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Environmental relationships explored in two new exhibitions – Hastings Art Gallery

Two new exhibitions opening at Te Whare Toi o Heretaunga – Hastings Art Gallery this weekend explore our ongoing, reciprocal relationships with our environment, whether as a source of inspiration and connection or nutrition.

He Whare Ātaahua, a new immersive painting exhibition by Jade Townsend (Ngāti Kahungunu, Te Ātihaunui-a-Pāpārangi, Pākehā, British) uses a rich tapestry of reference material to explore whakapapa, decorative arts, physical adornment, and the work of a range of painters, including renowned Māori artist John Hovell, who once taught at Te Aute College.

Townsend, who is based in Tāmaki Makaurau, says she has “been fascinated” with Hovell’s work for over a decade, but creating a new body of work in Heretaunga presented her with an opportunity to be in conversation with Hovell through site-specific painting. The exhibition is Townsend’s first solo exhibition within the region of Ngāti Kahungunu.

“I was lucky enough to visit and see the kōwhaiwhai (ceiling painting) in the wharekai (dining room) which was made with his students at the time. It was awe-inspiring. You feel totally overwhelmed and amazed, you can’t take it all in.

John Hovell’s command of physical territories with painterly expression of whakapapa is something I strive for. I put myself in the imaginary shoes of his pupil for this project, he is my tuakana (teacher),” Townsend says. Hovell’s wharekai is described as a journey through the ecological landscapes of the old time, with each kōwhaiwhai panel representing a connected ecosystem of the sea and coastal environment. Townsend’s sprawling work also speaks to these ecosystems.

“John Hovell’s style is super opulent and decorative – to me, he’s like the Oscar Wilde of kōwhaiwhai, except he masters both beauty and deeper meanings. His work is really radical in that regard.”

Kōwhaiwhai patterns can be used as a way of expressing whakapapa, genealogical connections, and traditional pūrākau (stories). Townsend says she’s drawn on that tradition, along with Wilde’s aesthetic influence. The exhibition’s name is a transliteration of a lecture Wilde gave in 1882.

“He Whare Ātaahua is an environment full of aspiration and occupation. The painting is just as much about adornments and Liberty prints, wallpaper and aesthetic ornament, as they are about my respect for kōwhaiwhai. Kōwhaiwhai is the gold standard of painting, for me. I’m just not on that journey, yet.” Townsend’s wall paintings are equally influenced by the work of her father, who was once as a sign-writer in Hastings and the temporary nature of sign-writing as an art form. “It felt like lots of things came together in terms of threads of research across the years, along with a yearning to come home and give back to this community in this way,” she says.

“I’ve been imagining this exhibition as an open love letter to my whānau who live here… I wanted to reflect the power of the temporary artistic moment by doing this wall painting – something that is fleeting and will be painted over, but who knows what kind of engagement will come out of it, for us as a whānau or [within] the wider community.”

Also opening this weekend is a dual exhibition exploring the shifting political grounds of global food production through a dialogue between Aotearoa New Zealand artist Matthew Galloway and Sahrawi Western Saharan artist Mohamed Sleiman Labat. The two, who met in 2016 and have kept in touch, present different perspectives on Aotearoa’s reliance on phosphate rock from Western Sahara. Phosphate is mineral rock used to make fertiliser, partly fuelling Aotearoa’s high-performing agricultural industry. However, the resource is controlled by Morocco’s violent occupation of the region, which has displaced the Sahrawi people from their land.

Galloway’s Empty Vessels is an installation tracing the movement of ships carrying phosphate from the Western Sahara to the Otago Peninsula. These ships first dock in New Zealand shores at Ahuriri, Napier’s port, before moving south. Also displayed is 10 years of shipping data which seems to suggest that – in the face of growing public pressure over the ethics of this trade – New Zealand fertiliser company, Ravensdown, may be moving away from using phosphate from this region.

Menawhile, Sleiman Labat’s experimental documentary film, Desert Narratives, explores the story of phosphate and growing food in the desert, weaving together multiple narratives about sand particles, plants, human and mineral displacement. The film explores connections between ecological justice and indigenous ways of knowing and being in the world, challenging colonial and environmental violence in mineral extractions.

This Saturday, December 9, join Jade Townsend and Matthew Galloway, the artists behind two new exhibitions at Hastings Art Gallery, in Civic Square, as they share insights about their work in a joint floor talk from 11am. The talk will be followed by refreshments and is free, with no booking required. For more information, please go to www.hastingscityartgallery.co.nz


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