Wednesday, May 25, 2011

When art hits the headlands

You don’t get many controversies in public art institutions these days. Maybe a sharper approach to up-front risk assessment has finally done for it. You certainly don't expect to see its origins in Gisborne, but on a recent visit to we came across many examples of contemporary Maori art which owed more than a little to the teaching and painting style of Sandy Adsett. He has been a formidable presence in the region for decades and a key figure in the development of a major stream of contemporary Maori art.

In the years before the arrival on the scene of artists like Jacqueline Fraser, Shane Cotton, Michael Paerekowhai and Peter Robinson much of the 'look and feel' of contemporary Maori art, with a few notable exceptions Ralph Hotere being the most obvious, was driven by artists from the East Coast of the North Island. 

Their art was most typically abstracted from traditional forms and had its spiritual centre and purpose on the marae. It was also largely ignored or siloed by the public art institutions and curators until 1992 when Robert Leonard let artists like Sandy Adsett and Cliff Whiting slip into Headlands, and not only slip in but in the case of Adsett rub shoulders with artists like Gordon Walters. 

The sight of Adsett’s brightly coloured traditional forms next to the austerity of Walters' koru paintings was too much for some of Walters' supporters. The morning after the exhibition's opening they flew into a rage at what they saw as an insult to the great artist (Walters not Adsett). 

This was all a long time ago now, and while it's hard to think such juxtapositions would cause many ripples today, they still might kick-start a long overdue discussion around the twists and turns that over the last three decades or so have seen so many different strands of art merge, converge, separate and (for the brief window around Headlands) run in glorious parallel.
Images: murals spotted on the walls of Kaiti school in Gisborne. Apologies to Ronnie van Hout for the title