Federico Magrin reviews an art show dedicated to the ‘forgotten’ rural township of Kākahi, rendered through the eyes of father and daughter
The New Zealand Portrait Gallery is currently showcasing a unique exhibition of portraits by Peter McIntyre and photographs by Sara McIntyre, Kākahi: Peter and Sara McIntyre. I met with Sara to talk about her interpretation of art and her vision of the role of the artist.
The photographs and the paintings have one singular objective: representing Te Rohe Pōtae, or King Country. As Brian Wood, Art Director at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery, told me, the exhibition is centred on “intergenerational family connections” to a place. The works of father and daughter are paired to highlight the same scene, the same landscape, the same story. The show depicts different connections through the core themes of people, river and marae.
Sara’s photographs portray the rural environment and culture found throughout Aotearoa’s countryside, but they focus on Kākahi, a small village in Te Rohe Pōtae. She has captured stills of old wooden houses, false-fronted shops, old-fashioned cars, humble furniture, parlours and plastic flowers. The people in her photographs conduct a rural New Zealand way of life. As Fairooz Samy wrote, “Te Rohe Pōtae is as famous for the sumptuousness of its scenery as the hardiness of its people, and McIntyre’s photos show us both”.
Her artistic perspective is imbued with the works of American photographers like Stephen Shore. The calmness and the serendipity portrayed in ‘International Zephyr Day’ resemble the rural-town-ambient found in Shore’s street photographs. The cars, the bitumen, the atmosphere of the moment-after-it-stopped-raining and the representation of the countryside are all common elements to Stephen Shore and Sara.
Bryan Schumaat is another major source of inspiration for her. She was fascinated with the bleakness of Schumaat’s photography and his ability to portray “people who have a tough life”. Schumaat’s influence is present in Sara’s portrayal of Kākahitians, such as her portrait of Alan Taumata, the spiritual leader of the community, or Manu, the owner of the general store in Kākahi.
Her eye for the “social landscape” echoes Garry Winogrand’s fascination with social life. While sitting at a noisy and crowded cafe in Te Aro, she delicately explained that poverty can just be a way of conducting your life—for those who don’t know they are poor. Poverty might merely be a word we use to describe ways of life that come from an ancient past, lifestyles we seldomly comprehend in full. The subjects of her photographs don’t think they are poor. Poverty is nothing but a by-product of wealth. Without rich people abusing their wealth – accumulated through an unequal and hereditary redistribution of the public goods –, there would be no concept of poverty, no fear of artistically showing rustic people for what they are – people.
Sara possesses an authenticity that enables her to represent people for what they are. She doesn’t align with any political side, but her observations are sociological as well as profoundly artistic. She likes living in a small village and a remote area, but there are social changes she would like to see in Kākahi: the health care access is deficient and infrastructures are lacking.
For her, taking pictures is not a pleasure per se, but the subjects should enjoy the experience too. Sara is extremely committed to integrate the subjects of her photos into her artistic process. She believes photography is a documentation of balanced life, where the artist should be eclipsed by the carefully balanced order of things. The world doesn’t need a strong interpreter, or huge effort to be depicted. The photographs of the people have made them feel noticed, important, recognised. Photography is a legacy of the people, by the people; is a gift to the people.
Sara’s photographs are produced entirely for the community. For her, photography is not a practice that requires her presence. Photography is about others, is about giving a sense of pride. What’s at stake is not the figure of the artist, but the future of the community. Even religion can be seen, in her opinion, as a righteous solace to preserve the way of life conducted by Kākahitians. Faith can console people who have had a tough life by keeping them strong. Although Sara was raised in a very unreligious family, she embraces diversity and believes the marae is keeping Kākahi alive: “Actually, any religion doesn’t bother me in the slightest, because I never had any.”
She sees photography as an altruistic practice made for other human beings. She lives far away from an intellectual representation of the world of art, despite looking like a French intellectual out of a literary-twentieth-century movement. Sara has a popular and social view of photography. The documentation and the recording of Kākahi’s marae are a recognition for the village.
According to Sara, the act of taking a picture establishes a bond between the photographer, who is riveted by her subject, and the photographed, who is interested in being portrayed. Photography is a conversation between individuals. She has captured strangers, as well as family friends, in her path of self-teaching photography. She upholds a long-lasting tradition of asking people to take a picture of them. Some answer with a bewildered glance, some are intrigued and others decline the offer. The emotional side plays a significant role in her work. The bond between the artist and the subject is made of untold stories and chitchat, of joy and tears, of love and tribal fights. People connect for various and distinct reasons. Sara is interested in the people who establish a bond through a marae, a friendship, a religion, or work – and photography must enhance these relations.
The eyes meeting on a diagonal line in ‘Porou Street’, show how a photograph can survive on a thin line: on the meeting point of two glancing pairs of eyes, a relationship is drawn. Sara possesses a certain simplicity in communicating with her pictures and with her plain and unassuming language. Eating a ‘smashed avo’ and drinking a flat white, she suggests to me that the Kākahi community and its dramas should be portrayed in a documentary. In her opinion, a great feeling of acceptance lingers over Kākahi and the exhibition tells this story of the community – and the stories of the individuals composing it.
Sara is now heading to the South Island in her van in search of a warm, autumnal light she missed the last time she went there. Light and colours are central to her understanding of art. Her photography merely depicts the natural environment and respects the fluctuation of the seasons. She travels chasing the ‘right’ perspectives, armed with a beautiful sense of spontaneity.
Sara is not only a photographer, but also a wanderer – as much in love with unbounded nature as she is with village life. The audience is animated by her romantic feeling towards her surroundings. A parlour that tells the story of a whānau, or a misty morning on a green hill against a low, grey sky, epitomise the sense of sublimity permeating her art.
At an event held at New Zealand Portrait Gallery with local people from Kākahi, Sara said: “the boundaries bother me”. The community portrayed by Sara and her father beforehand came together, joined in an inclusive discussion. Perhaps Sara inherited a certain perspective, a certain love for the landscape, as part of a lived life. As Julia Waite wrote in the closing essay of Observations of a rural nurse, Peter McIntyre’s paintings are a “visual elegy” of Kākahi. Sara took on this role of eulogising a story, a community. The role of the photographer, therefore, turns to documenting “a forgotten part of New Zealand” – the other side of New Zealand.
Kākahi: Peter and Sara McIntyre is at New Zealand Portrait Gallery until Sunday 16 of May.
Images courtesy of the artist, Sara McIntyre, and the New Zealand Portrait Gallery.