The Labour-led government released its much lauded Wellbeing Budget in May last year. It followed hot on the heels of the United Nations World Happiness Report tabled in March. New Zealand is the 8th happiest country in the world according to the UN (out of 156 measured). Finland is tops. The rest of the top ten is full of Hygge-ed up Scandinavians, the cash rich Swiss and rounded out by those strüdel loving Austrians.

Of course the pursuit of happiness is not a race, but I thought it might bring you, at the least, a satisfied smirk (actual as opposed to emoji version) to know that Godzone at 8th is easily ahead of Oz in 11th. Meanwhile, the UK is doing its best to keep calm and carry on at 15th. Across the Atlantic, coming in at 19th are our ‘amici Americani’ who appear to be experiencing, if not despair, but perhaps mild ennui.

I was a tad surprised to see Japan only making it to 58th and Italy is also borderline depressed at 36th. Those last two results made me feel quite sad.

However I digress. My point is that in 2019 governments were clearly doing a bit of thinking about how we are feeling… and have come to the conclusion that there is work to be done in this area. A move in the right direction soon occurred when, last September, UCLA announced the formation of its own Kindness Institute, charged with researching how we can be nicer to each other.

Back home, things started to get interesting in October when the Government called for tenders to produce a report to measure and value the visual arts as a wellbeing vector.

Once the required charts and statistics have been carefully drafted we will see proof at last of how much manaakitanga that art pours into our collective oranga wairua. Here’s a clue to the report’s conclusion…lots.

Furthermore, after the full impact of the report is digested I foresee a comprehensive policy review of public arts funding will be undertaken as a matter of urgency. The goal, of course, will be to ensure our vital arts infrastructure is fit for purpose to deliver all the wellbeing we can eat – at a level to match or even surpass, heaven forbid, that which our contented Scandinavian friends currently enjoy.

If there is room in the appendix I’d like to add these seven magnificent exhibitions. All appeared after the 2019 budget announcement and add vital colour to the graph. They demonstrate how ready our artists and galleries are to do their bit for the ‘wellbeing, public value and social inclusion in… New Zealand’ and ‘enhance discussions about the value of the arts in New Zealand’ – as demanded in the RFP (request for proposal) document.

I’m pretty sure when I visited these exhibitions I saw hundreds of New Zealanders, and perhaps even the odd Belgian, a Nigerian or three and yes even a Finn, enjoying a much needed dose of Wellbeing with a capital ‘W’.

Nikau Hindin, Names Held in Our Mouths, Te Uru, Titirangi. Photo: Sam Hartnett

Nikau Hindin exhibiting as part of Names Held in Our Mouths at Te Uru Gallery, Waitakere (June-August 2019). Curated by Ioana Gordon-Smith.

What Hindin (Ngāpuhi, Te Rarawa) is doing with one of the oldest of Polynesian craft making traditions, is preserving a venerable artisanal process and revealing the central role of tapa within the wider cultures of Te Moananui a Kiwa. In the 21st century her work deftly intersects the forms of Maori tāniko patterns with Pasifika celestial navigation maps into a satisfying and resolved dialogue with some of the more esoteric elements of 20th century modernism. As part of the exhibition at Te Uru there was an instructive documentary on how tapa is made from the bark of the Aute tree which the artist first cultivates, harvests and then laboriously beats to create her tapa canvas. I’m sure I saw the ghost of the godmother of abstraction, Agnes Martin hovering over Hindin’s shoulder as I was watching her at work.

Brent Harris, Peaks (installation view). Photo: Robert Heald Gallery

Brent Harris, Peaks at Robert Heald Gallery, Wellington (May-June 2019).

Peaks represented a long overdue homecoming for expat New Zealander Harris who has been based in Melbourne since the 1980s. One of the perils of looking at art is the temptation to discuss one artist when looking at another. I did just that when discussing Nikau Hindin’s practice a few lines ago. In Harris’ case, no other ‘like’ artist comes to mind. His puffy, emblematic figures and pillowy mountains conflate into a waking dreamscape – a meditative ‘space between’ where Harris’ signature muffled turbulence can be experienced in safety. Harris is also a dexterous print maker and this aspect of his practice is on display in the exhibition Towards the Swamp at the Christchurch Art Gallery until February 23.

Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand art (installation view), City Gallery, Wellington

Split Level View Finder: Theo Schoon and New Zealand art at the City Gallery, Wellington (July-November). Curated by Aaron Lister and Damian Skinner.

