Ans Westra (1936–2023)
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki was saddened to learn of the recent passing of New Zealand photographer Ans Westra (1936–2023). The Gallery has 59 of her photographs in its collection; the earliest. from 1960, shows a couple snuggling on a street bench in Wellington. Westra belonged to a generation of social documentary photographers – including figures like Gil Hanly, John Miller (Ngāpuhi), Robin Morrison, and John B Turner – who introduced new ways of seeing New Zealand in the 1960s and 70s and in doing so elevated photography to the realm of fine art. In the suburbs, at protests, or on the road, the documentarians were interested in peoples’ everyday lives and in recording social change. This emergent mode of practice was nurtured by PhotoForum Inc., an organisation which supported artists to develop more personal photographic sensibilities through the ethos of ‘learning how to see’.
Westra’s work was included in the groundbreaking The Active Eye (1975), one of the first exhibitions to critically engage with this new photography and which toured to art galleries throughout New Zealand. Three of her images were reproduced in the exhibition catalogue: a photograph of young men in Albert Park, people relaxing over pints at the Trentham Racecourse, and a man surveying stock at a saleyard in Invercargill. These images reflected Westra’s eagerness to travel the length and breadth of the country to get to know it. She spoke of photography as her visual diary, but her approach was also shaped by post-war humanist photography, like that celebrated in New York’s controversial Museum of Modern Art exhibition, The Family of Man, which Westra saw when it toured to the Stedelijk Museum in 1956.
Westra arrived in New Zealand in 1957 and some of her first images to appear in print – portraits of poet Hone Tūwhare – were reproduced in the pages of Te Ao Hou in 1964. That same year she published Washday at the Pa, her second bulletin for the School Publications branch of the Department of Education, and experienced serious criticism over her representation of a rural Māori family living in underprivileged conditions. The Maori Women’s Welfare League objected to the publication on several grounds, and it was withdrawn from schools. The debates invoked by Westra’s images remain alive today, with each new generation grappling with the politics of cross-cultural representation in an ever-changing context.
Anyone reviewing Auckland Art Gallery’s collection will note that Westra’s interest in photographing Māori communities continued after 1964. Her works in the Gallery’s collection document peoples’ lives in towns and cities through the 1970s and 80s in places including Kaikohe, Murupara, Ngāruawāhia, Te Kao, Waitangi and Wellington. She was clearly attracted to events, drawn to gatherings of people together, and the collection sees Westra snapping at protests, hikoi, funerals and tangi, festivals and parades, and rugby games. Her images reveal a fondness for hands and she clearly saw the whole body as a powerful force of communication. Her eye was sensitive to touch, resting on moments of gesture and affection in hongi and kapa haka.
Closer looking at the collection reveals a thread of practice sympathetic to the lives of women. The collection holds an image of a mother breastfeeding, women on the 1984 hikoi, teaching at playcentre, and tending to a grave with a pair of hedge clippers. Her photographs document notable women in New Zealand’s history, including Dame Whina Cooper (1895–1994) at Waitangi in 1981, and feminist, peace activist and social reformer Freda Cook (1896–1990) protesting at an anti-Vietnam War demonstration in 1971.
Comparisons were frequently made between Westra and prominent female photographer, Marti Friedlander. However, as Len Bell points out, Westra was also part of a larger group of Dutch immigrants who arrived in the 1950s, including photographers such as Olaf Petersen (1915–1994), John Rykenberg (1927–2014), and Simon Buis (1927–1980). The other prominent Dutch artist to work in New Zealand was the similarly transgressive Theo Schoon (1915–1985), though he had arrived before the war in 1939.
Part of Westra’s legacy is a vast body of work – prints and negatives – held at the National Library of New Zealand. Perhaps there might be a deeper study which compares her photography with that of Friedlander’s, or that situates her practice in the context of the post-war Dutch émigrés, or explores her constant snapping as a form of proto social media. Westra has left a remarkable visual record of life in New Zealand across six decades. She was frequently drawn to scenes of togetherness, and the oeuvre reveals currents of change in New Zealand society – how communities protest, socialise, mourn, and relate to each other.