Two exhibitions of photography in Wellington document an age of cultural awakening in 1980s Aotearoa – the journey of one artist joins the dots between the two and us, Hamish Coney suggests

Maybe I’m late to the party. I frequently am. Perhaps I’m in denial. I’m even more regularly guilty as charged – but watching the US Presidential and New Zealand election debates in close proximity to each other recently made me pine for the 1980s – the Aotearoa on display in two current exhibitions of photography in Wellington, Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists (at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery until November 8) and Tatau: Sāmoan Tattooing and Photography (at Te Papa Tongarewa until November 9).  

These exhibitions ask to be seen in tandem. They articulate truths from the increasingly distant 20th century, from before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the ‘End of History’ and decades prior to the Covid era fall of the New Zealand Listener.

Watching two grown men shouting bogus stats at each other then two grown women straining to contain their mutual contempt made me nostalgic for that pre-internet era of consensus and yes, damn it ‘rationing’ of media options. The leaders’ debates confirmed that awful feeling many have today of living in a new Kafka-esque era in which coded lies, fake news, bots with bad intent and old-fashioned bullshit roam the globe like a plague of digital locusts searching for a feed in the permanent inferno of the 24-hour news cycle.

Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists, Leonard Bell author, image courtesy of Auckland University Press
Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists, Leonard Bell author, image courtesy of Auckland University Press

The milieu of Marti Friedlander (1928 – 2016) transports us to that time when the New Zealand Listener was the last word on the local cultural scene; at least for the demographic of white, urban, university educated liberals – or as Trump would have it, radical, far-left socialists – such as myself. But therein lies the rub for these portraits in 2020. They hark from an era of limited voices: a couple of TV channels and a handful of magazines such as Art New Zealand, Landfall and The Listener within which Friedlander’s photographs of artists pretty much defined the visual zeitgeist: sideburns, pipes, studio pottery and artists smoking at Barry Lett gallery openings.

In the intervening period New Zealand has giddily joined the information superhighway. The cacophony of signs we enjoy today is a land far, far away from the pre-photoshop Erewhon of Friedlander’s portraits. Those images of the photographer looking out into her analogue reality stand in almost direct opposition to the blizzard of iPhone selfies I had to wade through on Instagram to find pictures of my friends baking bread during lockdown. Such thoughts came to me as I recently managed to slip into the terra firma of the analogue and escape that malign armada of algorithms, spiders and cookies that pelt me with their digital drolleries 24/7.

Michael and Dene Illingworth, Coromandel, c.1977. Courtesy of the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust

Setting aside my device for a few hours and traversing the threshold of the New Zealand Portrait Gallery I felt I was, to paraphrase a well known book title, ‘A Tourist in Paradise Lost’. Inside that hefty old Victorian brick structure on Wellington’s waterfront is a veritable hall of the mountains kings (and queens) of New Zealand post-war culture: Rita Angus in her painter’s smock; Don Binney with his frigate bird; James K Baxter and those black eyes; Gil and Pat Hanly all boho-glam; Robin White and Sam Hunt; Michael and Dene Illingworth living the rural life in the Coromandel – a pantheon of artists and writers enjoying what hindsight now reveals was the accoutrement du jour: a languid ciggie. Older readers will recall this was the heyday of the Benson and Hedges art awards.

What provides the grunt to this exhibition for at least two generations of viewers is the power of recognition. Facial recognition. The Friedlander that emerges in the exhibition and across the pages of Len Bell’s crackling catalogue is a photographer who quite literally got in people’s faces. Friedlander was pushy and insistent, knew what she wanted and didn’t hold back with her subjects or her opinions. There is a whiff of cordite in writer C.K. Stead’s pithy summation of the photographer as “articulate, forceful, outspoken…frequently running across New Zealand sensibilities… We pussyfoot around…a lot. She has a bracing frankness. Although, occasionally you can feel that’s more bracing than I need this morning…”

But, as the 100 or so images in the exhibition reveal, it’s clear she was deeply committed to recording, provoking and getting inside the culture being built on the shoulders of the giants she captured via her lens. On the gallery wall and on the pages of Bell’s accompanying catalogue, the players from that world famous in New Zealand epoch of our culture return our gaze, eyes communicating their passion for telling new stories in print, song, paint and clay. This post WWII generation of local ‘baby boomers’ teamed up with a cohort of fresh arrivals, frequently European and frequently Jewish to reboot New Zealand culture and initiate a dialogue about our place in the world by defining this place, Aotearoa, that continues to this day.

