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Lowdown #33: Crisis or rare opportunity for big change?

Gil Hanly
Mark Amery is back introducing some exciting changes, why 2019 is the year of NZ women in film and some significant national art news.


NZ Women in Film

Move over Pete and Taik, it’s going to be a big year internationally for New Zealand women directing film.

Following her first feature in 2011 My Wedding and Other Secrets, Roseanne Liang is now filming a Hollywood action horror in a B-17 World War Two bomber starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Shadow in the Cloud. Liang is also turning her action short Do No Harm into a feature and directing Hollywood thriller Fuse.  

At Sundance currently, Māori filmmakers Ainsley Gardiner and Briar Grace-Smith have won the 2019 Sundance Institute Merata Mita Fellowship, selected after a global call for applicants. The two are collaborating on a new project. Herpi Mita’s doco about his pioneering filmmaker mother Merata Mita, Merata: How Mum Decolonised the Screen got its international premiere at Sundance last week.

Grace Smith was one of the eight Māori woman directors behind Waru in 2017, and the follow-up from eight Pacific Island women Vai premieres in NZ at the Māoriland Film Festival in Otaki in March, following its global premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival. Here’s the Vai trailer. Vai joins Merata and a host of other local films at Berlin: “Native: female directors and protagonists from the Pacific Region feature prominently in 2019 programme” is the title of the media release issued from Berlin.

Announced late last year were three new women led film projects receiving 125 Fund green lights: writer-director Loren Taylor with producers Ainsely Gardiner and Georgina Conder on Hawk Mountain; writer Sophie Henderson, director Gaysorn Thavat and producer Emma Slade on The Justice of Bunny King and writer-director Linda Niccol and producer Susan Parker on Poppy.

Merata Mita

Change Agents

Crisis or rare opportunity for big change?

Crisis or rare opportunity for big change? Over summer New Zealand Opera has been advertising no less than six of its positions under new managing director Thomas Mallet de Burgess – and yes, that’s pretty much everyone. This follows board chair John Harvey leaving in September, alongside earlier in the year Donald Trott who was heavily involved in the company’s formation.

De Mallet Burgess is calling it “revisioning” and a redefining of purpose and vision. Welcome news for those who more often associate opera with words like ‘’moribund’ and ‘elitist’. Indeed de Mallet Burgess comes from founding and running Lost and Found Opera, which the West Australian he says called “one of the few genuinely disruptive arts organisations in Australia” and Opera Magazine “the nation’s most innovative opera company”. Lost and Found have staged work in everywhere from a hotel to a synagogue. I spoke to de Mallet Burgess last week for RNZ’s Standing Room Only about some of impressive change he’d like to see.

With new heads in charge of the Royal New Zealand Ballet - and let’s not forget a Labour government keen on strengthening access to the arts - this could be a time of much called for change for two of our most publicly well-funded artforms.

Gregory Burke

Sea changes on the margins

“I was reminded that the margins are poignant and telling locations from which to talk back to power,” wrote Adam Art Gallery director Christina Barton after visiting “old friend” Gregory Burke at the opening of Canada’s Remai Modern in Saskatoon back in late 2017. Saskatoon is a small city on the prairies of Saskatchewan; Burke the Remai’s executive director and CEO.

“I was reminded that the margins are poignant and telling locations from which to talk back to power,” wrote Adam Art Gallery director Christina Barton

Barton’s are rousing words for Burke’s April arrival in Auckland where he has been announced as the new Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki director. A Guardian article at the time of the Remai opening ‘Bilbao on the prairie: why does tiny Saskatoon need an $85m art gallery?’ gives a fascinating account of building something that big on the margins, with generous private patronage behind it. Burke was an important cog in securing that funding, as he revealed tactfully to Kim Hill on Saturday.

In regards to Auckland being on the margins, Burke in Artforum recently said: “Auckland is poised to come into its own in terms of its distinct cultural demographics and its growing connections to the global arts industry” He talked up with Hill the city’s “great opportunity” and cited the way Singapore has become a major regional art centre in the last ten years.

Whether it can deliver better on the promise it has had since its reopening to better lead in the Asia-Pacific region, particularly in the representation of contemporary indigenous Maori and Pacific Island artists will be interesting to see. As Burke noted to Hill, he included Luke Willis Thompson in the opening show at the Remai, and the Remai hopes to show Wellington artist Shannon Te Ao later this year.

The Burke announcement comes not long after Auckland Art Gallery appointed a new head of Curatorial and Exhibitions, Sarah Farrar, formerly Senior Curator Art at Te Papa. The Big Idea interviewed here about the new role here.

