Highlight: Ans Westra ‘Ruatoria’

Ans Westra, Netherlands/New Zealand b.1936 / Ruatoria 1963, printed 1999 / Silver gelatin photograph / Purchased 2014. Queensland Art Gallery l Gallery of Modern Art Foundation / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery / © The artist

Dutch photographer Ans Westra’s beautiful black-and-white photographs from two important series from the 1960s depict a day in the life of a large Māori family in rural New Zealand.

For over 50 years, Dutch-born photographer Ans Westra has been absorbed by the documentation of Māori communities in Aotearoa New Zealand. Her often frank photographic portraits have elicited varied responses, ranging from great acclaim to the censorship of the ‘Washday at the Pa’ series in the mid 1960s, to the appropriation of one of her images by leading New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai for the Collection work What’s the time Mr Woolf 2005. Looking at these photographs, it is obvious that they are more than mere documents. Superbly composed and realised, Westra’s works resonate with a deep feeling for her subjects, their culture and, more importantly, their future. Along with many Māori elders, Westra pictures the foundation for this future involving an ongoing connection to land, family and culture, even when individuals move to cities, work alongside Pakeha (non-Māori New Zealanders) and other people from other communities, and pursue aspirations unrelated to Māoritanga1.

The ‘Ruatoria’ series was created in 1963 in the format of a children’s photo story book for the New Zealand Department of Education. Written and illustrated by Westra, the book was titled Washday at the Pa and portrayed a day in the life of a Māori family with nine children, who lived in a cottage on the rural outskirts of ‘Taihape’ (the name of a town in the ’cold and snowy moutains’ of New Zealands volcanic plateau that Westra gave to Ruatoria in order to protect the family and heighten the picturesque in the story). These beautiful images record family routines, including washing and baking bread, as well as childhood escapades — smoking Mintie wrappers, trips down to the river, and warming cold feet on the rustic wood stove before bed. Shortly after its release to schools, however, the Māori Women’s Welfare League objected to the book on the grounds that ‘The living conditions shown are not typical of Māori life’,2 and it was withdrawn by the Department of Education.

The withdrawal of Washday at the Pa was one of the first examples of censorship in New Zealand and, as can be imagined, it generated intense debate. Today, two stories accompany Washday at the Pa: the children’s tale written by Westra about the Wereta family; and a history of responses to the ‘Ruatoria’ photographs, republished for public distribution later in 1964 by Caxton Press. As Mark Amery observes in his 2011 essay on the series, ‘these photographs . . . have been a lightning rod for discussion about how society — and in particular, Māori — are represented through photography’.3 These debates persist today around the world, as European constructs of the life and culture of indigenous peoples continue to be challenged, particularly by new generations of indigenous artists taking up the camera themselves.

Speaking directly to the ‘Ruatoria’ photographs is a group of images documenting events at the Māori church Ratana Pa in Whanganui. Westra was initially commissioned to photograph events at Ratana Pa by the Māori magazine Te Ao Hou in 1963. The subsequent body of images, built up over 50 years, engages with expressions of the Ratana faith, founded in the 1920s by faith-healer and seer WT Ratana, whose political activism achieved significant social and welfare outcomes for Māori people. Ans Westra’s portraits of the annual 25 January pilgrimage celebrations, as well as more regular gatherings of the Ratana faithful, provide moving insights into the role that this church played within individual lives as well as documenting a movement and a time.

1  The qualities inherent in being a Māori, relating to heritage or culture.
2  Mrs J Eta, Ngatiporou District Council in Publishers note, ‘Washday at the Pa’, Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1964, p.2.
3  Mark Amery, Washday at the Pa, Suite Publishing, Wellington, 2011, p.2.

