people know that because they go ‘Gulp, how are you surviving?’ Well that’s how I survive. I’ve got nothing to hide.”

Geoff is equally open about his experience of a night of imprisonment which made the news back in New Zealand. “The funny thing was, I was arrested partly because I had this t shirt on which is from the Bayimba Arts Festival.” He pulls out a yellow T-shirt which he had been given when he ran a photography workshop at the festival last year. Geoff and his driver were taking an albino boy to have his eyes tested at a low vision centre. But it turned out that that day the main opposition party – whose colour is blue – was holding a rally in the same town (NB the government colour is blue).

“I was by the army barracks just by chance taking pictures of the nearby mountain. We had gone past the spot where it was good to take a photo. I thought this is  hopeless because there are all these slummy looking buildings in front of me. Anyway, I had just jumped back on the bike and all these guys came running out saying ‘What are you doing, these are army barracks blah blah blah. I said ‘Look, I’m sorry, I didn’t know and I was not taking pictures of the buildings, I was taking pictures of the mountain behind.”

“They believed me but said ‘We will have to get the intelligence officer to come and make sure it’s okay.’ The intelligence officer eventually came and he was okay. But while we were waiting for him to come, the girl from the village rang to see how the day had gone. When she found out where we were she panicked and rang a friend who rang the presidential offices in the State House. The man in the State House rang his boss and he ran the police. The army guy is talking to me and then the phone rings. He goes away and then comes back and says ‘I was just going to let you go’ – it had all been friendly – he says ‘That was the police in State House and they are sending someone out from the town to collect you.’ Because they need to take statements. Everyone is trying to look good, because you are a foreigner as well.”

“Then the police come and they were nice too. But it is maybe 9pm at night. They have got to do everything by the book because the orders have come from State House, so everything had to be done properly. I was questioned and so was the nurse who was helping the albino boy. They just wanted to make sure everything was covered so State House didn’t come back with more questions. So that was that. In some ways it was funny. So I had to stay in the cells. I got out the next day about lunch time.”

I ask Geoff if he is worried about being viewed with suspicion by the government, especially given his outspoken views. “I do. They know what you are doing and keep an eye on you – Yeah, I get warned.” So how have you managed to walk that tightrope so far? “The people are just nice. They are ordinary people. Even the police and military, they’ve all been good. But they keep an eye on me, I know that. But I don’t try and stay out of the political side of it “I’ve been warned about making comments on Facebook, because they monitor it all.”

meeting

One of Geoff’s most endearing projects is LEAP – supporting the empowerment of Albino’s in Norther Uganda. “They need special things like sunscreen, eyeglasses,, reading aids and even long sleeved clothes, and if we can provide them with education as well – they are less likely to get an education. But we can do that, that helps the families as well, you know? Do you think people seeing others helping albinos helps change people’s perception of them? Of course it does. I know it does because the first boy we’ve been supporting for a year and a half with our lion groups, I’ve been to his school twice. They are doing a great job, making everyone aware he is just normal, instead of being hidden away. We still do that with disabilities here. People who are different get pushed away.”

As a “mzungu” or European, how is Geoff viewed by the locals, I ask. “They are looked up at, looked down at, all of those things depending on the person who is doing the looking “Most people are great. They understand that you are there to help out and are just a human being.”

We end the interview with a brief discussion on the temperature and geography of Uganda, as you do. “They have the perfect climate, 28 degrees all day. The whole country is about a 1000 metres above sea level. It goes up to about 35 degrees and comes down to about 20, and at night time it’s probably about 18. There is plenty of vegetation. It’s tropical. Up north it gets a bit dry.”

I inquire as to whether the country has a litter problem as in common in many developing countries. “They have a litter problem. Because you see, it’s all non-biodegradable stuff which comes from Western culture, everything they have decomposes except the Western stuff – that’s a problem.”

Does Geoff have any advice for others interested in pursuing a similar path? “Yeah, follow your nose. Listen to your heart and intuition, not your head, because that is where your truth is. Your truth is in your soul, not your head.”

You can view more of Geoff’s photography at the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/geoffwalkernz

And website http://sidebysidewithgeoff.nz/

Kermadec – Lines in the Ocean

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, Masterton, November 2016

Reviewed by David Famularo

Probably the most affective book on New Zealand art I have ever read is “In Search of Paradise: Artists and Writers in the Colonial South Pacific” by Graeme Lay.

Copies of this richly illustrated and well-written book were sitting in a pile at Paper Plus Masterton for $10 each. After buying one and starting to read it, I went back and bought a couple more to give as gifts.

In Search of Paradise permanently changed my inner sense of geography. I started thinking of myself as living on an island in the Pacific after a whole lifetime of knowing this fact but not really feeling  it.

