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Portrait or Propaganda?

Jacinda, John Ward Knox, Oil on Silk, 2020.
‘Locking Arms’ Shannon Dwyer, collage, 2020.
The winners of this year’s Alex Lindsay Trust Prizes.
New Zealand Young Writers Festival
Mark Amery reports on political portraiture, art’s role in mental health, literary and music award peak season, and lots of great writing in this week’s arts news bulletin.


Election roars into full swing 

We’re less than a month to election day, and portraits of the leaders of the two biggest parties have been in the media this week, neatly sidestepping electoral commission issues. Some of you will recall Weston Frizzell’s ‘Aroha’ Jacinda Ardern posters being considered Labour Party advertisements back in July.

Staying firmly in the gallery and on Instagram rather than the streets: fine contemporary artist John Ward Knox’s clever double portrait painting on two silk screens (one behind the other) of Ardern, which is a finalist in Australia’s prestigious Archibald Portrait prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. 

Ward-Knox has known Ardern for about 10 years, as this Stuff story outlines, his mother Barbara Ward having worked for Ardern since her first Auckland Central campaign. Indeed, the image has a ‘strategising around the kitchen table’ intimacy, with oven and note-strewn fridge in the background. It reveals a more worried, pensive, and stronger portrait of Ardern than we might have expected. The doubling of two photographically based images complicates the view of the Prime Minister we get daily.

The only newspaper to actually dig deeper with Ward-Knox was the Sydney Morning Herald, who spoke more at length to him about the work and why he was the one chosen from the many who approached Ardern to paint her portrait for the Archibald.

Stuff also notes that the Archibald finalists include Sydney painter Edward Humphrey’s rather less remarkable but rather large painting of Aotearoa musician Stan Walker. The Archibald this year also notably includes (incredibly) the first Indigenous Australian to be awarded any of the prizes which make it up - a self-portrait of Meyne Wyatt winning the Packing Room Prize (Guardian story here).

Jacinda, John Ward-Knox, Oil on Silk, 2020.

You can see all the finalists here, with the Archibald Grand Prize winner to be announced this Friday 25 September. “While I am tempted to cross my fingers, I'd best not,” writes Ward-Knox on Instagram, “the better to keep working on my upcoming painting show - Water Tables - opening at Darren Knight Gallery on October 3.” Clearly Ardern and John’s mother would be extra pleased with a Sydney win. 

One woman who wouldn’t is Judith Collins. The leader of the opposition was also the subject of an unconventional portrait this last week, depicted in a tattoo as a Bond girl, complete with weapon (below). The piece was created by Morrinsville tattooist Dave Mouat “for a man he described as a big National supporter from Te Aroha”  the NZ Herald tells us.

Thursday night (24 September) meanwhile sees the arts, culture and heritage spokespeople from Labour, National and the Greens have a rare and direct public conversation on arts policy, facilitated by Miriama Kamo (6.30-8pm). The discussion has been organised by Te Taumata Toi-a-Iwi (formerly Auckland’s Arts Regional Trust) on behalf of Ngā Toi Advocacy Network. You can tune in via The Big Idea Facebook page or Youtube -  and I will be providing some analysis on The Big Idea next week. Sam Brooks has provided great appraisal of the different parties arts policies (or lack thereof) on The Spinoff

Back to the leaders: each week until the election on The Spinoff, cartoonist Toby Morris is teaching you how to draw a different politician, starting with Ardern. Morris’s observations of the ‘different faces’ of the Prime Minister is fascinating. This week, you guessed it... it’s Collins turn.

Artists at risk 

Vincents Art Workshop.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week. And if there was ever a year to be gentle with each other it's this one. Pause then, to reflect on art’s critical role in our wellbeing - to use the currently all-persuasive handle - and, conversely, the toll mental health issues have on artists. 

The very people who bring so much comfort, joy and emotional catharsis to so many also bear the brunt of mental health issues. They’ve been there, done that, and often have the courage to tell the story.  

This week then we remember New Zealand musician Reuben Winter AKA Totems and milk, who contributed to many outfits as a DJ, electronic artist, producer, singer, guitarist and drummer. He died by suicide last Thursday. There’s an Undertheradar tribute here and a bigger Stuff article here.

A memorial concert is planned in Auckland once the city drops to level one. In lieu of flowers, donations are being asked to, which has a strong kaupapa around supporting at-risk artists.  COVID-19 saw them gear up majorly and offer services not just to the music industry, but to all involved in the arts.    

In Dunedin, artists Jonny Waters and Elliot Phillips are currently staging an exhibition of 60 artists, Mental Health to raise awareness. As reported in the Otago Daily Times (story and video), Waters had the idea some time ago but was “spurred into action” when a friend committed suicide earlier this year. Need I remind you of New Zealand’s horrific youth suicide statistics.

