Hit the North

Waka and Wave, Chris Booth. Photo / Studio La Gonda
Test pinhole photograph by Diane Stoppard of Te Matau o Pohe Bridge
Te Matau o Pohe bridge. Photo / Mark Amery
Photographic impression of what the Hundertwasser Centre will look like at Whangarei town basin
The Company of Giants cast of Rangitahua. Photo / Bruce Foster
The work of Northland artist Murray Gibbs currently on at Whangarei Art Museum. Photo / Mark Amery
With Whangarei’s pairing of environment and culture Mark Amery finds a city on the make.

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Which New Zealand city is year-round the hottest place in the country, set around a beautiful mangrove-lined harbour, surrounded by bush-clad hills, and close to an array of gorgeous beaches?

Whangarei, but a two-hour drive north of Auckland finds this arts writer turn tourism promoter.

The city hasn’t been good at selling itself. You’re greeted at the airport with the slogan ‘Love it here!’ It sounds like desperate plea rather than expression of joy. In the local authority throw-money-down-the-drain banal PR stakes it’s only rivaled by ‘Hamilton, more than you expect’ and, running close second,  ‘Hamilton, where it’s happening’.

Long labeled a service town, known elsewhere for some conservative politics and rough edges, the city has quietly, boldly lately been shaping itself into a place that celebrates a distinctive New Zealand meeting of culture and environment.

At an urban revitalisation workshop my organisation Letting Space ran with council, artists and property owners in February the word ‘potential’ was on every other lip, with a palpable sense of pride and optimism in recent developments. You just may not have heard about them yet,   

Game-Changer  

Photographic impression of what the Hundertwasser Centre will look like at Whangarei town basin

On February 4 the government confirmed a four million dollar contribution towards Whangarei’s Hundertwasser Art Centre project on the riverfront. The centre was given the go-ahead last year after a binding referendum saw the significant majority of local residents vote for it. For Whangarei it will be a visitor game-changer.

The fact there had to be a referendum at all is telling of the remnant conservatism. Council voted to not go ahead back in June 2014. Local arts supporters and businesspeople (working under the slogan ‘Yes!’) saw things differently. The result a year later: a boost for democratic process. Mayor Sheryl Mai called the referendum result a defining moment for the city.

A visit to Whangarei provides better understanding of why this celebrated, outspoken Austrian artist and architect’s last significant building should be built here. Hundertwasser, the man who changed the face of Kawakawa with a toilet block, believed passionately in art and design working in harmony with nature, and being reflective of the environment. He celebrated Maori culture as embodying this holistic approach, as expressed in his green koru flag design. That’s the image Whangarei needs and deserves.

The Hundertwasser Centre will include an education space for art and ecology learning, a contemporary Maori art gallery and a gallery of Hundertwasser’s work.  The late, great art historian and curator Jonathan Mane-Wheoki in support of the centre spoke of it as a national treasure, “a taonga we can all be immensely proud of”. A further six million dollars needs to be raised by mid 2017. 

Looping on the River  

Te Matau o Pohe bridge. Photo / Mark Amery

Like many New Zealand cities Whangarei is mired by having a highway cutting its water off from its town centre. And Whangarei’s riverfront is an increasingly rewarding place to visit. Sure, a Disney-fied jumble has previously been made of the cluster of historic buildings, with craft galleries, museums and cafes.

Whangarei Art Museum meanwhile is hidden through the doors of a visitor information centre, with no natural light or river access. It screams for an update. Currently featured is the strong playful surreal work of local sculptor Murray Gibbs, alongside a good but dating gallery collection of contemporary New Zealand art. The museum deserves better investment.

The inner harbour itself is a stunning spot that’s benefited from some strong recent urban planning to highlight its strong points.     

Current toast of the town is the 4.2 kilometre Hatea Loop walkway and cycle-path, which opened in September 2014. It takes you from the cultural centre out around the inner harbour and back amongst the boats and beautiful mature mangroves, linking recreational, scenic and cultural sites. A smooth easy blast on foot or bike.

Close to the distinctive Riverbank Centre, with its Pasifika influenced roof (built by members of the Whangarei Theatre Company back in the 1980s), is one of Chris Booth’s most impressive New Zealand sculptures, ‘Waka and Wave’ completed in 2006.