The book gave the sense of how new arrivals to New Zealand saw this country and the other islands of the South Pacific as alien environments upon which to imprint their ideals and imaginations of social, political and sexual utopias.

There are occassional echoes of In Search of Paradise in the journey of nine leading New Zealand artists  – Phil Dadson, Bruce Foster, Fiona Hall, Gregory O’Brien, Jason O’Hara, John Pule, John Reynolds, Elizabeth Thomson and Robin White – on the HMNZS Otago from Auckland, northward through the Kermadec region, towards the Kingdom of Tonga.

The Kermadec Islands are a subtropical island arc in the South Pacific Ocean,  around 1000 kilometres northeast of New Zealand, uninhabited, except for the permanently manned Raoul Island Station, the northernmost outpost of New Zealand.

The Kermadec Trench is one of Earth’s deepest oceanic trenches, reaching a depth of 10,047 metres. The New Zealand government’s attempt to create a  620,000 square kilometre Kermadec Ocean Sanctuary has ground to a halt, at least for the moment, after opposition from Maori Iwi who were not consulted as required by the Treaty of Waitangi.

In Search of Paradise explored “the magnetic attraction of the South Pacific for artists, writer and others who chronicled the European discovery of the islands of New Zealand,” according to its publicity.

In a similar fashion, the promotional material for “Kermadec – Lines in the Ocean” says it  “celebrates the artists’ journey and shines a spotlight on the extraordinary and special features that define the Kermadec region and connect us to the Pacific.”

Even now, the search for an untainted paradise in the Pacific seems to be as strong as ever. But the reality is that we are now living on a planet where people have to fight to save the last remnants of nature from exploitative destruction.

So it comes as no surprise that the Kermadecs are under the same sort of pressure as other parts of the world.

This journey was in fact initiated by the Kermadec Initiative of the Pew Environment Group to promote the establishment of a sanctuary.

I doubt that any of the 11 artists on board the Otago was so  naive as to expect an unspoiled paradise. Never-the-less Bruce Foster was compelled to photograph the litter he found  in just one 25 metre stretch of beach on Raul Island after a cyclone.

Fiona Hall highlighted the forces of exploitation above and below the water  – those wanting to fish it, mine, or militarise it.

The journey doesn’t appear to have led to any radical change in the nature of each artist’s work, but there is a wide range of media presented thanks to their diversity.

Elizabeth Thomson displays her typical light oriented abstraction, while Robin White opts to use tapa design to tell the story of the Bell Family who lived on Sunday Island (as Raoul Island used to be known) for 35 years from 1878.

John Reynolds

I particularly enjoyed the high standard of draughtmanship, especially in the etchings by a number of the artists, and the two abstract two tone paintings by John Reynolds (pictured above) of the wake of the Otago.

Most of the journey is spent at sea. I like the tale Greg Obrien tells of John Pule, whom he was already collaborating with before the journey, sitting on the deck of the ship for hours.

“Maybe the great lesson I learned from him was not to learn from nature or evoke it, but to place yourself in the midst of it.”

Never-the-less most of the artworks are preoccupied with the only landmass the artists visited.

Jason O’Hara’s experience of Raoul Island which is a semi-active volcano (its last eruption in 2006 killed a Department of Conservation officer) reminds me of how I felt during my visit to Stromboli, an active volcano off Sicily.

“I am haunted by the memory of Raoul. It invades my every day thoughts, summoning me to return. it hasn’t finished with me yet. I could feel it watching as we explored. A great visitor from the depths that has risen to our world, tolerating our presence as it has so many others. But at any moment it could flick us off when we cease to amuse.”

Elizabeth Thomson had been familiar with Raoul since the 1970s through an ornithologist friend who had spent time there.

“I was struck with the contrast between the vastness of the setting and the intimacy of what was in front of the lense – mosses, lichens, fungi, and also the petrels nesting deep inside burrows.”

According to John Reynolds,  “our role is to point at something and we do this by making art work,” which neatly sums up the purpose of the trip.

The effectiveness of sending artists off remote South Pacific Islands or the Antarctic is debatable, given the limited audience the visual arts have in New Zealand.

But every little bit helps, especially when it is being put to a good cause like raising awareness of the value of the Kermadecs.

Top photo: Elizabeth Thomson, left, John Pule, right

Featherston Camp 1916-2016: The Record of a Remarkable Achievement

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, April 2016

By David Famularo

Taken in 1916 or early 1917 this photograph of the camp’s main street looks east along the Tauherenikau Road (now SH2) past the line of shops Photo: Wairarapa Archive
Taken in 1916 or early 1917 this photograph of the camp’s main street looks east along the Tauherenikau Road (now SH2) past the line of shops Photo: Wairarapa Archive

In the book “Featherston Military Training Camp and the First World War, 1915-27”, author Tim Shoebridge describes the Featherston Camp as “perhaps the most important surviving First World War-related site in New Zealand.”

