Twelve Questions: Fiona Clark

Protests against Fiona Clark’s photos of K’ Rd drag queens caused the closure of Auckland City Gallery in 1976. The full set of photos are being shown in Auckland for the first time to mark the 30th anniversary of the Homosexual Law Reform Bill.
Fiona Clark wants her photos to give her subjects a voice that says "I'm part of your world and I'm going to stay".  Photo / Brett Phibbs
Fiona Clark wants her photos to give her subjects a voice that says "I'm part of your world and I'm going to stay". Photo / Brett Phibbs

1 Auckland City Gallery closed its doors in 1976 after public protests over two of your photos. What was wrong with them?

They're just photos of my friends, who were transexuals, dancing and having a good time. They've written comments around the edge saying things like "we're real people". They do use the word f*** which was illegal in 1976. A group of 200 churchgoers complained to the council about indecencies being shown on gallery walls and a woman called Patricia Bartlett took a police prosecution under the Indecencies Act. The gallery director decided to close the doors. The strange thing was the works went missing. The gallery says it didn't lose them but they were last seen on the director's desk waiting for the police to view them. I think that's censorship we should own.

2 What happened to you after that?

No one wanted to show that body of work until 2003 when I had a solo show at the Govett-Brewster gallery in New Plymouth. This is the first time I've ever shown the full body of work here in Auckland where it came from.

I did reprint those two missing prints for a group show in Tauranga in 2013 and people objected again - the headlines read "repugnant photographs".

3 How did you come to be photographing transvestites on K' Rd in the 1970s?

I grew up on a dairy farm in Inglewood and moved to Auckland when I was 16 to study at the Elam School of Fine Arts. I got a job working the late shift at a little bar called Ca'd'Oro on the waterfront and met all these people who became my new friends. I wanted to record us hanging out, going to parties or each others' flats. I felt that it was a world people needed to understand and I was the one to do it.

4 What was your sexual identity?

My preference is being with women. When I went to Elam I was told I was a "femme". In those days you were either butch or femme. Femmes wore lipstick and dresses and you never went to the bar, you got bought a drink. There were even separate butch and femme toilets. The scene around K' Rd was very small in those days. Mojos was really the only drag club. Everything was illegal. People were being arrested all the time and beaten up for their gender, plucked off the street, thrown in the back of cars and dealt to. Most of the people in these photos died young.

5 What's the intention of your work?

I don't want to present our world as strange. The intent is to give people a voice. These photos say, "I am who I am. I'm here. I'm part of your world and I'm going to stay." What's so powerful is their gaze and their directness but there's also a huge sadness. You can see the struggle it takes to keep that momentum going about yourself. I hope that people feel that human connection we feel when we look at another person. It's the thread that binds us.

6 Why have you called this exhibition For Fantastic Carmen?

I met Carmen in 1974 and photographed her throughout her career. She had my photos printed for her Christmas cards and used to call me "my photographer Fiona". We always kept in contact and I visited her a few times in Sydney. She asked me to photograph her for her 70th birthday in Wellington a few years ago. She was usually the gypsy queen in red but this time she wanted to be a blue mermaid, this beautiful creature who lasted the distance and remembered everything. Carmen never got too drunk and always said, "I remember."

7 Why do you like photography as a medium for art?

I started out doing performance. I used to walk round the uni art school in different personas but it wasn't really understood. People didn't think it was relevant. So I began documenting other people performing instead. I felt I needed colour to record these beautiful, vibrant friends so a friend and I built our own colour darkroom at Elam. He'd been working at a colour lab in Henderson so we worked out how to hand process and print everything in colour ourselves.

8 The exhibition contains footage of an art performance you did at the Pink Pussycat in 1973, what was that about?

The owner, Rainton Hastie, gave me permission to perform and record an art performance. My friend Raewyn Turner and I turned up as "Ruby and Pearl" and did a strip number where we mirrored each other to challenge the idea of gender. The crowd booed us, probably because we didn't take enough off. We were assertive - we just walked in and took over the club. They never invited us back.

9 When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

When I was 14. I didn't fit into the norm at Inglewood High School. I refused to bake scones for the First XV. Leon Narby, the cinematographer, did his teacher training placement at our school. He took me to the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, which I loved, and told me about art school. I knew there was a whole world of sexuality and gender not explained to me and I needed to find it out for myself.

10 Did your parents suspect you were lesbian?

I don't know. When I was 14, my father told me my grandfather had met Amy Bock, the woman who married another woman in 1909 in Balclutha. I've been fascinated by her ever since and have included a section in the exhibition about her role in our gender history. She was convicted of impersonating a man and served three years in the men's prison in New Plymouth. She always admitted every charge. I made a patch out of her guilty signature and I've got it embroidered on a jacket. 11 Why have you lived in small town, rural Taranaki all these years?

Because it's the community I've grown up with. The Govett-Brewster gallery is very good. I have very good friends and a long history of environmental activism there.

12 What are you protesting ?

I've been documenting the degradation of the Waitara coastline from raw sewage for 30 years. I presented my photos at the Wai 6 Waitangi Tribunal claim in 1981 and again at the hearings in 2011. Now the regional council's prosecuting me for costs and I personally face bankruptcy. The main councillor pursuing me is the same man who voted against the Homosexual Law Reform Bill. I believe they want to punish me for being that evil degenerate they went to sermons about in 1976. The bill did change things but that residue still exists in our society.

• Fiona Clark's solo show For Fantastic Carmen is on at Artspace in Karangahape Rd from February 20. It transforms into a group show, The Bill: For Collective Unconscious, from March 12 as part of the Auckland Arts Festival. www.artspace.org.nz

- NZ Herald

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