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Best of NZ Visual Arts 2016

Antony Gormley, STAY, 2015, Image: Bridgit Anderson
Matthew Galloway, The city that shines, 2016. Photo / Daegan Wells
Beyond Exhausted, installation view. Photo / Daegan Wells
Juliet Carpenter and Gregory Kan, 'mean time 2016' (2016). Commissioned by CIRCUIT with the support of Creative New Zealand for This is not film-making. Artists work for cinema. Curated by George Clark
Jasmine Togo Brisby installation, St Paul Street Gallery. Photo / Sam Hartnett
Kushana Bush, Us Lucky Observers (2016), gouache and pencil on paper. Collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery.
Mark Amery gets personal takes from Nina Tonga, Judy Darragh, Cushla Donaldson, Megan Dunn and Ali Bramwell.


You can get sick of the sound of your own voice. More importantly, you must get sick of mine. This aging Pakeha soap boxer, fortnight after fortnight delivering his version of events. We need more writers, and far more diverse ones. I’m not going to stop, but why not join me?

So for this year’s end of year best of I’m handing the picks over to a group of friends and colleagues I admire immensely, who see even more art than I do. Who’s missing? Go on, tap them on the shoulder and ask them to write something in 2017.


In a conversation about the Pacific at City Gallery this year Nina challenged my use of the word ‘we’ rather than ‘I’. I’m very glad she did. At Te Papa she has recently been made New Zealand’s first Curator - Pacific Art. Previously it was Pacific Culture. That speaks volumes.

This year

I have been challenged to think through and advocate for an expansive view of the Pacific that positions New Zealand as a node in a large network that extends in and beyond the Pacific. Throughout the year I’ve been inspired by so many artists, collectives, curators and writers who have pushed my thinking.

Opening ‘ava Ceremony for Tautai/Navigate, Studio One Toi Tū.

A major highlight was the 30th celebrations of the Tautai Contemporary Pacific Arts Trust. The first event was an exhibition curated by Leafa Wilson which included over 45 artists. To open the exhibition a special ‘ava ceremony took place in the forecourt of Studio One Toi Tū. The ceremony involved founding members of Tautai, past and present trustees and a selection of senior Pacific artists. As one of the participants, this was an incredibly moving ceremony where tributes and tears flowed as memories were shared and artists were remembered.

Liu Jianhua: Transfer, Dowse Art Museum

The exhibition comprised of two installations: Regular Fragility an installation of 1500 individually cast ceramics and Square an installation of dozens of pools of gold in a darkened space. Square stands out as one of the most visceral art experiences of the year. I was constantly tempted to touch the glistening pools of liquid gold-coated porcelain. This was made more difficult by the darkened space that only heightened the alluring quality of gold as an object of desire.

Kofukofu Koloa, Dagmar Dyck, Gus Fisher Gallery Auckland

This exhibition felt like an important shift in Dyck’s practice, prefaced by the amazing installation Aunty Ungatea’s Bed. A four-poster bed sat beautifully in the gallery foyer with koloa (material wealth) folded neatly underneath the mattress. On top of the bed was a pristine white monomono (quilt) emblazoned with the Sila ‘o Tonga (Seal of Tonga). The installation embodied the value of Tongan textiles. On a more personal level, it took me back to childhood memories of my grandmother’s house in Nuku’alofa.

Refinery 2016, Jasmine Togo-Brisby in the exhibition Influx, September 2016 St Paul Street Gallery.

Jasmine Togo Brisby installation, St Paul Street Gallery. Photo / Sam Hartnett

Jasmine is a South Sea Islander artist who now resides in Wellington. Her monumental work Refinery 2016 is made of Chelsea sugar bags, stitched together and beaten in the same fashion as tapa (bark cloth) made by ni-Vanuatu women. The work addresses Australia’s harrowing history of blackbirding, a practice of enslaving (often by force or deception) people from Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Fiji to work on sugar and cotton plantations in Queensland in the 19th century.

