A Visual Encounter with New Zealand History: Photography Exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery
As an American, I saw New Zealand as a place largely bereft of political or racial unrest. But of course, no country is without scars, and the exhibition ‘Opening the Past to the Ever-Changing Present’, running until June25, at the Auckland Art Gallery aims to illuminate the untidiness of the history of New Zealand. The photographs in the exhibition span from 1944 to 1985 and feature people in public spaces throughout New Zealand. However, the untidy parts of history are also the most vibrant, which is especially evident in A Moment of Unity before leaving Te Puea Marae by Gil Hanly. This scene of fists raised immediately elicits mental pictures of the Black Panther movement in the US. There’s something beautiful about people standing together with one purpose, but there’s something equally somber when one considers the events that took place that brought them to this place.
Additionally, Hoani Waititi Marae, Auckland, 1980 by Ans Westra displays a similar vitality. This photograph captures a feeling of connection through generations. The tape player and soda bottle on the ground hint at a contemporary time period but the approving expression of the older woman looking down on the girl mark a human sentiment that has always existed. In essence, the familial unit prevails amidst the chaos of changing times.
The most striking photograph to me was Miner’s Daughter, Denniston, Westland, September 1944 by John Pascoe, perhaps because it is so markedly different from many of the photographs that were taken in the city of crowds and groups.
There is an intimacy between the subject and the camera. The vitality and wide-eyed innocence of the young girl, fully in focus, contrasted with the faux-liveliness of the baby doll create an interesting tension. When viewed in context of the title, the photograph shifts in meaning. On the surface, it can be interpreted as the presence of joy in the midst of bleak surroundings. I was not familiar with the history of mining in New Zealand but I know of the lung cancer, crippling accidents and minimum wages miners suffered from in the Appalachian region of the US. Although this young woman most likely did not work in the mines herself, she is a child born of their toil and strife. She must exist in a world that literally breaks and crumbles over people’s heads unexpectedly. As a result, the viewer must consider the relevance of “play” in the girl’s dreary world. I started to think that the baby doll was very much a part of the girl, sprouting from her body. But she must conceal the doll with her coat at times when there is no room for play, the times when she must cease being a child.
I wasn’t aware of the exhibition title, ‘Opening the Past to the Ever-Changing Present’, until after I saw the exhibition, and it colored my perceptions in retrospect. It implies that the past has been “closed” in some sense and it is up to the artist to fling open the door of the musty shed in which the unpopular memories reside. When I recollect the photographs, they contained scenes of stillness and turbulence, featured the marginalized and the favored, captured the “unforgettable” moments of history as well as those that could’ve slipped by without a second thought. It was this vast mixture that proves the collection accomplished its intended purpose: to throw the people, places and things of the past into the daylight of today, and watch how they change shape and become living creatures.