Yet barely 25 years ago it was almost completely forgotten. People were aware of the prisoner of war camp for Japanese and Koreans located on the same site during World War II, especially the riot that left 64 prisoners dead, 94 wounded and one New Zealander killed.

Tim’s book published in 2011 and “Safe Haven: The Untold Story of New Zealand’s Largest Ever Military Camp”, written by Wairarapa Archive historian Neil Frances and published a year later have done a lot to change that.

Now the exhibition “Featherston Camp 1916-2016: The Record of a Remarkable Achievement at Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History” is likely to cement the camp into the general consciousness of Wairarapa’s residents for the foreseeable future.

The exhibition is a combined effort from Neil at Wairarapa Archive, Aratoi Director Alice Hutchison, and Tony Rasmussen, social history curator at Te Manawa Art, Science, History Museum in Palmerston North.

The scale of the camp is not easy to imagine until you visit the exhibition in Masterton where you can view not only original photographs, but also a computer generated 3D animation movie tour of the camp created by Gerard Taylor.

While one imagines the camp to be one and a half to two kilometres north of Featherston, probably due to the location of the camp memorial on State Highway Two – in fact it went in all directions from the main road , reaching almost as far south as Boundary Road on the edge of the township where in “Burt’s Paddock” the mounted rifles trained.

The memorial actually stands in the centre of what was the main thoroughfare of the camp, a virtual high street of mostly privately owned businesses selling various products to the soldiers. Anyone who was heading north or south went through the camp, passing sentry gates at either end. “All traffic had to get clearance.

A map of the camp from “New Zealand’s First World War Heritage by Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge.
A map of the camp from “New Zealand’s First World War Heritage by Imelda Bargas and Tim Shoebridge.

Perhaps the idea of a smaller camp comes from people’s memories of the WWII POW camp which, Neil says, was a much smaller affair. The Defence Department still owned a small portion of the land where the original camp had been. It was a convenient place to set up the POW camp but other than the two shared nothing in common, Neil says. He can remember a few dilapidated buildings from the POW camp, like the hospital, still existing into the 1980s.

When Neil began his research almost nothing had been published on the World War I camp for almost a century, other than a section in the Centennial History of Featherston “Gateway to the Wairarapa” printed in 1957. “That book said 30,000 soldiers went through the camp which when I started to do the maths seemed very understated.”

Neil estimates the true figure at around 60,000. “One hundred and twenty four thousand men joined the army and around 60 percent of them went overseas. Other than Featherston and Trentham there were only a few much smaller camps around New Zealand, and most soldiers went through both camps.”

The size of the camp is not its only historical importance. Featherston was a model military camp, the likes of which had never been seen before in New Zealand, Neil says.

“Before World War I New Zealand had never had a permanent large military camp. Trentham had grown like topsy but Featherston was planned as a model camp and a prototype for all future military camps, like Burnham [near Christchurch] would follow a similar model.

“It was the latest thing in barrack design and was completely lit by electricity generated at the camp. It had big enough dining rooms to feed the entire camp of 4500 men all at one go which was good for organising training activities.”

The camp had its own journalist Sergeant G L Stanbrook and published “Featherston Military Training Camp: The Record of a Remarkable Achievement from which this exhibition got its title. “It was part souvenir, part war time propaganda. It is not untrue but it looks at the bright side of life.”

The goings-on at the camp were regularly reported in The Dominion and the Evening Post in Wellington, and Wairarapa Daily Times and Wairarapa Age which were another source for Neil’s research.

Featherston Camp had propaganda value as it showed New Zealanders that their men were being cared for physically, mentally and spiritually. According to the accompanying text for the exhibition the military was “keenly aware that the war was going to last much longer than previously thought, and was eager to show New Zealand that it took the preparation of the nation’s soldiers seriously.

“By the standards of the time it was good basic training. As the soldiers got closer to the front, in Egypt, England and France, they got further training that was more relevant to the battle field. It took about 11 months from enlisting to joining a fighting unit in France. They didn’t throw raw men into battle.”

Today almost nothing of the camp remains. Many buildings were demolished but some were moved and to this day can be found scattered around the Wairarapa and further afield including one which is now a wine tasting room in Waipukurau, according to Tim Shoebridge.

Just beneath the soil around the camp site you can still find concrete guttering and at the very western extremity the largest still extant remnant of the camp – a six metre high and 25 metre long brick wall that was used for short range live firing practice.

The only existing film of the camp shows soldiers firing two Lewis guns at the range, with Neil wryly pointing out the difficulty one of them is having getting his Lewis gun to fire. Looking north west on State Highway Two just south of the Tauherenikau Bridge the structure can just be seen between trees, Neil points out.