AITU Vogue ball, FAFSWAG, 24 September 2016, Auckland

Organised by FAFSWAG, a collective that celebrates and documents emerging LGBTQ Pacific Culture, this annual ball takes inspiration from New York City ball culture and has become an affirmative platform for a growing vogue scene in New Zealand. The AITU Vogue ball held at Family Bar in KRD asked the community to draw on their cultural connections to Pulotu (the underworld) and Aitu (a ghost and spirit). I found this indigenous underpinning incredibly empowering as it extended and opened up these cultural realms for new interpretation. The event was electric - one of the most important art experiences I’ve had to date.  

Two major trends for the year

A growing historical consciousness in contemporary art practice. I find this trend particularly interesting as it aligns with an indigenous concept of time, where the past is constantly informing and shaping the future. I’ve been really inspired by the many ways in which history is revised, interrogated and at times reimagined by artists. I think this orientation towards our past is increasingly important during times of such rapid environmental, economic and political change.

I have also seen a growing trend of Pacific art expanding beyond the Bombay Hills. Pacific artists and curators exhibiting right across the country at galleries such as Blue Oyster in Dunedin, The Physics Room in Christchurch and a number of regional galleries and art spaces. This geographic expansion of Pacific art reflects its strength and growing curatorial capacity. This greater prominence of the Pacific has also created more space and opportunities for artists from the Pacific and diaspora communities in Australia.


Juliet Carpenter and Gregory Kan, 'mean time 2016' (2016). Commissioned by CIRCUIT with the support of Creative New Zealand for This is not film-making. Artists work for cinema. Curated by George Clark

There are great artists and then there are great artists who are also great friends to younger artists – there in support. Here are some of Judy’s picks from Auckland.

Rif Raf: Are We There Yet, Li–Ming Hu and Daphne Simons at Glovebox

An installation and performance programme over two weeks including an eating contest, Interschool crits, a vege chopper, workshops and panel discussions, an exhaustive programme digging away at art, its construction, personalities and feminism executed with humour and inclusiveness.

Ilk, Isobel Thom at Malcolm Smith Gallery Howick

The artist builds a studio in West Auckland -  architectural drawings, site photographs, studio models hand-built from clay. Isobel extends her practice into beautifully made clay shingle tiles to clad the studio exterior: they look like scales, gold bronze and smoky coloured from firing. There are prototypes for a hand basin and portals (windows) and a Rocket cooker all made from clay. This will be an architectural icon out West.

Potentially Yours, The Coming Community Curator Tendi John Mutambu at Artspace.

This was the curatorial Intern show for 2016 and I enjoyed how open-ended the works were yet they managed to folded into each other. There was a symmetry to the install and within the works - making a form in itself. I loved the colour, the physicality and the presence of the body - in particular the film by Mika Rottenberg (the strumming finger nails were mesmerising). I wanted to steal the lengths of coloured felt made by Sorawit Songsataya. Louise Menzies’ three print works on paper tied up the concepts for me.

There was humour and beauty and it made me think about what art can do in this post Trump increasingly conservative world… Beauty and Truth, and it was in this show.

This is Not Film – Making. Artists Work for Cinema

10-minute single channel video works in response to Julian Dashper’s book This is not writing at Te Uru. Circuit commissioner curator George Clark (UK)

A mix of generations of film makers were commissioned to make 10 minute responses to Julian Dashper’s writings - some knew him well some not at all. Text was used, performance, a poem. And, as a friend, I guess I was there looking for him. Daniel Malone, Victory over the Sun, Or, Spaghetti Western. Unlike You and Me referenced Julian’s works, the phone ringing (Future Call 2013) the drum kit (The Drivers 1992) in a dilapidated cinema, silhouetted frame like forms were set against a sea. The soundtrack describes the making of wooden crates to be used as sound instruments, referencing Julian’s fondness for Donald Judd.

Louise Menzies Go into the Density of It starts with Julian’s LP Blue Poles he recorded in front of the Jackson Pollock painting at Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane. Next a cut to a You Tube version of Swamp by Nancy Holt and Robert Smithson, we hear ambient gallery and audience noise recalling Blue Poles. The camera enters long grass, which become animated organic versions of the blue lines from the painting.


Beyond Exhausted, Matthew Galloway, Physics Room, Christchurch, installation view. Photo / Daegan Wells

I love it when a friend understands the intention of your request, generously delivering something far greater than you asked for.