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An Eloquent Glance

Unknown, Australia | (South Sea Island girl) c.1900-10 | Colourised postcard | Purchased 2010. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

We all love images of children. Politicians, aware of their capacity to evoke empathy and a sense of shared humanity, are endlessly being photographed with them. Social media is littered with thousands upon thousands of adorable variations. What then makes a particular child stand out? This is a question I asked myself recently while looking through a selection of images for inclusion in the exhibition ‘Sugar’, which will be on display at the Gallery as part of the Cultural Centre’s programs celebrating ‘150 years of Australian South Sea Islander contributions to Queensland’. ‘Sugar’ features historical photographs as well as contemporary art works to reflect on the history of the sugar industry in Queensland, with a particular focus on the contribution of South Sea Islanders and their descendants.

The image of a child that captured my attention derives from a photograph taken of a young South Sea Islander girl in the late nineteenth century. It was reprinted in the early twentieth century in Great Britain as a colourised postcard. Looking at this postcard, now held in the Collection of the Gallery, I am reminded of the many photographs taken at this time, of Indigenous and Pacific peoples that asserted particular racial stereotypes.

In many of these colonial-era images, the subjects are depicted in traditional attire, or are objectified as ‘specimens’ observable from every angle. Such images fed into early pseudo-scientific approaches to racial studies such as phrenology. Many contemporary Indigenous and Pacific artists have used such archival images as a basis for their critique of colonial histories and their often derogatory representations.

Fully clothed in a beautiful white smocked dress and hat, the young child in this photograph appears to have been dressed and positioned to engage with European perceptions of what constitutes innocence and civility. The postcard is overprinted with the title ‘Kanaka girl, Queensland’. ‘Kanaka’ is a term which was widely used at this time to describe South Sea Islander labourers brought from Melanesia to Queensland and Northern New South Wales to work on sugar and cotton farms between 1863 and 1906. Contributing significantly to this industry, these South Sea Islander men, women and children were viewed and treated by colonial landowners and authorities as a form of cheap and compliant labour. Supporting this idea, the child photographed for this image, has been presented separated from her family and community – alone and unthreatening.

There is something, however, about this child that speaks beyond this. Very young – not much beyond six or seven years of age – she has obviously been dressed and posed by an adult to play a particular part. She looks reticent about this and looks off-camera, perhaps towards a known adult, for either reassurance or further instruction. What I find compelling about this young girl is that while she doesn’t appear scared, there is wariness and preparedness to her pose that, for me, speaks volumes about the precarious position that South Sea Islanders were in at the time here in Queensland. This history is a painful one, and this young girl appears to eloquently communicate her knowledge of this and her ability to face it nonetheless with dignity. In doing so, she embodies the strength and resilience of the Australian South Sea Island community that inherited this history.

Sugar’ opens at the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) from 8 June.

Twentieth anniversary of APT: Michel Tuffery’s raging bull


Michel Tuffery and Patrice Kaikilekofe’s artist performance Povi tau vaga (The challenge) 1999

Night falls. Under the cloak of darkness there descends a circular wall of rhythmic drumming, drawing audiences to a cleared patch of ground on which an event will take place. In this space, male and female dancers from the islands of Wallis and Futuna, as well as local performers from the Samoan and Australian Aboriginal communities, move in lithe movements, facing each other off, keeping up with the fast-paced, strenuous pounding of skin and tin.

In the centre of this arena which speaks both to sports stadiums and village ceremonial spaces found across the Pacific, a challenge is to be enacted. Beating, twirling fire sticks and rhythmic movement stir the emotions, engaging the body and stimulating the sense of awe to be expected when the challengers arrive. At the heart of this performance is the bare-chested New Zealand/Samoan artist Michel Tuffery, sporting a traditional pe’a (tattoo). Collaborating with New Zealand/Futuna musician Patrice Kaikilekofe, Michel has manifested this challenge as part of his participation in APT3 in 1999, and like any sponsor of a ceremony, stands right within the action directing its progress.

Michel Tuffery artist interview.

The challengers are in fact two articulated, life-sized bulls created by Tuffery from corned-beef tins, a nod towards the impact of commodities introduced into Pacific communities. Having already completed a spectacular ‘run’ from the Gallery to West End and back, and shooting fire from their nostrils, the bulls are pushed at each other at breakneck speed, with a vehemence worthy of the rugby field. The clashing of metal, the shouts of the challengers as they push these mighty animals, and the sound of the crowd merge together to create an embodied roar.