Neil Frances with Lee Enfield rifles from the camp
Neil Frances with Lee Enfield rifles from the camp

I SEE. I SAW. ANNABELLE BUICK

By David Famularo

Annabelle Buick

“In reviewing the ‘cause and effect’ of perceptual illusions, one must ask themselves; for what purpose do ‘illusions’ exist if our mind’s eye is unable to process what we actually see?”

At first glance “I See. I Saw” is simply a clever piece of Op Art, also known as optical art, a style of visual art that uses optical illusions. Time magazine coined the term in 1964 although examples exist well before and after that.

But in the public’s mind, it’s a style that is mostly associated with that decade so it is interesting that Annabelle Buick has decided to revisit it.  Although there has been a few artists recently who have reconnected with mid-twentieth century High Modernism.

Buick has used cheap synthetic materials such as black webbing and reflector tape and grosgrain ribbon stretched over canvas frames for this exhibition. She doesn’t explain in her accompanying text why she chose these materials although they do give the works much of their own unique flavour.

Buick doesn’t make any direct reference to her part Maori ancestry except for a note that she is of Ngati Pukenga and Scottish descent. However, the works do echo the traditional technique and designs of traditional Maori flax weaving.

Annabelle Buick

In her accompanying notes, Buick seems most interested in the implications of optical illusions and their interpretation by the human eye. We trust our eyes to reveal/present the truth of our reality. If they can’t be trusted, then what does that say about this reality? seems to be the gist of her argument.

“Perhaps, the illusion is a mirror for us to reflect internally within one’s mind’s eye – to look, seek and explore our own perceived ‘unseen’ impossibilities to create our ‘eye-deal’ realities for the world to ‘see’.”

Buick plays with the metaphor of sight in all of her titles – Eye Line Err, Eyesore, Unsee, Frequent See, Seize the Sight Mind’s Eye – but I’m not sure that these provide any clue to understanding the works better.

At the end of the day I am left with what I found at the beginning. Some clever technical pieces of Op Art to enjoy.

 

Selections from the Rutherford Trust Collection

 Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History

Till 16 August 2015

Gordon Walters, Neil Dawson and John Drawbridge
From left: Gordon Walters, Neil Dawson and John Drawbridge

Selections from The Rutherford Trust Collection is a very pleasant stroll through the history of New Zealand art from around 1930 to 2000. Understanding the collection is easier if you know its history, which is actually quite recent and quite short, despite the age of some of the works on display.

The Rutherford Trust was established in 1988 as part of the Electricity Corporation of New Zealand’s commitment to “encourage and enhance New Zealand’s cultural life and heritage.”

ECNZ’s history is interesting in its own right. It was born out of the New Zealand Electricity Department, a government department that controlled and operated almost all of New Zealand’s electricity generation, and operated the electricity transmission grid.

It became ECNZ, one of the first New Zealand state-owned enterprises (SOEs), in 1987, as a transition entity in the process of deregulating the New Zealand electricity market. All that remains of ECNZ is a shell of its former self that manages its remaining hedge and debt obligations.

So in essence the Rutherford Trust Collection was the last ejaculation of the spirit of community good that was once the norm for government departments – a (sadly) dated notion even by the time it was established.

The aim of the Collection was reflect the development of 20th century New Zealand art and making this collection available to the public who could see it displayed on the walls of Rutherford House, home to ECNZ, in Wellington. Over a decade the Trust built up a rich and diverse collection, all chosen by just the one person – Lyn Corner.

I don’t have any details of the machinations that lead to it being housed at Aratoi, but with ECNZ evaporating it certainly didn’t have a future at Rutherford House. Just as obliquely a decade later it ended up on permanent loan to the James Wallace Arts Trust after an exhibition at Pah House in Auckland.

A smaller selection of works are still housed at Aratoi, although a part of the James Wallace Arts Trust, and I assume this is what we see here.

The fact that all the works in the collection were purchased in just 10 years and chosen by just the one person may be why this exhibition has such a harmony about it. There’s little in the way of awkward juxtapositions and the choices are relatively safe in the best possible meaning of the word.

Nearly all the 40 artists represented already had solid reputations by the time the paintings, and small number of sculpture, were purchased. Sometimes the works would only have been recently completed when they were purchased but they are nearly always typical examples of each artists’ work.

There are a few exceptions. For example Gordon Walters (1919-1995) is represented by an untypical abstract as well as one of his better-known koru designs.

Gordon Crook
Gordon Crook

Gordon Crook (1921-2011) may not have had the stature of some other artists represented (although I expect his reputation will continue to grow over the coming years) but Corner was acute enough to purchase a very nice wool tapestry, Home Leave, 1988, by him.

(I always remember Crook walking around Wellington in a good pair of sneakers looking nothing like his true age).