I imagine artists will soon be called upon to do a job that our politicians seem to be struggling with.

I imagine artists will soon be called upon to do a job that our politicians seem to be struggling with. That is, to reveal a widening gap between the consequences of global networks of finance capital and the humanist ethics which most of us aspire to.

Is it possible to move through the identification and embodiment of misused aesthetics by elites, against factionalism, towards an open community? Is it realistic for artists to think that they could lead by example in terms of ethical social relations, while immersed in a competitive market?

We must face the proposition that there are limits to what can occur within existing structures. All meaningful advancements both with regard to one’s own artistic practices or broader public conversations require a deep honesty. The competition between artists for cultural capital and market value entails manipulation and dishonesty, in the process mutual respect amongst peers is often sacrificed in the name of career advancement.

I am increasingly interested in the question not of what a particular art work means but what does it do? How does it function in the world? How does one approach a market system devoid of rigorous ethics, as a means to an end in achieving an ethical outcome?

In all honesty, are we serious about listening to others and resolving conflict, or are we merely varnishing over a desire to tear down our colleagues with a lacquer of superior morality? Hiding a selfish motivation with an apparently good one?

I sometimes wonder if I practice enough openness to others. Or whether I am at risk of falling into group think and joining cliques based on advancing my material circumstances, my ego and career.

Which leads me to a question of class. Entering seemingly progressive spaces and conversations without appropriate socialisation can in fact isolate and galvanise existing prejudice.

The prospect of building contemporary Bloomsbury Sets is ever present in the art world. Yet I think most would agree that calling out social injustice from above while being unable to enact radical openness to others seems rather futile. Elitist behavioural policing alienates the very people most affected by targets of radical critique.

Perhaps we might be more careful where we put our negative emotions. What, after all, does it mean for art, when we find ourselves fuelled by envy, resentment or fear? Where should I leave such affections? In the world? On my family? In my work?

I worry when I see young female artists being invited to capitalise on the market value attributed to their age and gender while calling the conversation they are engaged with “new”. The way their work is moving through the market is in fact very predictable and very old.

There is power to be found in developing an understanding of patterns, cycles and predictable outcomes. Young women in the art world have a market dictated use-by-date. Something which I never wanted to have pointed out when I was in my twenties.

This is the nature of the art market.

However, there are ways to negate these trends as artists without losing the ability to develop and thrive. It seems we have to move beyond the fear of the market, the fear of the future and fear of our inevitably aging bodies. Fear kills creatively.

Let me be clear, I am certainly not in favour of polite art. I want the opposite.

I want to see art the market is afraid of. Rude art with radical insight and love.

I have made a list of ten artists in Aotearoa, based on their work this year who I see as currently having the stamina, resolve and wairua to take their audience further. There are others in close proximity to this list who will perhaps join it next year.

Ayesha Green
Motoko Kikkawa
Tim Webby
Andrew Barber
Anna Sisson
Faith Wilson
Dan Nash
Matilda Fraser
Fiona Clark
Matthew Galloway


Kushana Bush, Us Lucky Observers (2016), gouache and pencil on paper. Collection of Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

You can read Megan Dunn’s words in Art News and elsewhere but, really, with a writer this good how could I resist asking?

Kushana Bush

I’ve just got back from Dunedin where I gave a speech at the opening of Kushana Bush’s The Burning Hours at Dunedin Public Art Gallery. I’ve long been a fan of Bush’s highly illustrative style. Her paintings are dense with art historical allusions to Indo-Persian miniatures and medieval book of hours – that’s part of what makes her work precious. The gouaches in The Burning Hours are on a new, larger scale. Her compositions heave with crowds who worship Gods we can’t see and don’t understand. These works contain a surfeit of detail and are adorned with features in gold leaf, candles that burn, hands that clap into flames, a man on fire. These fervent paintings – like the ever-spinning globe - can’t be taken in all at once. They are demanding. Exhausting.