One of New Zealand’s most outstanding sculptors, the sculpture is indicative of Northland-born Booth’s collaborative approach. Working with the local environment and tangata whenua. ‘Waka and Wave’ is a collaboration with Te Warihi Hetaraka, a Ngati Wai tohunga and carver, and friend of Booth’s since the 1970s. Hetaraka carved a waka out of stone, positioned so its bow is in the water at high tide. Booth meanwhile designed enormous waves of stone, one of which partially, violently submerges the waka’s other end. The work is a little cramped visually by the comparatively small size of the gravel ground it is placed on.

‘Waka and Wave’ work speaks strongly of the troubled history of cultural colonisation and the resilience of Maori culture in the face of that wave. Look closely and the waka is made of bricks, like the last house of the Three Little Pigs.

And then onward across the new, curving Kotuitui Whitinga pedestian bridge. Designed by locals HB Architecture it elegantly evokes a fishing net. Then it’s past the jetty and boatshed remnants to the magnificent new road bridge Te Matau a Pohe. Designed by British Knight Architects and opened in 2013 this is one of the few rolling bacule bridges, or drawbridges in New Zealand.

Modern bridges in New Zealand rarely become landmarks, but this is fast becoming one. It is notable for the hook, waka prow and whalebone like shapes at its centre which are in fact, ingeniously the j shape that rolls onto its back to allow tall ships passage underneath.

At an energized Pecha Kucha evening, photographer Diane Stoppard outlined her plans with sculptor Trish Clark and architect Felicity Christian to build a giant permanent Camera Obscura on Pohe Island on the Loop. It will be positioned to show a natural projection of the bridge, which can then also be viewed online through CCTV camera - A clever mix of old and new technology working with the environment. This will be the eleventh permanent camera obscura in the world (essentially a giant dark room with a pinhole to allow it to work as a projection chamber) and the only one in New Zealand.

Young Giants  

The Company of Giants cast of Rangitahua. Photo / Bruce Foster

Letting Space was in Whangarei at the invitation of Company of Giants, an exciting arts company, led by Laurel Devenie and Ash Holwell, who are building on Whangarei’s strong reputation through Northland Youth Theatre for innovative, devised theatre. Laurel’s dad, the formidable Stuart Devenie is back in Whangarei tutoring at the youth theatre.

Stretching their wings Company of Giants are in Wellington in March with their production of Owl and the Pussycat at BATS, and back in April at the NZ Academy of Fine Arts with their celebrated live installation theatre work Rangitahua, which has been touring nationally as theatre within an exhibition, with the Kermadec show.

Like other cities of its size Whangarei has struggled to maintain a professional theatre ecology, but this company are employing a lighter on its feet cross artform model.

Pecha Kucha signaled the beginning of the company’s Summer Fe Fi Fo Festival which featured everything from a roller disco to film screenings and young bands playing daily.  The ‘Tour le Hub’ saw a “happy hikoi” around local community hubs, centred around the Hatea Loop. The Tour ended with circus at Oneonesix, the festival’s central venue and a significant new creative hub for Whangarei.

Oneonesix was opened by Company of Giants just over a year ago in a council-owned old church and youth centre in Bank Street. Home to an excellent new community radio station, Beagle, a café and a varied menu of community-led events, the infrastructure is also now in place for quality touring performing arts experiences.

Oneonesix is a great root for a cultural regeneration to occur in Whangarei. It joins The Quarry Arts Centre, a set of artists studio, workshop and exhibition spaces in a former quarry in the Western hills begun by ceramicist Yvonne Rust, as a unique artist-led destination.

Oneonesix recognises that cultural regeneration starts with providing a space for the young, as well as access to participation from all ages and sectors of the community. It recognises that the old lines between the so-called professional and community art worlds are changing. Start with people.

In a move that echoed the public backing of the Hundertwasser Centre, the company gathered 500 signatures last year to convince council not to sell the building but instead lease it to the community for a peppercorn rental.

From such modest actions cities big and small begin the transformation from being just service providers to distinctive destinations in their own right.     

Written by

Mark Amery

25 Feb 2016

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

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