In pretty much every work, there is a very appealing aesthetic. There are strong elements of abstraction, even in the earliest works like an undated water colour coastal scene by T A McCormack (1883-1973) and gouache on rag Rakaia River Valley, Canterbury scene painted in 1941 by Sydney Lough Thompson (1877-1973).

Frances Hodgkins (1869-1947) is represented around the same epoch with the watercolour Shells, 1934 but it feels like her abstract drive is boxed in by an inability to escape a figurative framework.

Hodgkins was born pre-abstraction whereas Rita Angus’ (1908-1970) is an unconscious child of it who contains it within the comfort of a figurative framework in Clouds Over The Bealy from 1930.

In fact, you could almost say all the artists and works are Modernist in flavour from John Tole (1890-1967) with a Still Life with Hydrangeas from 1941 to an abstract High Modernist like Milan Mrkusich who is represented with an excellent Segmented Arc on Maroon 1983.

Younger artists like Julia Morison (born 1952) with Codex 43, sand/silver gilt on plywood from 1992 and Neil Dawson (born 1950) with his powder coated steel painted wire mesh work Touchdown, 1989 represent the tail end of the movement.

In fact despite works for the Collection being purchased through the 1990s there is almost no hint of Post Modernism except perhaps in Anne Nobel’s (born 1954) Swan No 15.

Consciously or unconsciously, the character of the exhibition is divided by the two spaces it inhabits.

The larger space primarily inherits the Impressionist gene which most of the already mentioned works are hung.

The smaller space has more of an Expressionist feel to it with artists like Buck Nin’s (1942-96) acrylic on board painting Ngaruawahia,, Jeffery Harris’s (born 1949) Head with Birds, 1988, and Robert McLeod (born 1955) with Is It? from 1988. McLeod was one of New Zealand’s few convincing late twentieth century abstract expressionist who unfortunately hasn’t been as convincing since converting to figurativism).

Somewhat undermining this theory, the large space also contains a typical work Philippa Blair (born 1945) that captures her abstract expressionist energy plus there’s your standard Gretchen Albrecht (born 1943) abstract, Small Winter Sunset, from her classic early 1970s period that is really Expressionist in character despite its cool demeanour.

All in all, it’s a pleasurable show that anyone with a modicum of knowledge of New Zealand art history should be able to enjoy.

香 HONG 港 KONG 嗓 SONG: Photographs by Madeleine Slavick

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History till 10 May 2015

Reviewed by David Famularo

Wall and Water, Shek O, 2009
Wall and Water, Shek O, 2009

“Taoism is a philosophical, ethical, political and religious tradition of Chinese origin that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao. The term Tao means “way”, “path” or “principle”. Taoist propriety and ethics tend to emphasize wu-wei (action through non-action), “naturalness”, simplicity, spontaneity, and the Three Treasures: compassion, moderation, and humility.” – Wikipedia

There is something of the simplicity and ambiguity of the Tao in this exhibition – presenting what is beyond the frame by what is not in it. Whether it is photography or poetry, Slavick likes to distil images down to their simplest essence. The philosophy of her work was well expressed in some of her comments at an artist’s talk she gave at Aratoi one Saturday morning.

“I want the perfection of a sense of balance, of movement. I like relationships. I like the complexity, the weirdness, the not knowing everything. I don’t need to know everything. I’m not a big Googler. If I don’t know something, I don’t automatically Google it. I just don’t have that in me.

“I like mystery, so that is a big thing that I am trying to create, a moment or a scene where maybe you don’t know what is going on. Maybe you might not know this is Hong Kong if I didn’t tell you. You may not know what time of the day it is. You may not have any sense of scale. I like appreciating it for just what is there. And I do want that restfulness, that sense of balance and a little bit more towards the quiet.”

Slavick grew up in an artistic family which partook in the classic road trips that were popular with post-World War II generations.

“We did a lot of travelling around, seeing the world in that way. One of the best parts of my childhood was seeing slides we took on our trips on our portable projector.”

In a way, this exhibition is Slavick’s own unique road trip slide show. Despite having lived in Hong Kong for around two decades, when Slavick speaks about the city, there’s still the same sense of awe and fascination of the first time visitor, although she obviously also h as a deep acquaintance with the landscape and people.

In English, the title of the show – Hong Kong Song – has three, one syllable words, and similarly three calligraphic characters in Chinese. The first two characters, “Hong Kong” literally mean “Fragrant Harbour”. The third translates as “Voices” or “Throats” and is pronounced as “Song” in Cantonese. It’s a clever word play, especially as the title can be read as “Hong Kong Voices” or “Hong Kong Song”, both of which are equally appropriate.

Hong Kong Song is not so much an objective description or commentary on the city, so much as a love song to it, expressing Slavick’s intuitive relationship with it as expressed through often small and incidental details.

