As part of the SCAPE Public Art Season 2021, new installations by two South Island female artists honour the past and their botanic surroundings. Words Anna Wallace
From 19 November until 14 January 2022, eight inspiring new artworks will be seen by the public on a walkway that weaves through the Cultural Precinct, Botanic Gardens and Hagley Park in Christchurch.
This year’s theme is ‘Shadows Cast’, with leading national and international artists reimagining the city and its histories.
For her first public work in Christchurch, multidisciplinary artist Aroha Novak has immersed herself in the history of indigenous botany.
Aroha Novak (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Kahungunu) is known for her sculptures and installations being shown outside of traditional spaces. As part of Stickum, a collective of Dunedin artists, she’s produced community murals in Otago, Auckland and Canterbury, often uncovering local histories in the process.
“I’ve always been drawn to public work that’s accessible. It’s a cool way to connect with a community,” she enthuses.
This summer, nine billboards will be erected around Hagley Park, featuring Aroha’s art in a circuit that she hopes will “create a narrative” for walkers.
Researching the pre-colonial history of the space, Aroha had to fall back on the “white, male, colonial perspective” of early historians. While she believes “it’s good to highlight the whakapapa of the research”, some of those histories have since been contested, so she kept looking.
“I fell into a research rabbit hole when I came across the notations of a few early European botanists who described the endemic plant life before the area became Hagley Park. It was quite swampy ground then,” she explains.
In a paper by E. M. Herriott in 1919, citing botanist J. B. Armstrong’s work in the 1860s, Aroha found a list of 88 indigenous plants and “decided to try and track them down”. Luckily, the artist found a rich resource in the “amazing” Ines Schonberger of Manaaki Whenua (Landcare Research) who manages the Allan Herbarium in Lincoln, an archive full of plant specimens from the 1850s and 1860s that includes indigenous species.
“The pressed plants are now digitised, so I could see them from home – they look like photocopied versions of themselves now, all washed out. They almost look like ghosts of the past,” Aroha says.
The artist’s mission is to put these endemic plants back into the landscape in which they once belonged. Botanical imagery will be interspersed with text on large-scale boards.
A primary material chosen by Aroha is the unnatural yet colourful scrim – a mesh that covers scaffolding. “I look at materials in the landscape of the site, and in Christchurch city there is so much construction going on!” The images are embroidered onto the scrim using thick wool and fat knitting needles.
The mum of three has been learning te reo Māori, so identifying the names of these native plants has helped solidify that; “I’m fascinated with the way language orders things,” she muses. “Māori is an official language, it should be seen – I don’t want it to be a ghost like these endemic species have become. With this SCAPE work, I’m trying to honour the past.”
In a salute to women’s suffrage, sculptor and academic Louise Palmer is repurposing a common Christchurch object for its new home among the flowers.
Back in 1998, SCAPE was in its infancy and Louise Palmer, fresh out of Ilam School of Fine Arts, collaborated on an event installation at the Convention Centre. Like SCAPE, Louise has grown since then and is now a senior lecturer at the University of Canterbury (UC).
Originally from Hamilton, she didn’t know anything about the Kate Sheppard Memorial Walk until coming across it last year. “It draws in interesting histories and I had a sense that the site might fit my work,” Louise recalls.
The path takes walkers along the Avon River, beside the Botanic Gardens in Hagley Park. The border garden of camellias was established in 1993, the 100-year anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand. Coincidentally, that was Louise’s first year of art school and she recalls being part of a group that painted a mural in the UC Students’ Association building, commemorating suffrage. Her 20-year-old self “was staunchly feminist, but perhaps I didn’t acknowledge how significant that was then”.
Louise is interested in re-contextualising everyday objects and transforming them. This time, she has taken on the common bollard, the heritage-style post to which a rope or chain can be secured. “Once you start noticing the bollards around town, the more you see them!”
A series of council bollards will be repurposed in a way that demarcates the area of the walk. They’ll be painted in a range of camellia-inspired colours – from the symbolic white of the ‘Kate Sheppard’ variety to burgundy-red. “They’ll stand out and draw attention to the walk,” she says.
This project drew heavily on research into the historic suffrage movement. Firstly, Louise accessed UC’s library resources before liaising with Helen Osborne, manager of Kate Sheppard House, and the Botanic Gardens’ curators who were involved with the 1993 planting.
Louise wants to draw attention to the histories embedded in the Memorial Walk, including the personal. “I hope people will stop and think about their own experiences and environments, be it female, feminist or other.”
A keen gardener, Louise loves landscaping and sees it as parallel to art making – “designing, planning and utilising resources”.
Come installation time, Louise will be there to ‘place’ the objects by the path. “It has to communicate the concept of the work within the space. I’ve put concrete in before but I don’t think I’ll have to get my hands dirty for this one,” she jokes.
For more information about the season visit scapepublicart.org.nz