I wanted to visit the Henri Matisse show at Christchurch Art Gallery because I’ve loved his work since I was a child. We had a print of the iconic Icarus in our home growing up and I was raised in Belgium where European painters and sculptors of the 20th century dominated my ideas of art and making.
The exhibition showcases Matisse’s illustrated art book, Jazz (from the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales), and includes 20 colour stencil works and over 70 pages of hand-written text. Christchurch Art Gallery locates the collection firmly within an Aotearoa frame of reference by positioning Matisse’s work alongside two Cook Islands Tīvaevae and an installation of New Zealand artist, Richard Killeen, each of which employing a similar ‘cut-out’ aesthetic.
In the case of the two tīvaevae, the reference of this seemingly simple juxtaposition is a significant one. Matisse travelled to Tahiti in 1930 and spent a month in Papeete where he took photographs, drew in his sketchbooks, swam in the lagoons and acquired Tahitian textiles for his collection. His Tahiti trip is said to be the strongest influence on his art book, Jazz, which was first published in 1947.
In positioning these Tīvaevae in the context of Matisse, considering one was made in the 1890s, and the other in the 1980s, we see Matisse as part of a Pacific art continuum that is punctuated with exchanges and borrowing between Oceania and the West, Eastern Polynesia and Aotearoa.
There is an equalising effect that happens here. Curatorially, this is a nod to Moana aesthetics that gently subverts the problematic idea of primitivism, and the politics of ‘heritage arts’ and their place in the realm of the Gallery and the contemporary art world.
I’m particularly inspired by this curatorial positioning of Matisse in the context of where we are in the world because this felt like a significant oversight and lost opportunity in Auckland Art Gallery’s recent showing of The Body Laid Bare, an exhibition which also originated at the Art Gallery of New South Wales and co-curated with Tate. Auckland Art Gallery didn’t present any curatorial offerings that positioned the exhibition in the South Pacific, and whilst the show was full of important and interesting work, it felt isolated and elitist. This is an interesting review.
There was however an outreach effort by Auckland Art Gallery to create some form of localised commentary about the exhibition in the form of video interviews with Pacific artists. The series was produced for online circulation and Leilani Kake and I used the opportunity to offer some insights towards how this exhibition and its themes could have been programmed in a way that genuinely engages non-traditional audiences:
Christchurch Art Gallery, CoCA and The Physics Room have been creative sanctuaries on this trip. I’ve visited again and again, and the experiences have been rewarding and affirming. Thank you to all the staff who have engaged me, and my daughter, in conversation, greeted us warmly, given us time. It means a lot.
I’m one month into my residency at the Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies at the University of Canterbury.
One month into the thinking and research, reading and sharing that is informing my manifesto. Having been extracted from my comfort zone, removed from my community, the feeling of somewhat isolation, sometimes loneliness, has underpinned and magnified my thinking around the people of my work.
I’ve been asking myself, what is the whakapapa of your practice?