In 2017 journalist, Carl Swanson asked “Is political art the only art that matters now?” The context for that question was Donald Trump’s inauguration but the same question could well be asked now. Swanson went on to describe the environment of protest in America, which at the time was mirrored in the work of countless artists exhibiting at major art institutions across the country.
It may well be a truism to say that there is a strong relationship between the arts and politics, which has occurred across historical ages and cultures.
As artists respond to contemporary events, art takes on a political as well as social dimension, which becomes in itself a focus of controversy and even a force of change.
Open to visitors today is an art exhibition, drawn entirely from the collection, and though few have been the focus of controversy, all can be seen as a force for political and social change.
The exhibition On Art and Activism presents art from key moments in Aotearoa, New Zealand’s history. We see artists speaking out against legacies of capitalism, industrialism, and colonialism, working in the cause of political movements.
These artworks reflect periods in which New Zealand citizens fought in wars, rallied for human rights, questioned sovereignty and advocated for the environment.
In some of these artworks, artists have stepped outside their art practice to risk a political position. In others, such as Don Binney, whose artwork is representative of a career-long commitment to a cause through their practice.
The exhibition is also testimony to the significance of works in the Hawke’s Bay Museum’s Trust collection.
It was impressive to see the lineup of innovative trail blazing artists who make up the caliber of the art collection. Artists such as Claudia Pond Eyley, Ralph Hotere and Horatio Robley are amongst others whose works are held in the collection and who foot it with the best in New Zealand.
Even more interesting however was the fact that Directors and patrons had purchased work for the collection where artists hadn’t shied away from having something to say.
On Art and Activism presents artworks that were intended to effect social and political change. With varying degrees of forcefulness, each of the art works makes a political assertion that is, in and of itself, a form of action.
In this exhibition, there are campaign-like art works that quite obviously seek to address perceived injustices and can easily be associated with the term ‘activist’. But there are also art works, for example the work of Don Binney shown here, which are quieter and assume a less strident political position.
Painter Don Binney had a lifetime interest in ornithology and conservation and his passionate interest and enthusiasm for the wildlife of Aotearoa is very evident in his work Kereru, Te Henga.
Painted by Binney in 1969 it reflects a time in the early 1950s when pressure to develop New Zealand’s infrastructure through large-scale engineering projects had increased following World War ll.
At the time, environmental damage was seen as the inevitable consequence of this development. However, by the 1960s public attention had turned to the major destruction of wildlife habitat these developments caused.
Later in the decade, when Binney painted the work, it was understood that introduced predators were responsible for the extinction of many native bird species. From this time on, it was generally accepted that human intervention was required to save indigenous bird species.
What Binney is conveying here is the sympatico relationship that exists between our native fauna and its natural habitat. Binney expresses this through the interdependencies of the shapes and colours in his composition. The lines that form the Kereru seems to merge with those of its perch, as do the colours of the bird and its surrounding flora.
Throughout his career Binney presented us with such iconic images, of birds and landforms that they became a huge part of how we identified our ‘New Zealandness’.
Works such as these help us to understand the importance and uniqueness of our natural environment and this is now a part of our shared identity.
Because of their power, Binney’s works became the poster for environmental campaigns and activist movements.
On Art and Activism demonstrates the role that art has in a political space, and in times such as these, it is refreshing to see political ideas expressed with such care and poetry.
On Art and Activism is open from today at MTG Hawke’s Bay Museum.
Image Credit: Kereru, Te Henga, 1969 by Don Binney.
• NZIFF. MTG Century Theatre, ends Sunday 2 August. Tickets: General Admission $17.50, Friends of MTG/Senior Citizen $13.00, Student/Nurses/Community Services Card $15.00, Child (15 & under) $12.00. Tickets available at MTG or through Eventfinda. Visit our website for screening details - www.mtghawkesbay.com/whats-on/
• Chamber Music NZ – Amalia Hall & Stephen De Pledge. MTG Century Theatre, Tuesday 04 August 7.30pm. Tickets available through Ticketek.
• NZ String Quartet – Beethoven - Universal. MTG Century Theatre, Wednesday 12 August 7.30pm. Tickets available through Eventfinda.
3 August 2020
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