Burn, Ian. ‘Is Art History Any Use to Artists?’ In Dialogue: Writings in Art History, 1–14. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1991.
This essay has entered my life on several occasions, and every time I read it I interpret it slightly differently. Burn’s essay hypothesises that, fundamentally, there’s a disconnect between art making and the making of art history. Through an analysis of John Brack’s work The Car (1955), Burn’s essay reads like a tennis match: a volley between visual analysis of the painting and questioning the foundations of art historiography. Ultimately, the essay questions what use an institutionalised version of art history is, one where we spend more time reading about artworks than we do looking at and relating to them. Moving beyond the essay, what resonates for me is Burn’s emphasis on art making as a collective activity. For Burn, it’s a process tangled in a web of relationships, histories and knowledge bases – whereas ‘[a]rt history likes to categorise, to neatly package artists, periods and tendencies, and to individualise.’ This is my Achilles heel as an art historian, so it’s good to remind myself, or ground myself, with Burn’s belief that ‘[a]rt history has always been far too important to be simply left up to art historians.’
Clifford, James. ‘Histories of the Tribal and
the Modern.’ In The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth Century Ethnography, Literature and Art, 189–214. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988.
This article’s title appears to be a red flag – a white man writing about ethnography and art. Fortunately, it’s good. Clifford wrote ‘Histories of the Tribal and the Modern’ in 1984 when Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern was on show at MoMA. The exhibition, curated by William Rubin and Kirk Varnedoe, placed ‘tribal artefacts’ beside modernist ‘masterpieces’ as a way to demonstrate their influence, or affinities, with the modernists.
The history of museums – another topic entirely – is largely built from collections of objects stolen or looted by colonisers. The MoMA exhibition had a mask made by, and for, Canada’s Kwakwaka’wakw people displayed next to a Picasso painting. In New York, displaced and a long way from home, the label for the mask maintained the hegemonic values of Western imperialism and fetishism for white audiences. Clifford appropriates the loaded language of anthropology to look at MoMA and analyse why this curatorial methodology is a ‘problematic exercise of mix and match’ that is ideologically loaded, ahistorical, decontextualising, orientalising and wildly inappropriate. I included this article because this curatorial logic is still at play. Until a couple of weeks ago, at the time of writing, Te Papa Tongarewa (Museum of New Zealand), had a Papua New Guinean bark-cloth hung opposite Len Lye’s film Tusalava (1929): the visual affinity at it again.
Sriwhana Spong, The painter-tailor, 2019/2021, 16mm film and HD video. Included as a finalist for the 10th Walters Art Prize exhibition, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.
You know how you know that the food is going to be good at a restaurant if you’re seated on one of those white plastic outdoor chairs. Cheap and economical. They’re used so you don’t get too comfortable and occupy more than your fair share of precious time and real estate. The sight of one in Sriwhana Spong’s screening room, custom built to sit and watch The painter- tailor, instantly conjured that feeling for me. The moving-image work documents Spong’s family in Bali moving a painting made by her paternal grandfather, I Gusti Made Rundu (1918–93), outside. The painter-tailor includes footage of scrapbooks made by the American anthropologist and art historian Claire Holt, who took and collected archival photographs including one of her grandfather. Like Holt, Spong uses these archives as a way of documenting how it feels to be an outsider looking in at
her grandfather, having never met him. Sitting on that plastic chair, watching Spong’s family chat and laugh as they move
the painting around, witnessed through the dog-cam (a camera mounted to the neck of a happy golden retriever), I cried, overcome with emotion. The only photograph of my maternal grandfather that I know of is held at the Whanganui Regional Museum, in a scrapbook. There was no name identifying him, but I can see his face matches mine. Navigating intimacy, having never met someone, is a strange task.
Doyle, Jennifer. ‘Queer Wallpaper.’ In A Companion to Contemporary Art since 1945, edited by Amelia Jones, 343–355. Maldon, Oxford and Melbourne: Blackwell Publishing Ltd., 2006.