“I’m presenting a lot of different natures of the cities – small every day things, big skyscrapers, the grey and pink of the sky, the blue sea, the neon and fluorescent lights at night. The flora, poverty, heat, insects, pollution, the incredibly beautiful, the joy in a crowd, the life that you sense in all that life around you. All that loudness but then you turn a corner and there will be a huge banyan tree full of cicadas. I love that really weird juxtaposition of different life happening.”

Peach blossom and string, Northpoint 2008
Peach blossom and string, Northpoint 2008

And yet there are hardly ever people in the photographs, despite Slavick’s obviously deep affection for the inhabitants of Hong Kong.

“I was married to Chinese person for 10 years and felt welcomed into community. The Chinese have a sense of circle and community. Once you are are a member of circle, there is a really strong sense of loyalty and friendship. One of most important things I learned was a sense of humility. It was a beautiful thing to be a minority there. I will always cherish that.”

The Cantonese slang term for foreigners is “gweilo” which means “ghost”. Whatever meaning Hong Kong’s residents attach to the word, a ghost in Western terms implies something that is there but not there, an apparition, something that is both permanent and impermanent, an entity permanently frozen in a moment of transition from one state of existence to another.

Ironically, a great many of Hong Kong’s own residents are in a sense gweilo, being refugees or the children and grandchildren of refugees from mainland China. I remember as a child hearing stories of how some would swim to Hong Kong from the mainland. I have never been to Hong Kong but wouldn’t be surprised if it is a city that feels like it is in a permanent state of transition.

There are few people in these images but plenty of ghosts – a temporary housing estate, a pair of red shoes worn for a wedding, fishing, farming villages abandoned in the 1980s with personal possessions still lying about as if the inhabitants left in a hurry only yesterday.

While there is no overt political commentary in Hong Kong Song, it is intriguing to speculate on what political subtexts do exist, something that appeals to me as an idea. Slavick arrived just after the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 and left while the world’s longest Occupy protests were continuing in Hong Kong.

“Several of the images carry socio-political realities about the rich-poor gap, housing, income, and the accompanying book of the exhibition contains many stories about food insecurity, elderly people who are poor, the ways of the food banks, homeless people using 7/11 and other 24-hour-stores as their kitchen for free hot water etc. I worked for Oxfam for 17 years in Hong Kong and some of the information for the stories comes from my work.”

In terms of her aesthetic, Slavick sees herself not so much as a photographer as a writer. She rarely crops or manipulates her images.

“For me the image is really more about the graph, part of the word, the writing rather than the photo. I see the frame as a kind of page.

“I’m quite a slow person. I took a hundred pictures yesterday [in Eketahuna] and it exhausted me, to really stop and see. It sounds fun to take pictures but it is also work, and writing is work. Writing is a physical act to try to locate what you want to say. Whether stories or poems every word is so important and it becomes a physical act for me.

“The photographer who influenced me when started out in the 1980s was the Austrian Ernst Haas who said photography is a certain kind of loving. A picture you should be able to rest in it, sleep in it, and live in it.”

Man in Rain, Central 2010
Man in Rain, Central 2010

 

Kuia: Kiri Riwai Couch

Kuia: Kiri Riwai Couch Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History reviewed at Wairarapa re-Views www.wairarapareviews.kiwi.nz

Kuia: Kiri Riwai Couch Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History reviewed at Wairarapa re-Views www.wairarapareviews.kiwi.nz

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History

June 2014

While Kiri Riwai Couch was pleased to have the above photograph as the one to be used to promote Kuia, I found it a bit off-putting. Hence not viewing the exhibition till just a week before it closed.

Not that it is a bad image, especially within the context of the others it hangs beside. But the expression and the moko lead me to expect it would be a bit shallow and overly staunch, and maybe a bit try hard in trying to link 21st kuia with traditional Maori culture.

In fact that particular portrait turned out to be the odd woman out. The vast majority of the images are much softer and uncontentious in their flavour (not that I’m afraid of challenging exhibitions, just ones that are a bit predictable).

Couch has done what all good portrait photographers do and let the sitter’s visage speak for itself. Her subjects are relaxed and in a natural frame of mind. She has wisely chosen a simple approach, excluding any extra extraneous background that might distract from the faces and shooting in black and white.

The secret of this type of portraiture is capturing as much detail of the face as possible. This alone is all you need to give you all the information you need. The relationship of the photographer to the sitter is incredibly important. This can be built in seconds or over years, as in this case. Obviously Couch’s close rapport with her subjects works to her advantage. Having met a small number of these women momentarily, I can see Couch has certainly captured their best qualities.

Couch has brought out the natural dignity of the women. The text beside the portraits fills in the back stories but in a way, it’s all there in the photographs anyway. Clearly these are giving women, who the accompanying text reveals, have made important contributions to their communities through Te Reo, kohanga reo, education, their churches and in other ways.