Burke was approached about the Auckland job when back in New Zealand on the recruitment panel for the new directorship of the Govett Brewster Art Gallery and Len Lye Centre in New Plymouth. It was here between 1998 and 2005 he helped make the gallery’s local reputation in bringing together significant dynamic shows of contemporary artists.

Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh

A mark of the sharing times, the job has been awarded to a couple, Aileen Burns and Johan Lundh (the first time I can recall a multiple directorship in an NZ public gallery). Starting in March, Burns and Lundh look like a strong youthful fit to help reinvigorate the Govett Brewster’s rep on the regional margins as both artist-focussed and internationally significant.  

Canadian and Swedish respectively, Burns and Lundh are currently co-directors at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane (previous director was City Gallery Wellington curator Robert Leonard). Back in 2015 the duo told Rachael Vance of Ocula “Australia and New Zealand are two of the most geographically isolated places in the world, which means that their institutions need to be proactive in bringing people with new perspectives, and supporting local practitioners who are aiming to connect globally. Artspace in Auckland has actively hired directors not from New Zealand and at the same time imposed a fixed term of three years for the position. This has meant that a number of curators in the early stages of their careers have had a stint in Auckland, to the direct benefit to artists from New Zealand. It is an exciting model that we think there is something to be learned from by other institutions.” Their turn.

Book News

As I write it’s just been announced that Wellington based Mandy Hager is the winner of the 2019 Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal for “life-time achievement and a distinguished contribution to New Zealand’s literature for young people”. Known for her young adult fiction I’ve been rereading the wonderful piece Hager wrote on being inclusive in our literary taste for The Sapling: “I read all sorts of pap in amongst the literature when I was young, one week reading Steinbeck or Graham Greene and the next Jonathan Livingston's Seagull. I even sneaked True Confession magazines into the house…”

The Ockham New Zealand New Zealand Book Awards longlist is out. As Stuff notes there are a lot of senior names in the fiction section but, healthily, a lot of newer names in the poetry. The Spinoff provides some “mild critique” from what reads like Steve Braunias but is unattributed (“O’Sullivan is a tough sonofabitch and the favourite to take the crown”), calling 2018 a golden year for the novel.

Meanwhile Pantograph Punch’s Literature editor Hannah Newport-Watson has put together commentary on books to look forward to this year.  And, offering very little surprises, James Belfield at the NZ Listener offers five NZ albums for 2019.

"As a brown woman who writes – often times from the margins and smashing gates as I do so - I have seen the transformative power wrought by stories written by us, about us, and for us…" - Lani Wendt Young

Lani Wendt Young and Liam McIlvanney have been awarded Waitiangi Day Literary Honours by the New Zealand Society of Authors. Wendt Young writes in response As a brown woman who writes – often times from the margins and smashing gates as I do so - I have seen the transformative power wrought by stories written by us, about us, and for us…”

Waitangi Literary Honours? I hadn’t heard of them. Our media can do better: they’ve been awarded since 2014 by the NZSA Board each year, from nominations received to “a candidate who has attained international recognition for their writing.” Previous winners here.

Hanging up his fingers

Much-loved New Zealand pianist Michael Houstoun has announced he will retire in 2020. Who could possibly replace him? "After almost 50 years as a professional musician I have decided to retire, hang up my fingers, call it quits and begin a new phase of my fortunate life.” RNZ Concert have started broadcasting a four-part series of the complete ‘Preludes and Fugues’ by JS Bach, performed by Houstoun on Tuesday nights this month and he keeps his gig calendar up to date here, including playing as part of the celebrations for the reopening of the Christchurch Town Hall in March.

Lift Off

More reading online

On the subject of Pacific women artists, I’ve been reading Lana Lopesi’s False Divides (Bridget Williams Books) over the summer so was interested to see this commentary on Circuit with animation of Auckland’s Ahilapalapa Rands’ commission at the Institute of Modern Art in Brisbane (yes where our new Govett Brewster directors are based). Lift Off (2018) is part of a group exhibition about “commuting cultures” which a group of indigenous guest curators, Lopesi included, were involved in putting together.

Finally, I’m a big fan of the online comics of Giselle Clarkson and this Sapling one on the literary names of insects that escaped the Lowdown net in December is a doozy. As many as six Sri Lankan spiders named after Enid Blyton characters…

Want more of the Lowdown? Check out Mark Amery's past Arts Media Lowdowns here and subscribe here to our weekly bulletin so it comes straight to your inbox.
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Written by

Mark Amery

7 Feb 2019

Mark Amery has worked as an art critic, writer, editor and broadcaster for many years across the arts and media.