This essay came to me as a suggested reading from Hilary Thurlow while undertaking the ICI Curatorial Intensive at Artspace Aotearoa together in 2019. It’s hard to comprehend the impact ‘Queer Wallpaper’ has had on my life and practice since reading it. Doyle speaks about the erasure effect or ‘de-gaying’ that museums, galleries and art history has on queer artists. This invisible practice heterosexualises queer artists, denying them their gayness in an effort to appear neutral, to not rock the boat, to appease conservative benefactors or to resist drawing any assumptions about queerness. One of the knock-on effects is that a queer person can walk into an exhibition or read a piece of art history, see an artwork by a queer artist and actively be denied a queer reading. This only adds to the sense of exclusion and denial of identity of an already marginalised community. There is a passage by Doyle that I return to frequently: ‘art is not a luxury, but a necessity – queer readings of books, novels, films, paintings and performances give us our maps, our user’s manuals for finding pleasure in a world more often than not organized [sic] around that pleasure’s annihilation.’
Cottingham, Laura. ‘Notes on Lesbian.’
Art Journal, vol. 55, no. 4: We’re Here: Gay and Lesbian Presence in Art and Art History (Winter 1996): 72–77.
Despite Cottingham writing this article in 1996, it’s still
as relevant today. ‘Notes on Lesbian’ speaks to structural marginalisation, erasure of lesbian histories and the barriers
that have been erected within a Western art-historical canon – all of which the queer scholar faces in their quest to legitimise lesbian histories and cultural heritage. Cottingham asks us to consider how we write about lesbians where historical records do not exist. For instance, what happens when primary sources have been destroyed, suppressed, self-censored, left coded or forgotten? Does this mean it doesn’t exist therefore it didn’t happen? Without getting into a metaphysical analysis, the article covers some of the numerous ways these histories have been negated. Yet, over twenty-five years after it was published, it still reads like a manifesto to have on hand for any conversation when someone asks for ‘proof’ that an artist was a lesbian or ‘why it matters.’ Representation and visibility matter because as Cottingham reiterates, historically ‘[l]esbians do not usually leave records of their lives ... which would identify them as unmistakably lesbians.’ So, doing that work – advocating for those histories, is also about their approval and acceptance. Omission is erasure.
Millet-Gallant, Ann and Howie, Elizabeth. ‘Disability and Art History Introduction.’ In Disability and Art History. Oxford and New York: Routledge, 2017.
I was trying to write an essay about the photographer (and my Great Uncle) Peter Tizard, when I realised I was struggling to find the language and appropriate context to interpret his work. Millett-Gallant and Howie’s introduction was a useful starting point for me (see also: Tobin Siebers). There are a number of essays within the volume that consider how disability is constructed in relation to sociohistorical contexts. For instance, ‘most art historical articles written before the 2000s discuss the presence of individuals with disability in terms of their symbolic function, that is, in a moralizing [sic] sense as Christian figures deserving of charity and pity.’ A slippery slope to disability ‘inspo porn.’ You can study and read art history and never hear the word ‘disabled’ or ‘disability’ – which I can testify to as true in my case. Yet, the most recent numbers from a 2013 survey in Aotearoa established that 24% of the country are classed as disabled. In Australia, that number sits at 18% as of 2018. Just as the authors note, ‘[a]rt history seems at times to excel at ignoring the obvious.’ In this case, the lived experience of disabled artists or how art history can be viewed through the lens of disability and its intersections.
Cowley, Patrick. Afternooners.
San Francisco: Dark Entries, 1979–82/2017, patrickcowley. bandcamp.com/album/afternooners/
Luke Fowler, Patrick, 2020, 16mm film digitised, vimeo.com/ondemand/patrickcowleyfilm.
My Spotify Wrapped revealed that Patrick Cowley’s Afternooners posthumously released in 2017, was my most- listened to album in 2021. Cowley was a prolific music producer specialising in the soundtracks for gay pornos in the 1980s. Cowley’s hi-NRG disco sound was iconic – think Sylvester’s ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real).’ The peak of my obsession with Afternooners happened to coincide with seeing Luke Fowler’s moving-image work Patrick (2020). Cowley died of HIV/AIDS in 1982, at the very beginning of a traumatic epidemic that, at the time, largely affected gay men. Fowler’s work, shot on 16mm, asks ‘how we come to know someone in their absence’ through a ‘posthumous portrait [of Patrick Cowley] using material traces left behind’ like archival documents from the GLBT Historical Society and an interview with one of Cowley’s collaborators, Maurice Tani. Afternooners and Patrick, are simultaneously contemporaneous and historical. They traverse time – a creak in history – to create a portal between the past and the present.