With this work, Tuffery and Kaikilekofe draw on the continued importance of ritualised performance and spectacle as a way to comment on social tensions within Islander communities. Tuffery’s bulls also speak of the major ecological and dietary problems that result from global trade and colonial economies.

For more videos on ‘The Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (APT)’ visit QAGOMA TV

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Michel Tuffery, New Zealand b.1966 | Povi tau vaga (The challenge) 1999 | Aluminium, pinewood, corn beef tins and rivets with Mini DV: 2:43 minutes, colour, stereo | Purchased 1999. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | © The artist

A Tale To Tell

Rex Maukos, Kwoma people, Tongwinjamb village, East Sepik River, Papua New Guinea painting ceiling panels for Kwoma / APT7 Commission, Brisbane, February 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOMA

The telling of stories is important in Papua New Guinea. It is the way that knowledge is passed on, a time to relax, and an important means of connecting with others.

This story is about the Gallery’s latest project — a tale that began in July 2011 when Michael O’Sullivan and myself, and guest co-curator Martin Fowler travelled to New Britain and the East Sepik River in Papua New Guinea to conduct research for ‘The 7th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art‘ (APT7).

The National Mask Festival in Kokopo, East New Britain was our first stop. Here, the spirits arrived in an awesome procession, amidst kundu drumming, singing and chanting. Immersed in this soundscape, intricately patterned masks were spectacularly animated, creating an emotionally charged experience for everyone present.

Bruno Akau and Alfred Sapu, Pileo island, West New Britain, Papua New Guinea Tabuan Kamut Mut 2011 / Photograph: © QAGOMA

Attendance at the festival provided important opportunities for our team to engage in long discussions with artists and community leaders about their work and its significance within their lives.  Such exchanges resulted in the acquisition of masks from five different cultural groups from across New Britain and the Sepik River. These objects, which will be part of a major presentation in the Gallery of Modern Art (GOMA) for APT7, demonstrate the continuing vibrancy of works created to be used in customary contexts in Papua New Guinea.

The Sepik River region is known around the world for producing some of the most dynamic products of the human imagination. Yet most literature on this art positions it in the context of ‘authentic traditions’ and a distant past. Our experience as we travelled from the Prince Alexander mountains down to the Sepik river revealed the opposite, as groups of artists from Abelam, Kwoma, Arapesh and Iatmul cultural groups demonstrated the continuing relevance of their respective traditions and the different ways in which they evolve in response to new experiences and audiences.

Kwoma artists working on drawing by Nelson Makamoi, Ilahita, painting workshop, July 2011 | Photograph: © Richard Kendall

One example is the painting workshop conducted in the Arapesh village of Ilahita. This event provided opportunities to talk with a wide range of artists about their work, its relationship to their different cultures as well as to see how they responded to using introduced materials such as canvas, plywood and synthetic polymer paints.

Waikua Nera, Ilahita painting workshop, July 2011 | Photograph: © Richard Kendall
Waikua Nera, Korumbo (Spirit house), 2006, Brikiti village, Papua New Guinea / Photograph: © QAGOMA

Following this workshop, we moved from the village of Ilahita, through Maprik and down the river to Ambunti, Tongwinjamb and Yessan, where there were opportunities to view spectacular ceremonial men’s houses and Koromb (Spirit house) created from locally sourced, ephemeral materials by artists involved in the workshop. The extraordinary presence of these structures and the art created for them provided the impetus to propose two major commissions that responded to the ongoing tradition of Sepik men’s houses, for APT7.

