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Best (And Worst) of Aotearoa Creativity in 2022

Andrew Wood casts his eye over the year that's been - and shoots from both the lip and the hip with his opinion on this year's highlights and lowlights.

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2022 has been a full-on year for cultural creativity in Aotearoa, made all the more precious by the ever-present threat of COVID to bounce back from. 

If there was a theme for the year, it was resilience.

Thus, the honour falls to me to hand out some of the Michael Parekōwhai bouquets for the cultural highlights of the year.

Yuki Kihara wowed the Venice Biennale with Paradise Camp with typical pizazz, bringing her vibrant explorations of gender, ethnicity and the impact of colonisation in the Pacific context to an appreciative international art audience.

Rainbow Moana collective FAFSWAG was invited to participate in Documenta 15, the prestigious German contemporary art festival, although this was overshadowed by accusations of antisemitism directed at festival co-directors Indonesian art collective Ruangrupa, leading to the German director Sabine Schormann resigning.

The Aotearoa-made Māori-centred transgender drama Rūrangi has done extremely well. Hulu picked up exclusive US screening rights for a second season, and won a well-deserved international Emmy.

Elsewhere in Hollywood, Dame Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog won her an Oscar for Best Director, making it the first film to only win that category since The Graduate in 1968. We do love it when Kiwis do well. There was a little upset over a joke that didn’t land.

In May the Jann Medlicott Acorn prize, paramount award in the national Ockham Book Awards was won by the stupendously talented Whiti Hereaka for her novel Kurangaituku which retells the Māori legend of Hatupatu and the eponymous bird-woman from the latter’s perspective.

August saw the opening of ceramicist Cheryl Lucas’ survey exhibition Shaped by Schist and Scoria at Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Lucas draws on the forms of Central Otago station life and the strange, stubby, bifurcated native plants that eke out survival there to create her magnificent ceramic art.

Catherine Chidgey’s new novel The Axeman’s Carnival captured the national imagination, racking up rave reviews with a tale about a magpie named Tama.

My South Canterbury hometown Timaru threw itself into celebrating creativity in a big way to help re-energise its CBD with two First Friday events in November and December. By all accounts these were popular and successful, which is great to hear for what a bold initiative it is for the town, proving creativity is not just a boost for the cities.

Two outstanding visual arts events took place in Auckland outside the aegis of any of the usual institutions. The first of these was The Confessions in May at Silo6 on the waterfront, curated by local gallerist Scott Lawrie, inspired by the Scottish witch hunts of the 16th and 17th centuries and drawing parallels with modern social media’s propensity for cruelty and hysteria.

The second event was artist Heather Straka’s dark and delicious Age of Discovery suite of photographs which launched at the new Sudima Auckland City in November. This was a sort of an unofficial fringe event coinciding with the first Auckland Art Fair since the lockdowns and it was great to see the Fair so well attended too.

Of course, we can’t have the highlights without the shadows - so here are my Carl Andre brickbats.

2022 was a bit of a – what did the late Queen call it? A ‘horrible anus’? - for Creative New Zealand (CNZ). There was national outrage when the Public Crown Entity did not award the total funding applied for by the Shakespeare Globe Centre New Zealand for their Sheila Winn high school Shakespeare festival.

Such was the sound and fury that CNZ released an unprecedented official response, which turned out to be quite defensive, condescending, slippery and signifying nothing.

Admittedly this was much overhyped by the media – as much as it is nice to see literature and theatre in the news – but much of the fuss was a legitimate response to some of the feedback accompanying CNZ’s report, calling it part of a ‘canon of imperialism’.

One could easily shrug this off as the lapse of professionalism of an assessor coming over all platformy, getting their activism on, and forgetting they weren’t in the Wellington Arts Bubble anymore, Toto. It happens…

But then the pattern repeated in the feedback in which CNZ removed Arts on Tour, an organisation which has been bringing performing artists to the provinces since 1993, from its investment programme.

One of the assessors observed as an issue: “Audience make-up is noted as ‘primarily middle-Aotearoa-New Zealand … tertiary educated … 70 percent female and over the age of 50.”

There’s no getting away from the fact that CNZ’s funding pool has been massively slashed and many are losing out, but such comments are unacceptable. CNZ feedback is supposed to be constructive, awhi the applicants - not take this bullying, culture wars tone.

Comments like that should never leave the panel room.

Things do not look likely to get better for CNZ – in a moment of inexplicable brainfart they have also appointed the small business networking platform We are Indigo to head up a $5.45M digital art service, right when Callaghan Innovation is caught up in allegations against the group of bullying and small businesses being taken advantage of.

CNZ is not known for its transparency, and it might be for the best if there was some sort of long overdue ministerial enquiry – but then, we’re nearing the end of Labour’s second term in Government and still no Arts Policy, so don’t hold your breath, folks.

And finally, as if sensing the impending end of the year and realising there was at least one demographic he had yet to offend, Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown compared Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki’s visitor numbers to that of a corner dairy.

”How do we get to have 122 people looking after a few paintings in a building that nobody goes to?” quoth Brown, mooting it should be shut down and sold off because the people of South Auckland don’t go there (they do).

While the venerable institution is inclined to gate keep and be a bit prissy, I will defend its existence like a cornered stoat. I’m sure we can round up some torches and pitchforks somewhere. As proof of AAG’s importance, and because I want a happy endnote, the exhibitions Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera: Art and Life in Modern Mexico and Robin White: Te Whanaketanga | Something is Happening Here are just stunning and on until the end of January 2023.