Laing, Olivia. Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency. London: Picador, 2020.
Olivia Laing is a recent inductee to my repertoire. I originally bought Funny Weather because I liked the cover. As simple as that. In a surprising twist, Funny Weather has fundamentally changed how I think about art, the future and the world we live in. The collection of works by Laing is organised into categories: the Vasari-esque Artists’ Lives, Frieze Columns, Styles, Essays, Readings, Love Letters and a conversation. Laing’s introduction, ‘You Look at the Sun,’ proposes that all too often we slip into a sort of toxic echo-chamber, paralysed by a constant barrage of ‘bad things’ happening 24/7 (see: Twitter). Instead, Laing suggests that art and artists might be an antidote, enabling and embracing alternative ways of thinking to, perhaps, liberate us from our unrelenting paranoia. This book of essays has helped me immensely, and when I suggest it to others, they’re usually already in the midst of recommending it to me.
Laing, Olivia. To The River: A Journey Beneath the Surface. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2011.
Now that I’m obsessed with Olivia Laing, I’ve started making my way through her oeuvre. To The River charts Laing travelling from the source of the River Ouse to its mouth, talking about the history of the river, literature about the river, people associated with it and about Laing’s personal connection to
the Ouse. It reminded me of living next to the Whanganui awa (river), an unyielding life force that carries with it the history of the region; it is now legally recognised as a living person through the Te Awa Tupua Bill (2017).
Laing, Olivia. Every Body: A Book About Freedom. London: Picador, 2021.
This book was timely for me. As a disabled body navigating university, employment, health services and now the pandemic – every decision I make is about trying to maintain some semblance of bodily health. It goes, but with its fuel light on and in a state of constant anxiety that it might hit empty. Laing’s book ruminates on the intricacies of bodily autonomy, power and oppression. She reiterates that every-body, even those like my own, has the right to freedom: living without fear.
I recently curated Face Time: Portraits from
the 1980s at the New Zealand Portrait Gallery Te Pūkenga Whakaata, and Hariata Ropata-Tangahoe’s (Ngati Toa,
Ngati Raukawa, Te Atiawa). Self-portrait (1982) was one of my highlights. I chose the work because it was emblematic
of a moment in time. In the early 1980s, Ropata-Tangahoe’s practice shifted to reflect the struggles that rested on the shoulders of Māori women and her own experiences. This work, Self-portrait, was painted to be interpreted within a Mātauranga Māori framework. According to Ropata- Tangahoe: ‘My work is grounded in the importance of visions as a way of connecting with my ancestors,the past, the present and the future – they’re all interwoven.’ Self-portrait is a about genealogy, from Papatūānuku (the earth) to her grandfather, who was a racehorse trainer, and of course her own image – all contributing to Ropata-Tangahoe’s identity.
Tia Ranginui, Gonville Gothic,
14 August – 31 October 2021, City Gallery Wellington Te Whare Toi, Wellington, Aotearoa.
I love Tia Ranginui’s (Ngāti Hine Oneone) practice.
Gonville Gothic just happened to be the last exhibition I saw before the nationwide Covid-19 lockdown in August 2021. Her exhibition at City Gallery Wellington was somewhat
of a miniature survey despite the fact, surprisingly, that it
was Ranginui’s first solo exhibition in a public gallery. Her practice is constantly evolving – simultaneously balancing history with her lived experience as a Māori woman in Aotearoa today. Included in Gonville Gothic was The Intellectual ‘Power’ Of A Savage Mind (2015) – an early photograph from the artist’s oeuvre – shot only a block or so from where I am now in Whanganui’s Savage Club. The Club was a place where Pākehā would meet and dress-up as Māori, performing racist sketches in the name of mateship. The caricatures lining the walls give somewhat of an indication.
Here, Ranginui re-inserts a brown body into the space, peered upon by faces mocking and fetishising Māori. Subversively, she cleverly turns the tables on the settlers who yielded and wielded their power through reclamation of space.
Milly Mitchell-Anyon is an art historian and curator from Whanganui, Aotearoa. She is the 2021–22 Blumhardt Foundation Curator for the Sarjeant Gallery Te
Whare o Rehua and on the trust board for Whanganui Regional Museum. She emerges from an Art History and Museum Studies background.