Tony Fomison, painter, 1978. Courtesy of the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust
Tony Fomison, painter, 1978. Courtesy of the Gerrard and Marti Friedlander Charitable Trust

One of the artists with whom Friedlander had a special connection was Tony Fomison. The Christchurch born artist was the subject of numerous photoshoots and looms large in person and inside the catalogue. Author Bell describes him as a difficult character, ‘…a one-off and oddly representative of the upheavals of the years in which he came of age… At his worst he postured, hurt his friends and insulted his collectors.’ After a difficult start Friedlander fashioned the close rapport that informs her portraits of Fomison, who died in 1990, with great pathos. She wrote candidly of her clashes with him as a subject in her own autobiography, ‘Tony Fomison I was not always comfortable with… he tended to act the part of the artist. When I went to photograph Tony for Contemporary New Zealand Painters, I told him to stop acting… I think he was taken aback…I’ve always had this thing for painters… I’ve always recognized their struggle.’

Friedlander’s portraits of Fomison are most probably hardwired into most art followers memory banks. They retain an enduring and affecting allure – the doomed genius, the self-indulgent prankster, the Jim Morrison of the Kiwi art scene is a star turn of the exhibition and he also gets plenty of coverage in Bell’s catalogue. The camera loves him. His charisma and his knowing interplay with the game of portraiture makes for compulsive viewing. He died young and this knowledge arms Friedlander’s portraits with poignancy as a chronicle of a death foretold.

Fomison also makes an appearance in the powerful Tatau exhibition at Te Papa – in a suite of early 1980s photographs by Mark Adams. This is another side of the artist, not the shaman/showman waxing and waning within the strictures and structures of the developing New Zealand art scene, but as a student from the school of life reaching out to Polynesian culture, which (almost) provided him with a lifeline out of the confines of a role he was clearly deeply conflicted about playing.

I have long found Adams image of Fomison and his fellow Pe’a recipient Fuimoana Norman Tuiasau one of the more striking of the photographer’s near fifty year career. To see it in context with his own suite of Tatau and Pe’a images as well as the work of photographers Greg Semu, Angela Tiatia and John Agcaoili in the exhibition curated by Sean Mallon may make for a dramatic experience for the uninitiated. Tatau is an intense, and at times bloody, introduction to a traditional Polynesian cultural phenomenon that has been exported worldwide, flourishing far from its homebase. It is also a demanding physical challenge for those who take the Pe’a or Tatau – a rite of passage and initiation which once completed provides the recipients with an anchoring link to their culture, ancestors and a palpable sense of wellbeing. Watching those men and women who carry Tatau share their personal histories so eloquently in the moving image section is a highlight of the exhibition.

Mark Adams. Grotto Road, Onehunga, Auckland. The evening of the umusaga for Fuimaono Norman Tuiasau. Tufuga tatatau: Su’a Sulu’ape Paulo II. 10.5. 1980

Adams approach could be described as a cultural ‘super-collider.’ In the case of the 1980 Grotto Road photograph, Adams and Fomison are in a suburban lounge with a group that he describes as elements of “the artscene, leftie activists and Māori activists… swirling around a cozy living room in Onehunga.”

Te Papa provides further insight in the form of a recorded discussion between Adams and curator Mallon.

Adams has been in this ‘swirling’ space since the 1970s. His Tatau suite provides a counterpoint to Friedlander’s images. The culture was on the move. Her portraits capture our nascent cultural scene acquiring the robustness and vigour of self-determination. But as Adams Tatau photographs illustrate so exuberantly, New Zealand sits in the cradle of much older indigenous traditions of collective expression, consumption and exchange. Within Te Ao Māori this creative whakapapa is expressed via whakairo, raranga or Tā moko. Tony Fomison moved between these worlds. His journey as captured by Friedlander and Adams across these two exhibitions stands as a metaphor for the New Zealand experience.

Few pākehā will go as far as Fomison and take on the physically challenging Pe’a. It’s a young man’s game. At the age of forty he risked his life, perhaps in a foolhardy manner, for his art. It hardly seems fair does it? The artists take the risks and in large measure, we, the more timid souls reap the observer’s reward in the form of a sustaining ‘nutrient rich’ culture.

Adams has described his job as a photographer as creating “images that can handle some weight.”

In a year that feels pulled from the pages of the Unbearable Lightness of Being, Friedlander’s portraits of a generation of artists who tackled that job with such gusto, and Adams Tatau images which he describes as ‘history paintings’ both provide some much needed ballast into our cultural discourse.

Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery until November 8 – curated by Dr. Leonard Bell

Tatau: Sāmoan Tattooing and Photography at Te Papa Tongarewa until November 9 – curated by Sean Mallon

Leonard Bell, Marti Friedlander: Portraits of the Artists published by Auckland University Press, 2020 available now – RRP $75.

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