Being Maori is important to them, but there is no attempt to set them apart from the modern world they live in, and turn them into living relics as used to be the case. Their whakapapa is expressed through the curves of their faces and the pendants some wear.

 

The City– Becoming and Decaying

Aratoi Museum of Art & History May 2014

By Paul Melser

“The City– Becoming and Decaying” is an exhibition of photographs curated by the Goethe Institute, currently showing at Aratoi.

In the introduction to his book ‘Century’ featuring 100 years of photography (1900 – 2000), the editor Bruce Bernard says:

“I have deliberately avoided many, although by no means all, of the famous historical ‘icons’, or those that have been used to show any nation’s indomitable spirit. Overuse has made them irritatingly unreal (or perhaps it was their very unreality that has led to their becoming overused), and I believe they can deaden people’s responses, making them feel complacent or superior, and discouraging them from seeking or seeing real feeling in the less familiar, more thought-provoking images. Read more at here:

The City – Becoming and Decaying

The City - Becoming and Decaying Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History Masterton reviewed at Wairarapa re-Views www.wairarapareviews.kiwi.nz

Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History April 2014

By David Famularo

“Every day 200,000 people move from the countryside to cities around the world.”

Please note the word “people”. Cities are all about people, but people ironically are few and far between in The City – Becoming and Decaying. Where they do make an appearance they are in most cases more like still objects than animated beings. This exhibition seems to be more about cityscapes than the people who inhabit them. This is similar to what I’ve noticed about a lot of New Zealand art photography over the past 45 years – people tend to be used as props.

My admittedly limited experience of large third world cities – which is where most of the urban growth is occurring – is one of immense energy – some personal examples being Medan in North Sumatra and Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. I could add Naples in Italy as well, although it is nominally first world. I’ve been to Manhattan too but have to say that it came across as less lively and chaotic than its reputation but I imagine that back in the early 1900s a precinct like Little Italy would not have been dissimilar to downtown Naples today, almost exploding with energy.

It’s worth noting in the promotional text below that The OSTKREUZ Agency was founded in East Berlin in 1990 after the end of East Germany (GDR), following the example of Magnum. You can see Magnum’s influence in the spirit of the exhibition but I wonder if Magnum’s true inheritors are today’s photojournalists, for example, the photogallery of Al Arabiya News, or Pete Souza, official photographer for the White House. Photographers like these chiefly aim to capture humanity and its activities to tell a story, whereas The City’s chief characteristic is a cool detachment that at best translates into an air of alienation, a common trait of large cities.

Art fed into and drove the evolution of photojournalism for over 100 years from the 1860s to the 1970s when much of its developmental potential was exhausted. The artist as photo-journalist has been at an impasse ever since. An interesting present trend is the discovery or rediscovery of photographers like Vivian Maier or the discovery of art in photographs that were never originally meant to be viewed as such as those of crime scenes of the Los Angeles Police Department. But ultimately, this is simply a case of extracting the last of the water from the well and doesn’t offer new directions.

I think The City suffers because of this impasse. There’s a lot of style but not much information, which is fine, I guess, if the aesthetic appeals to you. Gaza the Terrible City is interesting in that it does presents an alternative view (ironically because there are almost no people in frame) to that of distressed inhabitants. The most memorable series of images for me are the Tranzit Stills by Frank Schinski, because they capture one of the great truths of the modern city – their blandness and monotony. His photographs of Turkish businessmen in their lacklustre attire crossing the bosphorous by ferry, commuters at a Moscow underground station, or more businessmen at Heathrow Airport is an antidote to the tourist images more commonly associated with these cities.

Maybe this is the essential truth of The City – that the greater amount of the world’s people are just inherently visually uninteresting these days, (unless suffering) hence art photographers inevitably chose to ignore them, and focus on cityscapes instead. The more people travel, the less there is to see, and perhaps we are running out of the sort of humanity that inspired the Magnum photographers in the first place.

 

A major exhibition survey of award-winning contemporary German photography. Aratoi – Wairarapa Museum of Art and History, Masterton is the only venue for the exhibition in New Zealand. The City – Becoming and Decaying features almost 200 works by photographers from renowned German photo agency OSTKREUZ, who have turned their lenses to 22 cities around the globe – from Dubai to Detroit, Las Vegas to Minsk, Liverpool to Gaza – to explore the realities of living in urban environments now.

Every day almost 200,000 people around the world leave the countryside, lured by the opportunity of life in the city, but these images question whether the city is a place of progress or of social and environmental dysfunction. Cities are shown as places of utopian futurism, but also as sites of urban decay and cultural loss, descending into waste and chaos.

