Galleries: A parade of identity

By T.J. McNamara


There are three strikingly inter-cultural exhibitions in Auckland; two of them at Te Uru Waitakere Art Gallery.

A Study of a Samoan Savage by Yuki Kihara, on the first two levels, is a photographic exhibition that combines indignation, social history, art historical styles, traditional figure studies and rugby.

The concept is founded in the European view of Polynesian people - men in particular - as a savage "Other" subject to scientific examination. The images make extraordinary and powerful use of the body and strong face of Ioane Ioane, a Samoan artist whose work is part of Auckland Art Gallery's permanent collection.

The introduction is the naked, muscular brown body being scientifically tested. Using medical callipers, a hand in an archetypical white coat reaches into the frame to test for fat on arm and waist, a common enough procedure for fitness tests on football players. The centre photograph is different. Although it remains richly brown on dark brown with a white hand, here the callipers press against the temples as if measuring the size of the brain.

The same intrusive quality is reinforced by other images where a micrometre records the width and height of the nose.

High-shutter-speed recordings of the strength and agility of the Polynesian subject are more admiring, but only slightly less intrusive. Marcel Duchamp's painting Nude Descending a Staircase is a founding icon of 20th century painting. It is paralleled and parodied here by a video of the naked subject coming downstairs singly and as a multiple image. What differs is the nude man has to crawl back upstairs, but also that he meets the viewers' gaze. These exceptionally fine works are reinforced by a series of action photographs in the manner of the 19th century pioneers of such sequences, Eadweard Muybridge and artist Thomas Eakins. One sequence shows the Samoan subject kicking a rugby ball.

Head with Pelvimeter.
Head with Pelvimeter.

These photographic scientific studies are linked to material on the second floor in two ways. First, there is a collection of pseudo-scientific photographs from both the British Museum and the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford of measuring the nude figures of Polynesian men and women. Then there is a video of a deeply troubled rugby coach, Pat Lam disturbed by comment that the Auckland teams lost because they were packed with Polynesians. This discussion is undeniably worthwhile but in this show it is made enormously telling by the dark power of Yuki Kihara's photographs.

Frankie Goes To Bollywood, by Bepen Bhana, is on the next floor. More light-hearted but also very rich in subject and execution, eight big paintings fill the gallery. These large-scale works mostly depict scenes of the rugged West Coast beaches although one is of the Waitakere reservoir, nestling like a lake in the deep bush near the sweep of the harbour. They are first-class landscape paintings, though their size bears comparison with billboards.

Large figures of lovers, well known in Bollywood films and idealised, glamorous and romantic, are planted in the foreground. The links between Aotearoa and the Hindu diaspora are emphasised by the way titles are given in te reo Maori. One painting in this spectacular show features legendary lovers Ranveer and Deepika at Piha with Lion Rock very evident. Jewellery - especially earrings, which the pair wear - is prominent and not so very far away from traditional Maori adornment.

This appealing show has a delightful element of humour but underlying its wit and spectacular representational skills are issues of identity and integration.

Ranveer and Deepika at Piha.
Ranveer and Deepika at Piha.

The work of Chris Heaphy, at the Gow Langsford, also joins delight and wit with a serious view of history and relationships. It follows Heaphy's usual style of a grouping of multi-cultural images in profile all headed in the same direction.

Paintings can often be taken in at a glance but these works must be carefully read.

Each one has a big central motif related to continuing outside influences on Aotearoa. A profile of a Degas dancer may refer to European or specifically French influence or a dragon to the Chinese. Add to these Mickey Mouse, a geisha and a horned stag and you have a complete range.

A horse is the central image in the two most striking paintings. The introduction of the horse was the most decisive import of all and it signifies the power of Britain. Whistlejacket is centred by an image taken from the great prancing racehorse of that name painted by George Stubbs and now in the National Gallery in London. It evokes many things including the hugely prominent place of the racing industry here.

Crinolined women ride on its back; profiles of Maori warriors adorn its body. Around it are other images: the introduced rabbit, a dog and, riding proudly on horse's neck, a woman in a riding habit and a cloaked Maori warrior.

In another work, Phar Lap appears accompanied by a little group of quotations from Seurat's famous Sunday afternoon painting linked to our weekend recreations.

All of these witty and intriguing paintings generously repay close study.

Te Uru

What: A Study of a Samoan Savage by Yuki Kihara; Frankie Goes to Bollywood by Bepen Bhana
Where and when: Te Uru, Waitakere Contemporary Gallery, 420 Titirangi Rd, to May 15.

Gow Langsford

What: From Here On In by Chris Heaphy
Where and when: Gow Langsford Gallery, 26 Lorne St, to April 16.

- TimeOut

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