Zena Elliott & Olivia Boswell

Frequency

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For the first time, Auckland Art Gallery’s Shop has commissioned an artist to create an exclusive artwork. Retail operations manager Emma Pritchard engaged with interdisciplinary artist, educator, researcher and curator Zena Elliott (Ngāti Awa, Te Whānau-ā-Apanui, Ngāti Rangitihi, Ngāi Te Rangi, Te Arawa) to make an original lithograph, Frequency, 2020, which is currently on sale at the Gallery’s Shop and online. You can see more of Zena’s work – Flow, 2017 and Current, 2017 – in Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Māori Art.

Zena hails from Te Teko in the Eastern Bay of Plenty. Emma wanted to collaborate with Zena on this commission because their work is vibrant and layered, she chose stone lithography as the medium because it offered an exceptional format to capture both the strong structure and subtle textures of Zena’s work. Stone lithographs involve a complex production process, which Zena talks about below. Here, Zena gives an insight into their process for Frequency, what it was like working with Auckland Print Studio and their feelings on being a part of Toi Tū Toi Ora.

Olivia Boswell: Tell us about your work, Frequency.

Zena Elliott: The lithograph Frequency explores forms that exist in whakairo (carving), the haehae (parallel grooves between lines of the pākati (dog-tooth) pattern in carving) and a tekoteko form (carved figure on the gable of a meeting house). The haehae is used to create form, depth of field, repetition, colour and symmetry. A common device in this design is to turn the ridges so that they cross the strip of pākati and meet the first ridge on the other side. This is known as whakarare (distortion). However, the space where you would normally have pākati is simplified to pure abstract form that is enclosed with three lines that communicate the past, present and the future. These lines co-exist within the same space and are not a linear series of events. When these connect with the bottom or top row of lines, it creates a space that encloses particular historical events, narratives and ideas that are represented through colour. The brightly coloured printing combinations act as beacons or a light in the dark, a signal for location and visibility.

Colour is an important aspect of my creative art practice; a Māori word that can best describe my work is ‘haukura’, which when translated means ‘neon’. It refers to gas (neon being a colourless, odourless gas) or intangibility, and within the context of this artwork it is wairua (spirituality). ‘Hau’ is air, breath, vital essence, to be heard, resound, spread (news). ‘Kura’ is all the bright, precious, stunning qualities, attributes, artifacts, items, treasured things, whakapapa, stories, symbols on which we put tangible and intangible value.

Frequency incorporates these concepts through an array of electric waves of colour that play on tone through colour theory and philosophy. The design draws inspiration from customary artforms, but incorporates a technological device from this era, such as Bluetooth headphones, and is a reflection on Māori society today, where the use of technology is incorporated into our way of life.

OB: What is the process of making a lithographic work?

ZE: Creating a lithograph involves working directly onto an ancient limestone. My creative process for painting usually involves masking, which gives a hard edge to the design. However, for the lithograph I had to use a combination of freehand painting, using a gum and an oil-based solution. During this process I was informed and guided by John Pusateri, of Auckland Print Studio. He was a great teacher. At first, I found it was a complex design to translate through lithography, because every part of the design that was applied to the stones had to slightly overlap the previous layers, there was no room for gestural mark-making or creative exploration.

OB: How did you come to make a commission for Auckland Art Gallery’s Shop?

ZE: I was approached by Emma Pritchard from the Gallery’s Shop about making a series of limited edition lithographs as a commission, in collaboration with John Pusateri. The collaboration was carried out over a few months. I travelled to Auckland from Hamilton weekly, when able to between Covid-19 lockdowns – where design preparations were achieved and discussed. John is well known within the printing sector – a lot of my Hamilton friends knew of his work and expertise so I was very grateful to be able to work with him. Given the challenges faced during lockdown, we managed to create some excellent prints.

OB: How did you conceptualise the work?

ZE: I was able to conceptualise the work by understanding the printing process and various techniques used in printing. I also researched examples of lithographs and found that the flat, layered style that I often incorporate into my work was uncommon in lithography. To finalise the print design, I focused on my previous works for inspiration and came up with a design that references the forms, patterns and colour combinations I am known for.

OB: This your first use of lithograph. Will you continue the practice?

ZE: I really enjoyed working on limestone and then seeing the final prints after five layers of limestone printing. I would definitely continue working with lithography. John and I discussed ideas about working with communities using my style of printing. There are certain layers that can incorporate unique textures, forms, marks and these layers can be done by other collaborative artists.

OB: What does it mean to you to have your work exhibited in Toi Tū Toi Ora?

ZE: I am so grateful to have work exhibited in Toi Tū Toi Ora. To me, having my work in this exhibition means that all my years of hard work, education and research have paid off. It gives me a sense that my work is of importance and that what I am doing is whakapono (that I am doing things right).

OB: Your work features in the Tangaroa section, how does that feel?

ZE: To have my work exhibited in the Tangaroa section feels masculine and feminine at the same time. My work is usually brightly coloured and largescale; however, my artworks in this exhibition are intimate with a subdued colour combination of blues that peep out past the shadows of the Māori art giants within the Tangaroa room. When I saw my work was next to Cliff Whiting’s, I was pretty excited.

OB: Do you have any artists in Toi Tū Toi Ora you admire greatly? If so, who and why?

ZE: Some of the artists I admire within Toi Tū Toi Ora are Lisa Reihana, Michael Parekōwhai and Peter Robinson. I was exposed to these artists when I was studying towards a degree in the 1990s. Seeing living Māori artists exhibiting and giving lectures was inspirational, especially when there were very few Māori artists exhibiting in public galleries at that time.

OB: Do you have any upcoming exhibitions? If so, where and what will be shown?

ZE: I am currently working on the creation of a major interactive carved and painted pātaka (storehouse) that builds on customary Māori construction methods, techniques and knowledge. Alongside this project I will exhibit a new body of carvings at ST PAUL St Gallery, Auckland University of Technology in November 2021.

OB: Anything else you’d like to add?

ZE: I would like to acknowledge Nigel Borell and Auckland Art Gallery for making Toi Tū Toi Ora a huge success and for giving me the opportunity to exhibit alongside leading contemporary Māori artists.