A return visit to the region in November 2011 resulted in the invitation of 10 artists to work on these commissions. Three Abelam artists — Waikua Nera, Nikit Kiawaul and Kano Loctai, were invited to create a new work responding to the Korumbo (Spirit house) created in their village of Brikiti — Apengai. Seven Kwoma artists were also invited — Anton Waiawas, Rex Maukos, Kevin Apsepa, Simon Goiyap, Terry Pakiey, Nelson Makamoi and Jamie Jimok — to create new work based on the spectacular painting and carving found in their Koromb (Spirit house). These are the equivalent of a parliament house for the Kwoma people. They use these structures as places to come together, in the presence of the spirits, to debate and make important community decisions.

Simon Goiyap, Koromb (Spirit house), Mino Village, Papua New Guinea / Photograph: © QAGOMA

It was important for us that the creation of work for these commissions take place in Brisbane, Queensland so that the artists had the opportunity to view the spaces in which their work would reside, to meet other artists and see a wide range of other cultural materials. The artists left their villages in late January, many travelling outside of the Sepik region for the first time.

Selected Kwoma artists from left: Jamie Jimok, Simon Goiyap, Anton Waiawas, Terry Pakiey, Kevin Apsepa, Rex Maukos and Nelson Makamoi, Maprik, November 2011 / Photograph: Martin Fowler

All of the artists settled into life in Brisbane very quickly, eager to work with Gallery teams to fine tune drawings and plans relating to the final installation of their work

Kwoma artists working with Gallery Exhibitions team. From left: Anton Waiawas, Simon Goiyap, Michael O’Sullivan, Rex Maukos and Nelson Makamoi / Photograph: © QAGOMA

Within a week, work had begun in earnest and with each visit to the artists there was a wealth of amazing painting and carving to view.

Abelam artists Waikua Nera, Nikit Kiawaul and Kano Loctai drawing up design for spirit house painting, January 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOMA
Kwoma artist Terry Pakiey, working of painting, February 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOMA
Abelam artist Kano Locatai carving lintel for Koromb (Spirit house), February 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOMA

Visits to the workshop have been made by local Aboriginal community leaders, the PNG Consul General, Brisbane and project sponsors Kramer Ausenco. Attending the latter event was Kramer Ausenco Chairman Sir Rabbie Namaliu (ex Prime Minister of Papua New Guinea) and, a big hit, Ambassador Mal Meninga (Australian former rugby league test captain and current coach of Queensland’s State of Origin team).

Kramer Ausenco Ambassador Mal Meninga with Kwoma artist Terry Pakiey, February 2012 / Photograph: © QAGOM

A month into the project, and the Abelam artists are now completing the final painted panels for their majestic house front. The carving is finished, and cane and palm leaf fronds are at the ready to weave the Korumbo (Spirit house) cap, a small woven basket shaped cap at the apex of the triangular face which protects the house and the spirits inhabiting it. A few final pieces and decorative bilas, such as bilums, flowers, and seeds will be shipped to Brisbane and installed by the artists when they return to work with Gallery workshop and installation staff to erect the Haus in November.

Painting for Korumbo (Spirit house), February 2012 | Photograph: Kevin Apsepa / Photograph: © QAGOMA

The Kwoma team have another month on site to finish carving and painting. Visits to the studio involve much storytelling as each of the artists speaks about the designs they are creating. Despite great differences in their cultures, an important subject for both groups is their relationship to place — the importance of nature, its transformation into complex cosmologies and the histories of change.

Koromb (Spirit house) post carvings by Simon Goiyap (left), and Nelson Makamoi and Jamie Jimok (right), February 2012 / Photograph: Simon Goiyap

The capacity for change is exemplified in these works, adaptability demonstrated through the incorporation of new ideas and materials. That said, the works are powerfully tied to strong cultures. These works stand apart, as a reminder that while we live in an environment of transition and global exchange, the ways in which we communicate our ties to place, history and each other are unique.

The village of Tongwinjamb, has now also become my place, and Kwoma my tok ples — the Kwoma artists formally making me their sister at a special ceremony on Sunday 4 March. I am sure that there will be many more stories to tell as relationships between communities in Papua New Guinea and the Gallery continue to develop. Looking back over the twenty year history of APT, the artists supported and the strong ties that have been created, I am sure that these will be positive ones.