In the visual arts, I’d encourage you to support and be part of New Zealand’s chain of excellent art spaces dedicated to providing resources to help people through. In my neck of the woods, Wellington, there are the remarkable Vincents Art Workshop (named after the troubled but brilliant Mr Vincent Van Gogh), Pablos Studio and accompanying Roar! Gallery to visit. 

‘Locking Arms’ Shannon Dwyer, collage, 2020

Pictured is a work from the current group show for Mental Health Awareness Week at Vincents by Shannon Dwyer, featured in this video. There’s also a strong introduction to Vincents in this film

Another personal recommendation: this essay by poet Dani De Luka on Paekākā, writing on the journeys and people that provide solace when times are tough.

In theatre, Rob Mokoraka has been on a one-man mission for years now with play Shot Bro - to spread a message about how to deal with depression, as captured on screen earlier this year in this on-demand doco. Mokoraka writes in this recent story for Arts Access Aotearoa on the experience of helping save lives by “illuminating the shadows of hurt.

Meanwhile here on The Big Idea this week, to honour Mental Health Awareness Week, Verity Johnson asks about how artists should channel anger in their work without ‘corroding its artistic value’. 

Readers and writers treat time 

October sees us enter peak literary festival season - as Level One is announced outside of Auckland. Opening this Thursday is the New Zealand Young Writers’ Festival in Dunedin. Here’s an Otago Daily Times story on the nerves of first performing poetry.

Meanwhile, Verb Wellington’s Claire Mabey and Word Christchurch’s Rachael King spoke with Lynn Freeman on RNZ’s Standing Room Only. "We did have an international programme with 20 international authors confirmed, so it was a bit of a panic at the beginning of lockdown when we realised that it wasn't going to go ahead,” confirms King, who has pulled together an interesting New Zealand-led programme.

Verb released a big programme this month as well. Mabey: "We did have some internationals lined up, who obviously can't now come... But there's been really no trouble at all coming up with a programme - we're really close to selling out some of our key events. And we've done the same [as Word], we're only releasing Level Two capacity at this point."

Also upcoming is Nelson’s fulsome Readers and Writers programme (17 to 16 October) as part of Nelson Arts Festival. 

Speaking of literature, Aotearoa also has a new major books website - Kete Books. Kete “gathers reviews and news about books, authors, events and awards in Aotearoa. Kete forages weekly so you don’t have to.” What’s refreshing is that it gathers reviews from a variety of media partners. The editor is former Books and Arts Editor for the New Zealand Herald Dionne Christian.

Announcing music awards  

The winners of this year’s Alex Lindsay Trust Prizes.

The NZSO has announced four recipients of this year’s Alex Lindsay Trust prizes, given to promising young orchestral musicians from a fund in memory of the former New Zealand Symphony Orchestra Concertmaster. Rather neatly, it’s administered by NZSO players. The winners: violinists Olivia McNeill and Diane Huh, flautist Yune-Sang Yune, and viola player Caroline Norman. They all hope to travel to Europe for further study with their winnings.

14 October sees the announcement of the APRA Silver Scrolls for songwriting, with this year’s shortlist songs by Reb Fountain, Nadia Reid, Benee, L.A.B. and Troy Kingi. More on RNZ. The finalists for the New Zealand Music Awards are due to be announced over October and November. 

Worthy wee reads

Sione Monū’s ‘Returning Traces: Our Ancestors Left Us Clues’ (2020) is the only new commission in the Christchurch Art Gallery’s major new exhibition, Te Wheke: Pathways Across Oceania which I had the joy of seeing this week. It’s a moving image piece filmed and edited entirely on Monū’s mobile phone. 

Huni Mancini writes about the work and Monū’s practice in this excellent piece on Australian art platform Un Projects.

Since the celebration of the centenary of painter Colin McCahon’s birth last year, McCahon House in Titirangi have been publishing a series of essays by good thinkers and notables on McCahon paintings (an impressive 63 essays and counting). The latest is a cracker from Australian art historian and longtime McCahon enthusiast Rex Butler, who first saw the painter’s work at the 1984 Biennale of Sydney. I do hope these form a book in the future..

Here’s a great Stuff story with Waiwhetū weaver Veronica Hetet who got a Queens Service medal this year. Hetet’s kete are at the Dowse Art Museum in October.

Finally - the best for last - here’s a beautiful essay by Rosabel Tan, founder of art programme Satellites for Verb Wellington and City Gallery Wellington, on developing that programme to feel at home in Auckland and the many artists who inspire her.


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Written by

Mark Amery

24 Sep 2020

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

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