Also written by Mark Amery
Struggling to explain to people at international art fairs where exactly Gisborne is, Matt Nache of Paul Nache Gallery has settled on telling them he is from the future: “I wake before you, I eat before you, I dream before you. The first city to see the sun in the world, I live in the land of light,” is his pitch.
This mystic way of explaining the world Nache says amplifies why he chooses to live in Tairāwhiti, or Gisborne. This place of light sparkling off the lip of those first waves has an appeal to all four artists I speak to borne of both their isolation and their preparedness to travel. Four creative dynamos rooted day to day in both their local communities and the world at large.
In terms of firsts, Tairāwhiti is a key place for contemporary Māori art. The best examples of painted wharenui from the late 19th and early 20th century are here. Their boldness, fluidity and use of new technology inspired the artists that followed.
Then in 1992 Toihoukura, the Eastern Institute of Technology’s School of Contemporary Maori Visual Arts was established. The first place to offer study in Māori art, it now offers Bachelor and Masters programmes. Under the guidance of Sandy Adsett, Derek Lardelli and Steve Gibbs it has sent a commitment to a Māori perspective in artmaking out into the world. Toihoukura have Maia Gallery, which also functions as a marae and holds whata raranga (weaving), uku (clay), (Waituhi) painting and ta moko wananga.
Steve Gibbs (Ngai Tamanuhiri) hails from Muriwai marae just south of town. Recent work includes drawings of hoe designs on paddles from the region that are the earliest examples of kowhaiwhai, and represent the first peaceful encounter with Europeans in 1769. He showed them this year at Gisborne’s Tairāwhiti Museum as part of his exhibition A-hoe!
Like Lardelli Gibbs studied at Ilam School of Fine Arts at Canterbury University and worked, taught and showed elsewhere, before finding his way home.
“In the 1970's I wanted to learn about Māori art, and all the energy I was looking at was actually coming from the place where I was born. So I came back to live with our people. It hasn’t always been easy. It’s pretty tough living amongst your own.”
“We live in such a wonderful creative environment, Tairāwhiti, encompassing the whole East Cape. Toihoikuru was built on 'creativity being our tradition'. We realised there was a special place where we could do this, with the blessings of our community elders and kaumatua.”
Studying art here is a way for Māori to re-engage with their culture.
“There is an assumption that all Māori are good at these creative things but the reality is that’s not so at all. A lot of people come to the art school because they want to learn about who they are. Art is the agent of change and knowledge. A process. The fact that we have so many different types of painting in our houses is something based on whakapapa, our genealogical connections to our spaces.”
Māori art, Gibbs notes, encompasses all disciplines: the oral tradition is strong and lots of artists are also composers and performers. Lardelli is a leading national exponent of ta moko, which is strong at the school, and works with the Whangara Mai Tawhiti kapa haka and cultural group.
“We have a broad concept of art. A lot of how we teach and learn is also through oral history, through our patere, mōteatea and waiata.”
People coming to study has effected the cultural geneology of the region over 100s of years.
“It’s not until you look back that you realise we do have a particular flavour. Right from pre-European times from the 1500s there were these wananga here up and down the coast, these amazing creative schools of learning. People are strong in the cultural arts here to this day coming through kura kaupapa and schools - through to a number of Iwi based cultural performing groups that include current national champions Whangara Mai Tawhiti.”
A distinction of the Toihoukura school is how good it has been at exhibiting students work throughout New Zealand and internationally through exhibition. I’ve been seeing shows by their students for many years.
People here are travellers, Gibbs says. Isolation is as much a gift as a challenge.
“One of the reasons we are so strong culturally is because of isolation. People who stay here have a really rich engagement with the culture. The oral narratives are still strong. But on the other hand we travel, we always have. Our tupuna were great travellers. We have a tradition of moving. Art in particular is one of those things that has not stopped moving.”
Always moving, yet making isolation a strength also marks out Matt Nache’s quite extraordinary practice as a contemporary art dealer. His gallery Paul Nache, established in 2009, is Gisborne based, but also highly mobile, representing artists from around New Zealand, Australia and even Las Vegas. Gisborne affords Nache a nice big light-filled space in the middle of town to exhibit, but he’s just as likely to be elsewhere - most recently showing Wellington based, Tolaga Bay-born artist John Walsh’s paintings at Art Central Hong Kong. Nache will be at the Sydney Contemporary Fair in September.
Nache has entrepeneurial flair and cheek to burn but its coupled by a strong appreciation of artistic excellence and what is good dealer practice. It seems matched by a generosity and grounding in his place, which sees plenty of local activity at the gallery as well. It’s no easy thing to hold both local and global positions as an art dealer. Out in the world the gallery exists more as a brand.
“The nature of a gallery space has evolved,” says Nache, “whether it’s a physical museum or gallery or an international art fair, a private residence or an online exhibition. It’s my job to provide the space for the artists to create in.
“The isolation of Gisborne allows me to keep resetting the focus of what I’m trying to do with artists - it is really hard to keep up with the bigger galleries and institutions. Gisborne gives me the time and freedom to rejig it.”
Like Gibbs, for Nache Gisborne was a natural place to return to after gaining a Bachelor in Design in Wellington. It’s his place of belonging.
“No matter what else happens I am myself here. It was important for me to reconnect. But it was a really difficult business decision to establish in a small provincial city. There hadn’t historically been a contemporary art dealer here and its highly unlikely there will be one after me. It’s a very slow progression in terms of the economy and population growth, especially one which could support creative industry.
