Old stories, new voices

Article Detail

Monday 12 May 2014
Julia Waite

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Vincent Serico, Carnavon collision (Big map) 2006 (installation view)

Artists in My Country and Five Māori Painters, two exhibitions currently on show at Auckland Art Gallery, tell stories about Dreaming, family, politics and contemporary life. Many of these stories don’t appear in – and some are actively written out of – mainstream histories. The artworks that these artists create offer affecting new ways of considering and understanding the past and the world in which we exist.

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Vincent Serico, Carnavon collision (Big map) 2006

In the first room of My Country, under the theme of ‘My History’, hangs Vincent Serico’s Carnavon collision (Big map), 2006, at first glance a seemingly peaceful history painting, but one which in fact subtly allude to violent incidents between white settlers and the Jiman people in Central Queensland in the 19th century. With an eye on the past, Serico records memories passed down from others with naïf-like simplicity, he went on to produce a folio of images depicting tribal histories in Some people are Stories. These works needle accepted versions of the past – the victors’ histories – giving a voice to those who were silenced while keeping Indigenous knowledge alive.

Storytelling in art also responds to contemporary life and events as they happen – creating immediate visual interpretations. Aboriginal artist Gordon Hookey and senior Māori artist Robyn Kahukiwa offer contemporary perspectives on national politics with works such as King Hit (for Queen and country), 1999 and Bloodscent 2004. Hookey’s painted punching bag and gloves in King Hit critique leader of the One Nation party Pauline Hanson’s position and takes a weighty aim at the Howard government and its relationship with Hanson’s party during the late 1990s. Robyn Kahukiwa’s Bloodscent, a response to Don Brash’s infamous Orewa speech of 2004, in which he called for an end to Treaty grievances and ‘one rule for all’, viscerally alludes to the speech’s fuelling of racist sentiment. This is consciousness-raising storytelling reminding the viewer of surprisingly recent events.

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Gordon Hookey, King Hit (for Queen and country) 1999 (installation view)

With recognisable and provocative imagery, Hookey and Kahukiwa interrogate the actions of political figures, and challenge the sanctioned speeches and policies of their nation’s governments. Using animal allegories, figurative characters and iconic symbols painted in a bold, colourful style they evoke deep concerns about the reality of Indigenous people’s lives. In Hookey’s Defy, 2010 kangaroos, native to Australia, represent Indigenous people, while in King Hit (for Queen and country), 1999, politicians and the police become pigs – animals some consider, unclean and which were introduced to Australia. Even with their pronounced porcine features, the cartoonish figures of King Hit remain recognisable as Pauline Hanson, David Oldfield and Prime Minister John Howard. Under the umbrella of nationalism, Hanson advocated for policies unsympathetic to cultural difference. On the canvas of King Hit, Hookey symbolises the power structure of the state with row upon row of police, all of whom look the same. But it’s not all dark, as Hookey wraps his Orwellian scene round a piece of gym equipment, the disturbing nature and impact of the imagery is softened with humour. Hookey likened his bag to a dart board hanging in a staff room onto which someone has stuck an image of the boss. With the Aboriginal flag painted on a pair of boxing gloves Hookey suggests the oppressed can fight back by making the king hit.

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Robyn Kahukiwa, Bloodscent 2004

Contrasting Hookey’s cartoonish lampooning, Kahukiwa’s Bloodscent offers a response to the Orewa speech which appears like a scene from a frightening fairy tale. Kahukiwa also uses animals to represent problems in society: the mythical and leonine Taniwha, emblazoned with the Tino Rangitiratanga flag, arches its head back while a pack of grey dogs stalk it from behind symbolising those in society who attack when a group or individual is weakened. Like the best fairy tales or myths, the messages here run deep, and have the power to amplify for greater effect and better clarity.

Image credits:

Vincent Serico 
WakkaWakka and KabiKabi people
QLD 1949-2008
Carnarvon collision (Big map) 2006
Synthetic polymer paint on linen
203 x 310cm
Acc. 2007.245
Purchased 2007. Queensland Art Gallery Foundation

Gordon Hookey
Waanyi people
Australia  QLD/NSW  b.1961
King hit (for Queen and Country) 1999
Synthetic polymer paint and oil on leather punching bag and gloves with steel swivel and rope noose
Bag: 96 x 34cm (diam.);  gloves:  29 x 16 x 12cm (each);  rope noose: 250cm
Purchased 2000.  Queensland Art Gallery Foundation Grant

Robyn Kahukiwa
Bloodscent 2004
oil on canvas
private collection, Wellington
image courtesy of the artist