According to Curator Marcus Jauer: “They have brought together images from around the world of the city’s growth and decay. They show how the city of Ordos, in China, is springing up in the middle of the steppes and how Pripyat, in Ukraine, is being taken over again by nature; how the city of Lagos, in Nigeria, is expanding uncontrollably in its tangled growth; how the city of Manila is clustering into slums, and how Detroit, in the United States, is decaying at its core; how Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates, can barely keep up with its own growth, and how the city of Gaza, in Palestine, is being leveled to the ground; how the city of Las Vegas lives from appearance, Auroville from ideals, and Atlantis as myth.”

The OSTKREUZ Agency was founded in East Berlin in 1990 after the end of the GDR, following the example of Magnum, and The City was devised as a unique long term project to celebrate its 20th anniversary. The 18 members included Sibylle Bergemann, whose retrospective exhibition was displayed at Aratoi in October 2012. The photographers of the exhibition The City range in age from mid-twenties to sixties, with the majority from Germany. The exhibition has been touring internationally since 2010 and is presented in partnership with the Goethe-Institut.

William Beetham Portraits

Close to Home: William Beetham Portraits: Selected paintings from Te Ru Movers and Shakers: Early New Zealand Portraits by William Beetham, an exhibition toured by the National Portrait Gallery – Aratoi Wairarapa Museum of Art & History, Masterton February 2014

The names Beetham and Brancepeth have tended to float around in my general vicinity for many years without alighting on any particular focus – which this particular exhibition achieves.

William Beetham is primarily known as the founder of Brancepeth Station, east of Masterton, which grew in its heyday to 30,000 hectares, 300 employees, a 32 room homestead, grand stable with a coach-house, buggies, motorcars, library, school, smithy, store, cookhouse, slaughterhouse, kitchen gardens and number of work camps in the hill-country. Phew! – before being broken up in to smaller farms in the early twentieth century.

But before William Beetham was a key figure in colonial Wellington and the Wairarapa, he was a respected young portrait painter in England, exhibiting at the Royal Academy in London at just 25 years. The paintings in this exhibition comprise only a part of the Movers & Shakers exhibition it belongs to, which is a bit of a shame as from looking at the catalogue of the full exhibition it appears there are some interesting paintings, particularly of Maori that would shed even greater light on Beetham as a painter. The portraits of local Maori in particular look tantalising, painted in an honest manner with none of the “dying race” or “ethnological curiosity” flavours of many other artists of the same period.

Still, what does Close to Home reveal? In terms of painting technique, it shows an artist who was not committed to any particular school of art and open to trends from Neo-Classicism to the radical “warts and all” Realist style of Sir Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830). The exhibition speculates that Beetham may have been taught by one of Lawrence’s students. His portraits of his father and mother with their faces fully rendered but body only sketched, are typical of the Lawrence style. The portrait of his father is full of life and character.

Interestingly, some of the works in the show have an almost Renoir like quality, although the chances of any direct influence are virtually nil, I imagine, even if they were painted around the same time.

Perhaps my favourite portraits are those of Jacob Joseph, a Wellington general merchant and real estate agent, and his wife Kate (above) with whom William and Mary had a close relationship. There is almost a stylistically naïve quality to the paintings which well suits the characters of two sitters with Kate in particularly being known for her warmth and charm which comes across more richly than any photograph of the time could have captured.

Death stalks the sitters, many of whom did not live to a long age, a reminder of how precarious life was in those days. As for Beetham’s self portraits – the first from early in his career displays a young man with fashionably Romantic inclinations but at heart quite solid and sensible, and it appears it was the latter qualities that guided his life decisions, although it has to be said that moving to a town barely 15 years old on the other side of the planet certainly shows a person willing to take a chance.

There’s a photograph of a painting of Mary before their marriage which shows a lively and even saucy personality. It isn’t clear that this was painted by Beetham but I suspect not as his paintings are a bit more rigid. But you can see from this work and his early self portrait around the time that they both were part of the aspirational lower middle classes.

As a painter, and the son of an inn keeper, Beetham could undoubtedly see only a limited financial future in England. Anxious about the prospects for their children, the couple emigrated to New Zealand in 1855, and it is quite a sweet tale that Mary sneaked William’s paint brushes and easels into the luggage without his knowing. The fact that Beetham had chosen not to bring them himself indicates where his priorities lay and his modesty about his own talents.

His primary aim seems to have always been to capture the likeness and character of his sitter which he achieves to a high degree. He was never a radical and the paintings never escapes a certain feeling of conservatism and establishment. This is most apparent in his watercolour sketches which lack any fluidity whatsoever.

The late double portrait of William and Mary shows they have morphed into your typical elderly Victorian couple. That said, the fact that Beetham choose to do a self portrait and the skill and sensitivity he brings to the subject of himself and his wife shows an artist’s heart was still beating under the conservative dress.

David Famularo