Grayson Perry

I first wrote about Bush earlier this year when a suite of her gouaches was exhibited alongside Grayson Perry’s epic tapestry Map of Truths and Beliefs at City Gallery Wellington. The skyline of Perry’s 2011 tapestry is littered with black planes, smoke, falling bombs. I gazed at the scrambled sites of worship woven into the cut – from Wembley to Mecca - fresh with the knowledge of the Paris attacks. That show best describes how I feel about 2016: ideologically riven.

Nick Austin

Much of my art orbit has been limited to pram walks: Cuba Street, work, daycare and back. The things I’ve cherished have often been small. Nick Austin’s exhibition PTA newsletter at Peter McLeavey Gallery conflated the grand gestures of abstraction with the kitchen sink. His work Magnetic Poetry was a two-door painting disguised as a silver fridge-freezer. Austin is the Nicholson Baker of New Zealand art.

Daniel Unverricht

Meanwhile Daniel Unverricht is the Hopper of Hastings. Of course there can be no such thing. Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks is one of the great classics (and clichés) of Twentieth Century art. Unverricht paints small – I’m tempted to say matchbox – sized oils of drive-by scenes, derelict shop windows, carparks at night, alleyways and urban ghettos from the back of beyond. Is this Trump’s disenfranchised heartland? No, Unverricht is from Hastings. You stare into his black oil slicked canvases as though the passenger in a car, a drowsy child or boozy teen, night swilling, no set destination, just in it for the ride.

Li-Ming Hu

My favourite new artist for her sheer joie de vivre is Li-Ming Hu. Hu creates DIY videos and events that simultaneously poke fun at the power structures of the art world and buy into them. Hu dresses in dodgy cardboard masks and cavorts about to pop songs whilst trying to “make it.” She was recently a nominee for The Seagers Walters Prize – a kind of mockery of the Walters prize – her work for this occasion was a video of herself dressed as judge, Misal Adnan Yildez, the current director of Artspace dancing to the 80s song Loverboy. Hu is a perverse inheritor of both Big Brother and Julian Dashper. She didn’t win.

Art trends: plants, caring, curtains.


Antony Gormley, STAY, 2015, Christchurch. Image: Bridgit Anderson

Ali is a Dunedin based artist who gets around the world a bit and can be relied upon for a strong yet generous critical voice. She reckons she’s been away a bit too much this year to offer too many bouquets, but did offer these fine words.

Mostly Gormley

A noteworthy art moment in 2016 for me was the completion of Anthony Gormley’s work ‘Stay’ for Scape in Christchurch in October. The second of twin cast-iron figures were installed and unveiled, coinciding with the reopening of the much loved Christchurch Art Centre.

Since the first of twin figures was installed in the Avon in 2015 it has polarised and exposed a variety of key contesting positions around public art, representation and what constitutes worthwhile public expenditure. Referred to variously as “weed catcher”, “tragedy”, “monumental coup” and “a triumph” the cast-iron figure collected commentary in much the same way it collects whatever the river brings it.

Standing in the attitude of reflection the artist intended, the figure faces into the oncoming flow with a scaffolding of floating debris always steadily accumulating around its’ legs and torso. It doesn’t create the debris it collects, merely highlights what is already in the river, in much the same way it has acted as another focus for an ongoing and necessary debate.

Standing under the neo-gothic stone colonnade the human scale of the second figure operates completely differently than its’ counterpart standing alone in the river. The serene protected gentility of the location - in contrast with the more isolated and occasionally turbulent situation of its twin - may allow the two parts of the work to hold space as catalysing focus points between notions of the city’s bruised historic pride and its’ under-construction aspirations for the future.

Meanwhile, further south in Dunedin after five years of hiatus and similarly turbulent debate and review the DCC announced in December the reactivation of the mothballed Dunedin City Council Art in Public Spaces Fund. Here is further pregnant opportunity for discussion and taking stock of how art could should or might function within another city caught between its’ past and the future it hasn’t fully envisioned yet. Watching with interest.


Finally, apologies for the relative lack of representation in text from Christchurch, in what has been a significant year. For this I direct you to the Circuit end of year best of podcast (due out by the 20 December) where Nina, Martin Patrick and I were joined by Christchurch Art Gallery curator and Walters Prize nominated artist Nathan Pohio and recently departed Physics Room curator Melanie Oliver.

Written by

Mark Amery

18 Dec 2016

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.