T J McNamara on the arts

T J McNamara is a Herald arts writer

T.J. McNamara: Children in need of heroes

By T.J. McNamara

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Clear political expression is emphasised in artists' larger works

2 Hina Supa Heroes by Robyn Kahukiwa (detail).
2 Hina Supa Heroes by Robyn Kahukiwa (detail).

Some paintings suit the domestic setting. Others seem destined for public display. Frequently the art that suits a public gallery is intended for a broad audience. Often it is distinctly political in tone. The art of Robyn Kahukiwa, which began with illustrations of Maori mythology, has over many years developed a strong feminist and political aspect. This drives her work in the Five Maori Painters exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery and also in Wahine me Tamariki at the Warwick Henderson Gallery.

The emphasis on political themes is clear in works like Shame, which is a poster as much as a painting, with bold lettering and a desperate child who demands attention to the plight of hungry children.

The topic is further explored in a series of imaginative small paintings, all labeled Child Hunger/Damaged Potential. Three of these show a stressed child in front of a butterfly. The child is the chrysalis from which something beautiful should emerge but probably won't.

These are touching but the real force in the show lies in the big paintings of heroic, if troubled, Maori women. Kahukiwa's work is frequently very powerful on a large scale although these works are often less explicit in their message.

2 Hina Supa Heroes reveals two over-life-size women clad in red and black with belts brightly decorated with Maori motifs. One of the women has moko, the other's chin is plain. One brandishes the splendidly designed Maori flag as well as a copy of the Treaty of Waitangi. The other stronger woman grasps a greenstone mere as a sign of militancy. The water deepens. The child she elevates on her left hand is blond though he clutches a tiki. An older child who seems uneasy and uncertain embraces the two women. The uncertainty is reflected in a skull marked by blood lying near a background of water and sky haunted by the god of the sea. The two women are heroic but the need for struggle that they convey conceals complex issues of racial interaction. Its bold design and strong linear quality make a very impressive statement.

Equally strong is Hapu where a woman with moko and blond, almost white, hair and a sad but thoughtful countenance holds a child with the umbilical cord still prominent. The links with ancestry are obviously not easily broken. It is a potent but uneasy Madonna and Child.

These big works have immediate impact and complex, mature thought.

Across the road at the Bath Street Gallery is a show by two artists from Christchurch. Katie Thomas continues the tradition of abstract expressionist work typified by Jackson Pollock. She paints on fine paper in rhythmic gestural strokes.

Wake Up Singing by Katie Thomas.
Wake Up Singing by Katie Thomas.

All of them are evocative of gardens and the light through layers of leaves. They are lively, happy paintings as colours emerge, shot through with touches of black and a looping wide ribbon that ties the whole melange together. The rhythm is not directional but is continually turning in on itself.

Like many paintings in this style it works at its most effective on a large scale. The biggest piece is Wake Up Singing, the only one on canvas. Its principle colours of yellow and orange over a pale blue background modulated with grey make luminous combinations.

Jane Bowman's works are very tightly controlled. They are elegant and witty glass-sided boxes filled with what appear to be tiny flocks of birds or, in one case, an underwater scene. The show is called Living Realms and the birds principally evoked are flamingoes with slender bodies and long necks.

The remarkable thing about these birds, revealed on close inspection, is that they are all made from circuitry components transistors and condensers. With extraordinary precision and aptness, the wires are twisted into neck and tail shapes held in place by barely visible monofilaments. These stretch from top to bottom of their box-like setting.

These precise, witty constructions have the fascination of beautifully crafted things on the edges of art.

The process of making is much more conspicuously apparent in an unusual exhibition at the Melanie Roger Gallery of individual and collaborative work by three artists, Tessa Laird, Richard Orjis and Tiffany Singh.

Dreams of Other Worlds by Richard Orjis and Tiffany Singh.
Dreams of Other Worlds by Richard Orjis and Tiffany Singh.

Their work is a gamut of screen-printing, ceramic, photography and watercolours derived from natural dyes. It ranges from little unframed works on paper stained with dye from marigold and rose extracts to a large minimalist banner hand-stitched in linen.

One fascinating creation by Orjis and Singh working together is a wooden house, plain on one side while the other side is a two-storied enclave of honeycomb, bees, gold leaf and candles, all richly scented.

Other collaborative work takes screen prints done some years ago by Laird, now overlaid with prints of butterflies by Singh. The results are sensuously colourful.

The whole show makes an Aladdin's Cave of highly original things.


At the galleries

What: Wahine me Tamariki by Robyn Kahukiwa

Where and when: Warwick Henderson Gallery, 32 Bath St, Parnell, to April 26

TJ says: Here, as in her work at Auckland Art Gallery, Robyn Kahukiwa paints strong images about Maori issues and the role of Maori women.

What: Living Realms by Katie Thomas and Jane Bowman

Where and when: Bath Street Gallery, 43 Bath St, Parnell, to May 3

TJ says: Using abstract expressionist techniques, Katie Thomas makes attractive paintings born of light and leafage; Jane Bowman uses circuitry components to make intriguing sculptures of flocks of birds and sea creatures.

What: We Are But Dust and Shadow: Tessa Laird, Richard Orjis, Tiffany Singh

Where and when: Melanie Roger Gallery, 226 Jervois Rd, Herne Bay, to May 3

TJ says: Three artists working individually and in collaboration create a colourful installation of highly imaginative objects from ceramics, prints, wall hangings and a construction redolent of honey.

- NZ Herald

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