Reflections: New Zealand women in art

Patricia France, Figures in a Landscape (1983)
Jessica Ward, BNZ Heritage Curator
Reflections: New Zealand women in art
The BNZ has teamed up with Katherine Mansfield House & Garden in an exhibition that tackles gender representation in the arts

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The BNZ has teamed up with Katherine Mansfield House & Garden in an exhibition that tackles gender representation in the arts. Reflections: New Zealand women in art exhibits the work of female artists depicting other women in an attempt to examine the complexity of women in the arts, both as creators and subjects. All the works are from the from the BNZ Art Collection. What initially appears to be an unlikely union, these two organisations have a great deal in common when it comes to both the arts and gender equality. The Katherine Mansfield connection is clear, but the BNZ one is a little lesser known history.

In the 1980s the late Mr William Shaw in his role as General Manager contracted renowned Wellington gallerist Peter McLeavey to purchase a substantial art collection to ‘clothe the walls’ of the BNZ Centre. The intention was to add value to the work environment and also to provoke staff members to consider the way they viewed the world through art. Today the collection contains approximately 350 pieces and is deemed to be one of the best private collections in New Zealand.

At the same time that Mr William Shaw initiated the art collection, he was also actively working to encourage women into executive positions. This was harder than anticipated with women often hesitating to accept the role or outright declining them due to the male-dominated workplace culture. He indicated a number of areas where change was needed to be more inclusive of female leadership. In November this year, BNZ appointed Angela Mentis as their first female Managing Director and CEO.

I spoke with BNZ Heritage Curator Jessica Ward who is responsible for both the art and archives collections. She generally puts together one or two exhibitions from the collection a year, but she says that this is the exhibition that she feels most proud of having curated.

Collaborating with Katherine Mansfield House & Garden channeled the planning conversations to focus on women in art. Contemplating the works of female artists within the collection, it dawned on Jessica that a number of the works depicted other women allowing for an interesting discussion around women as creator and subject in the arts. 

As a result, Reflections provokes two related and essential conversations about female representation.

“There are multiple ways of seeing the world and it is worth exploring those options. Now, isn’t art a fantastic platform to start thinking about this?” - Jessica Ward, BNZ Heritage Curator

Initially, it tackles head on the the lack of gender representation in the arts by purposefully promoting the work of female artists. The names of our most celebrated male artists grace the shelves of book shops and the walls of museums, but rarely do our equally deserving female artists receive the same accolations. There remain significant social barriers for female artists to make a name for themselves. Jessica hopes that from going to this exhibition, visitors will gain a new appreciation for female artists in New Zealand promoting them to the status of being household names.

“Whether it is Fiona Pardington, Robin White or Ans Westra who captures your attention, I hope you will take the opportunity this exhibition offers to discover more about New Zealand’s incredible female artists,” says Jessica.

The second conversation, which is largely a result of the first, is the way that women are depicted in the arts. Due to the gender inequality surrounding the representation of art, overwhelmingly artistic expression of the female is depicted through the male gaze. This one-sided projection of the women’s role and place in society has wide reaching social impacts on how women are considered by others and themselves.

As Jessica explains, “ Historically, women have been under-represented in the arts due to social structures. There is such a long history of men dominating the art world that the idea of a woman portrayed has always been dominated from a male perspective. The portrait of women becomes translated into a cultural behaviour, which then becomes how women see themselves. The exhibition highlights the importance of equal gender representation.”

Tamara Pattern, the Director at Katherine Mansfield House & Garden, is particularly excited that these conversations are happening on the grounds of Mansfield’s birthplace. As someone who contributed so much to the story of the New Zealand woman, it is fitting that these artworks are being used to stimulate such important conversations of our time.

Reflection contains within it a very important conversation around gender diversity. It is as much about celebrating the works of some of New Zealand’s best female artists, as it is about stimulating new conversations that add a more complex, diverse and nuanced view of ‘women’. Jessica believes art has the capacity to ignite reflection and hopes that this exhibition will contribute to a much bigger conversation about the representation of women, not just in art, but in society at large.

Reflections: New Zealand women in art is on display at Katherine Mansfield House & Garden until 25 March 2018, and includes artworks by iconic New Zealand artists such as Robin White, Fiona Pardington and A Lois White.

Written by

Hannah Mackintosh

19 Dec 2017

Hannah is a Wellington-based writer, community organiser and lover of stories.

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