In which the genie finally came out of the bottle. Schoon’s crackling role as the one-man ginger group of New Zealand art has been known within the art world’s inner sanctum for some time. The challenge has been to reconcile the scatter gun nature of Schoon’s choice of theme and medium with his nomadic lifestyle. Sections of his work were lost or strewn about the country, making the curators job one of forensics as much as art history. Much of the time Schoon was sailing awfully close to the wind in terms of his engagement with Te Ao Māori or cadging the work of a schizophrenic patient. His feuds with many of the key players of the NZ art scene didn’t help matters either. He pissed a lot of people off. It has taken the 30 odd years since the artist’s passing for the threads to be drawn together and Schoon to emerge from the shadow of his own making. The artist that is revealed is a force of nature, almost impossible to resist or contain. He described himself as a ‘cat sniffing around in a strange warehouse.’ Finally, we see what he found, which based on the protests at the time of the exhibition opening, was our own form of Kiwi kryptonite. This highly instructive show moves to Te Uru in Titirangi in March 2020.

Billy Apple, Basic Needs (installation view) inside the whare tūpuna Te Ranimoaho, Ruatoki. Translated into te reo by Tāme Iti. Photo: Sam Hartnett

Tame Iti, Ruatoki and Billy Apple, Basic Needs collaborative project, Ruatoki (July). Facilitated by James McCarthy

My personal art highlight of 2019 was being welcomed into the Ringatū whare tūpuna Te Ranimoaho at Te Rewarewa Pā in Ruatoki by Tāme Iti. I was not alone. For the cohort that was there on that winter’s day in July to witness the collaboration between Iti and the conceptual artist Billy Apple – the installation of his long running work Basic Needs inside the whare tūpuna, this iteration translated into Te Reo Māori – was a moment we will never forget. The artistic dividend of this work is enormous, speaking to the Tūhoe experience, opening up a dialogue to facilitate decolonisation for all concerned, plenty else besides, but most importantly making the case for magic happening in plain sight as a potential reality. Yes, it can and does happen. The recent pardon of the prophet Rua Hepetipa Kenana after a century only adds to the whakapapa of this artwork. He tino nui te wehi!

Maiangi Waitai: Ātea-ā-rangi – Interstellar at the Dowse Art Museum, Upper Hutt (June-October)

As I get older the sight of kids having fun at an art gallery has become an unexpected joy (note to policymakers… 25 percent of the population are children). Not so long ago I was all young fogey… ‘get those kids out of here. I’ve got some art watching to do!’. Now surprisingly, I take the opposite view. This exhibition effortlessly performed its educational task with so much joie de vivre that plenty of adults and kids I encountered lingered long amongst the funky mannequins of Atea-ā-rangi. We felt compelled to read every line and gag that framed the personality and divine attributes of Rehua, Matariki or Waipuna-ā-rangi. My favourite was the part-plant, part-wahine Tupu-Ā-Nuku who came with a pack of ‘Nebula seeds to promote unmistakable knowing!!!’

From left: : Waikato Museum’s Curator Maaori Maree Mills (Ngaati Tuuwharetoa), Dr Aroha Yates-Smith (Te Arawa, Tainui, Horouta, Takitimu, Mataatua) and Dr Nālani Wilson-Hokowhitu (Kanaka Maoli)

E Hina e!, E Hine e!, Mana Wahine Maori/Maoli of Past, Present and Future at the Waikato Museum – Te Whare Taonga o Waikato (currently on exhibition until February 2020). Curated by Dr Nālani Wilson-Hokowhitu, Dr Aroha Yates-Smith and Maree Mills.

One of the more curatorially ambitious exhibitions of 2019, E Hina e!, E Hine e!’ s brief is to follow the wairua of female Atua figures and their creative power between Aotearoa and Hawaii. Teeming with concepts relating to fertility and ‘secret women’s business’ over the centuries results in juxtapositions of ancient taonga and contemporary art practice today. You’ll see a Lisa Reihana video work Karanga te Pō (2018) alongside the celebrated Taumata Atua wooden goddess carving which may date to the 1600s. Between two closely linked Pacific cultures this broad church of mana wahine is brimful of connectivity with the accent on making explicit the spiritual underpinnings of the female worldview.

Louise Henderson: From Life (installation view), Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, 2019

Louise Henderson: From Life at the Auckland Art Gallery (currently on exhibition until March 2020). Curated by Felicity Milburn, Lara Strongman and Julia Waite.

Louise Henderson (1925-1990) was in a class of one as a French artist in New Zealand for her entire lifetime. Alongside all of the refinement one might associate with the vision du monde Français we also see (with fresh eyes) an artist deeply committed to contributing to the development of modernism in New Zealand. That it has taken so long for her voice to be heard made this observer feel a little sheepish – but also thankful that within our past such treasure can still be found. If one artist or exhibition puts paid to the shibboleth that colourists were thin on the ground in Aotearoa back in the day, one only needs to walk past the cycle of the Twelve Months painted in 1987 – 12 canvasses of shimmering light and colour encompassing a lifetime’s achievement. Surely a candidate for one of the great bodies of work by any New Zealand artist in the late 20th century.

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