“Gisborne is unique. It’s like Jurassic Aotearoa, you come here and get a sense of what New Zealand was like. I love the rawness and the purity of that. It teaches patience and perseverance. Exhibiting art here you don’t get away with much either, people are upfront and honest and don't hold back in their evaluations of new things. Artists and collectors will fly in on invitation from across the country and mix with our local audience and community, often for extended periods, due to our incredibly above average weather. It’s a really honest way of working. It’s a dynamic experience and I’ve proven with others that if it can work in Gisborne it can work anywhere in the world.”
Nache says that Gisborne is currently planning for the 2019 sester-centenary of Captain Cook's landing - the first meetings between Māori and Europeans. Local Iwi, Council and the Te Ha Trust, are fuelling a lot of creativity through open dialogue and initiatives, which is healthy for both the arts community and local economy to engage in.
“Taking the time and following the passion, that’s what survives out here.”
Artist and designer Katy Wallace and sculptor husband Paulus Mckinnon moved to Gisborne to raise a family in 2008. They were both active practitioners in Auckland (a playground designed by Wallace opened in Sandringham last year). These days they both exhibit nationally. Wallace’s furniture and other design work with found industrial materials has been shown in and collected by major New Zealand public galleries, while McKinnon is represented by Bowen Galleries in Wellington. In Gisborne they bought an old mushroom farm and refitted the sheds and barns to provide themselves both studio space. Katy says it has allowed her to be both a stay at home mum and very productive
Yet mobility remains core. Wallace has just received the prestigious Creative New Zealand Craft/Object Fellowship which, awarding $100,000, will allow her to work solidly on ‘Home Away From Home (KW Caravan Mk2)’. She’ll be building from the ground up with McKinnon a fully-operational caravan, that explores with invented furniture a conversation between craft and design, and the concept of “a home away from home”. Wallace’s smart practice is all about giving new identities to existing materials.
For Wallace too Māori culture is a fundamental part of what makes Gisborne’s distinctive, but she also notes that there are a lot of artists working in smaller pockets. There are always smaller collective initiatives coming together. She mentions as example a group of women who came together to celebrate their beach studio practices in 2015 with a book and art tour, She Sheds.
“When art things happen here it’s a real celebration - that something so cool is popping up. What I like about being an art practitioner in Gissy is that you’re a little bit removed from the frenzy and busyness of the big centres, which you can easily get sucked into and influenced by.
“When you step out of that you’re left with your own thoughts a bit more rather than ‘what’s hot’ in art. The artists down here are all really different from each other, and that’s probably because of where we live. There’s not a whole constant dialogue that you can easily tap into. I’m a bit more immersed in what’s in front of me rather than my scene and my peers.
Husband McKinnon’s practice is a good example: “His last exhibition was of korowai and piupiu made from fence battens from the neighbouring farm.”
Sustainability is important to Wallace’s practice, and is valued locally. She has previously toured exhibition The Transmogrifier Machine around public galleries nationally: a “conceptual machine” transforms discarded and secondhand objects into bespoke furniture.
Recently in Gisborne she has taken these principals into creative community work. Experiments with developing a “kamikaze” patchwork technique with scraps to make shopping bags led to a 24-hour community bag-a-thon programme for making creative re-usable bags.
Wallace thinks there’s plenty of room for more to be going on in Gisborne, but that that will emerge as more young people come out of Te Wananga o Aotearoa and the polytechnic.
One thing she also notes as not common yet is public art activity.
“The processes and infrastructure around that need a lot of work. I do think however it’s beginning to happen as more people are making art and proposing things.”
Like Nache she senses growth with the sestercentennial coming as “a significant package of cultural expression”. Already established last year she notes is an annual Te Ha Art Award.
“I’m hoping it will mature us as a city. Provide foundations for us to leverage ourselves from there.”
Lina Marsh is a Niuean Hokianga and Auckland raised artist who in 2013 curated the first large scale exhibition of contemporary Pacific work in Gisborne at Tairāwhiti Museum. Like Wallace she is an Auckland refugee, moving at end of 2005.
“Forced out of the housing market in Auckland,” she writes to me, “our family went in search of affordable homes, sun and surf.”
Early on she was employed as an educator at the Museum.
“I got to understand what makes Gisborne folk tick. I soon came to realise that this isolation was actually a blessing, it kept me focused on the issues close to my heart – Pacific stories, migration, identity and displacement.
“Seasonal work opportunities in Gisborne have created ethnic diversity. This evolution has seen a growth in our Pacific population and the need for Pacific initiatives. Education nests have been initiated in order to retain Pacific language. Connections with Tautai Pacific Arts Trust in Auckland has seen some of New Zealand’s top Pacific art practitioners visit and tutor high school students.”
Marsh agrees with Nache and Gibbs that arts and culture in Gisborne are defined by place and people.
“The first meetings between Maori and European make it unique. Our Mayor is of Chinese decent and is fluent in three languages, one of which is Te Reo Māori. Gisborne has its own pace, its own colloquialisms and its own style – pyjama wearing in the middle of the day on the main street is part of our laidback approach to life.”
“Māori arts such as ta moko, whakairo, kapa haka and raranga are greatly valued. Practiced not only in spaces dedicated to Māori art, such as Toihoukura, but also in marae, school halls and private residences. New art spaces have begun to spring up throughout the community teaching a mixture of traditional and technology based art forms. And local artists continue to open up their studios to teach their crafts, anything from screen printing through to glass sculpting.”
There is no denying, Marsh says, that the internet has made living in Gisborne more attractive.
“It allows isolated spaces such as ours to have a sustainable future. Artists have been able to cast their creative nets further afield. Crowd funding of art projects is becoming the norm.
“Many of us spend a lot of time travelling the world connecting with indigenous people, sharing our crafts and exchanging stories and ideas on building a more beautiful world through art.
“Our future is bright in Gisborne, the first place in the world to greet the sun.”