Monthly Archives: January 2014

Lester Hall – “Kia Ora Cook”

While preparing for my final year of university study, I spent nine months working as an intern at Te Papa Tongarewa, New Zealand’s national museum.  My role was in the Karanga Aotearoa Repatriation Programme, a group whose dedicated purpose is to locate and return Maori and Moriori ancestral remains to New Zealand.  Amazingly, these remains lie scattered around the world, having been traded and sought after in the 19th century.  If you want to know more, check out the Programme’s website here, because I could spend hours just talking about the Programme’s work and never even get to the point.

The internship was an incredible experience, not least because I was there to help them with translations into Italian so that they could make their case to Italian art and museum institutions.  I knew so little about any of the Programme’s work, but was quickly immersed in the moving, contentious and at times sordid history of the 18th/19th century trade in human remains.

I often think of how much I enjoyed spending a little time in that amazing world, making a tiny bit of difference in my own way.  And one of the ways I do that is through an extraordinary print by the New Zealand artist Lester Hall.  I spotted “Kia Ora Cook” in the window of a little art gallery in Taupo.  It’s not hard to see what caught my eye; the work is jam-packed with symbolism, historical references, and a bit of contention.

Kia Ora Cook
“Kia Ora Cook”, Lester Hall.

“Kia Ora Cook” depicts Capt. James Cook, who of course needs no introduction.  He is recognisable in naval uniform, and his hair is adorned with a plume of three feathers.  Traditionally, such decorations were worn by “high-born people” e.g. tribal chiefs 1.  I suspect they’re meant to be the feathers of a huia bird, long since extinct but considered extremely tapu (sacred) by Maori.  Capt. Cook’s face is inscribed with a swirling moko pattern on the cheeks, nose and forehead, which moves into a barcode pattern along his chin.

Charles Heaphy, 1840.
“Te Rangihaeata”, Charles Heaphy, 1840.

Now for a bit of context, it was during Cook’s first voyage on the Endeavour in 1770 that a tattooed Maori head (a toi moko) was first discovered and traded (for a pair of white drawers I believe).  From this first exchange the trade in toi moko developed, and it is this commercialisation of Maori culture that Lester Hall is clearly referencing.  Even the name of the print pokes a little bit of fun!

So it comes as a surprise that Lester Hall is in fact Pakeha, not of Maori decent at all.  On his website (www.lesterhall.com) he describes himself as proudly Pakeha, and offers some explanation for the sort of works he produces – many of which are critiqued for their controversial themes and representations (more about that in another blog perhaps…).  In describing himself as an artist, Hall says:

“…the race relations commentary I make is often misconstrued as either White supremacist or Maori centric.  I consider myself an outsider artist, social commentator first and my art is a vehicle for my thoughts and philosophies and aspirations for my country. My art is a conversation with myself and represents moving thought not static dogma.” 2.

Regardless of Hall’s own purposes in producing “Kia Ora Cook”, I couldn’t walk past something that struck so many chords with the work I had been doing and the way my eyes had been opened to this astonishing part of New Zealand’s history.  So now it hangs in our living room, above the piano, and Capt. Cook often gives me a look that’s a little  intriguing, and perhaps even a wee bit roguish…

Kia Ora Cook framed
“Kia Ora Cook”, framed and on the wall.

  1. Te Ara Encyclopedia, Story: Nga Manu – birds, http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/nga-manu-birds/page-1, accessed 31 January 2014. 
  2. About the Artist Lester Hall, http://www.lesterhall.com/artist/, accessed 31 January 2014. 

Philip Clairmont – Where it all started

During my second year of university (2008 – gosh, is it really that long ago?), I waitressed at a local art gallery in Petone, Wellington with a friend.  I can’t now remember what for, or why.  What I do remember is that on that day I fell in love with a piece of art by an iconic New Zealand artist, Philip Clairmont.  It’s not what you would call conventionally beautiful, but I was struck by the size, the colours and composition.

“Black Crucifxtion”, Philip Clairmont, 1981 (38/90), side view.

Of course I wasn’t in a position to buy art, being a poor student living in ‘Rat Palace’; rat infestations and never-ending mould were my priorities at that time.  But the memory of that Philip Clairmont work stuck with me, and I know I  talked about it to my parents, friends, anybody who would listen to me!

In early 2009 my parents were in town to help me move into a new flat – a far more classy establishment (thanks parents!) with dry walls and not a rat in sight.  I think the stars must have aligned that day, because my Dad and I happened to be in Petone, and we happened to be in that very same gallery.  There was the Philip Clairmont piece – “Black Crucifixtion” – in all its breathtaking glory.  In truth it wasn’t quite the same one, but it just so happened to be another in the series of only 90 screen prints Clairmont had made of that image.  It was perfection.  Dad bought it for me and I was just filled with glee.

Several years on and ‘Philip’ (as he came to be known) has really settled in.  He’s not one for fading into the background; he is a commanding presence in our living room and often provokes comment.  Not everybody loves the way he looks, but I think you have to admit he is spectacular.

"Black Crucifixtion" 1981 (38/90), filling the room
“Black Crucifxtion”, filling the room.

I said I wanted this blog to tell the stories of the beautiful things, so here’s a little bit about Philip Clairmont and this much-adored piece of art.

Philip Clairmont was a Nelson-born painter who lived from 1949 – 1984.  His work is often considered Neo-Expressionist because of the clear links with German Expressionists of the early 20th century.  An artist never has just one source of influence, and I know that close friendships with fellow New Zealand artists such as Tony Fomison were also very important to the development of his art.

Clairmont created 90 screen prints of “Black Crucifixtion” in 1981.  In the later years of his life, his work had lost some of its earlier intensity (for really intense, see his painting “Scarred Couch”).  Despite that, I think you can see in “Black Crucifixtion” a real affinity with the German Expressionists; the vivid contrasting colours, the rough strokes, the harsh shapes.   A review from 1976 (so before “Black Crucifixtion” was made) criticised suggestions that Clairmont might be following on from the legacy of the German Expressionists, and maybe that’s true if you know about that sort of thing 1.

"Black Crucifixtion", signature
“Black Crucifxtion”, signature.

But actually I remember watching a video (back when videos were a thing) about Clairmont in Art History class at high school.  Funny what things really stick with you.  We had only just learnt about the German Expressionists – Die Brucke, Der Blaue Reiter, Munch, Kandinsky – and then here was this Kiwi artist some 70 years later echoing those earlier artists right here on our doorstep.  From what I know of his life, particularly the later years, Clairmont embodied the idea of a tortured artistic ‘genius’, and I think that comes out in several different ways in this stunning and at the same time disconcerting piece of art.   That struggle with life seems in the true spirit of Expressionism to me.

Until next time…