Fred Graham: Creator of forms – Te Tohunga Auaha, by Maria de Jong and others, (Huia Publishers, 2014), 200 pp., $49.99
Thanks to books like Fred Graham: Creator of forms, we are beginning to know so much more about the kaumātua of contemporary Māori art. A generation of artists who emerged in the 1950s and 1960s are slowly but surely receiving the art historical treatment that makes their work available to both specialists and general audiences. With their contextualising essays, biographical information, chronologies and catalogues of artworks, monographs are the building blocks of the larger stories of art that societies tell to themselves and others. As these artists get their monographs, their work and their achievements become visible, changing national and international stories – which in some cases need to be reconsidered based on new evidence, or at the very least nuanced as new objects and ideas force their way into consideration.
Graham certainly hasn’t been invisible: as part of the Tovey generation, selected by Gordon Tovey to be an art adviser, and a key player in many exhibitions of contemporary Māori art held over the last four decades, Graham’s name and examples of his work have been written into the existing histories of Māori art. As well, his prominence as a public sculptor making commissions for highly visible sites means that his art is widely encountered. But these highlights don’t give a sense of the texture of a life, or an art practice. Without the other parts it is easy to misunderstand the things we do know, and to remain unaware of how the art might challenge the way we currently tell stories of Māori and New Zealand art.
The structure of Fred Graham: Creator of forms is fairly typical of this sort of publication. A Foreword by Hirini Moko Mead is followed by a major biographical essay by Maria de Jong called ‘The making of a sculptor’, which is organised according to major life events and places. A retrospective selection of artworks, beginning in 1966 and concluding in 2012, some of which are accompanied by brief statements from the artist, provides a nice overview of Graham’s art. This is followed by three essays: Robert Jahnke’s ‘A journey with Fred Graham’, which is presented as a narrative of Jahnke’s own encounters with Graham’s art since the 1970s; ‘Sharing Māori knowledge’ by Jill Smith, which, like Jahnke’s essay, is an analytical account based on personal experience, focused on the educational dimension of Graham’s art and artistic practice; and Jonathan Mane-Wheoki’s ‘Fred Graham and the contemporary Māori art movement’, which locates Graham as part of contemporary Māori art since 1960. The book also includes a glossary, a brief chronology, and finally a catalogue of 88 artworks, the earliest from 1959 and the most recent from 2013.
As the primary author, Maria de Jong is responsible for introducing Graham and his work. Her essay begins with the author meeting the artist at his home in Waiuku. Plenty of ‘thick description’ of what she sees and experiences fits with the rhetorical structure of the chapter (an interview taking place over lunch at a local café), with interjections and framing text by de Jong to fill in gaps, provide context, and keep the narrative moving forward. As the story picks up pace, de Jong comes more into focus as the narrator, using Graham’s quotes for emphasis and colour, rather than making them the centre of the text as happens early on. De Jong’s essay does a nice job of introducing the reader to the kind of work that Graham does, in a way that is accessible and meaningful to a general reader. Reinforcing the book’s format (not too big and expensive), this is a text for a wide audience to read and appreciate – a book that could travel in the same way that I imagine Graham wants for his art, to places and people who may not understand or appreciate modern art, but who, given the right information, could appreciate the concepts and aesthetics of his work.
Of the other three essays, the standout is probably that of Robert Jahnke. Because it is a history of encounters with Graham’s art, he has the opportunity to reflect on a changing framework for artistic evaluation – what you can see, and appreciate, is necessarily different at different moments. Jahnke also uses his essay as an opportunity to make a point about aesthetics. Māori art, he suggests, is not just an issue of what something looks like (‘explicit in the negotiation of aesthetics is an element of judgment relative to the degree of beauty evident in the work’) but what it means (‘narrative is a precondition of Graham’s practice’). This is unevenly realised – narrative connections to Jahnke’s experience and perception are not always consistently applied, but when they are the result is fascinating, as an artist and art historian reflects on his personal relationship with an artistic elder. This is partly about Jahnke’s own education – how he ‘needed to move beyond mimesis’ to a style uniquely his own – but also how an individual constructs a canon of art, how the encounter with individual artworks creates possibilities and options, and brings together a corpus of art that informs practice and thinking. What we get is an insight into how Jahnke’s idea of Contemporary Māori Art came into being, through his encounter with Graham’s art.
Jill Smith also grounds her analysis in personal experience – in this case her contact with Graham through the education system and the way he has been part of various education networks that have fed Māori art, but also ideas about art education more generally in Aotearoa. It is an interesting perspective, because it emphasises the way Graham has been involved in cross-cultural initiatives – his activities, including his art, is about speaking to Māori and Pākehā, about ‘sharing mātauranga Māori with Pākehā’, as Smith puts it. In a time of cultural separation, these reminders of the circumstances in which a generation has operated – and continues to operate – is interesting and important.
Jonathan Mane-Wheoki’s essay is a variant of a story he has written many times before, in which an individual artist is located within the parameters of the contemporary Māori art movement. Speaking of an important exhibition of Māori art that was held at the Waikato Art Museum in 1976, Mane-Wheoki says that ‘a whakapapa of Māori artists was becoming apparent’, and this is exactly what he provides here – a whakapapa for Graham, in which by now well-rehearsed events, individuals and ideas are combined in a new way to fit the circumstances and the audience for this book.
As a monograph, certain aspects could have received a little more attention. For example, there is no information about whether the catalogue of artworks is a selection or a complete representation, and if the latter, what selection criteria has been applied; the chronology lacks important information about the events that are listed (such as the venues of exhibitions); there is no bibliography of writings about Graham’s work; and the photographs of Graham’s personal life in de Jong’s biographical essay aren’t properly identified as to their location, photographer, date, and so on. I would also have liked more discussion of Graham’s public and private commissions. He has completed major works for public environments, as well as for private clients and environments that have a public dimension. His sculptures are found in courthouses, tertiary institutions, government departments, parks and public streets. How do such contexts affect what he makes and how these artworks are received? What can this tell us about changes in public and cultural life in Aotearoa, especially since the 1980s when Māori art has become much more prominent and favoured in these kinds of environments because of its social and political dimensions? This is not only important to understand Graham’s artwork, but for the way we understand Māori art in general, and it is one of the contributions that Graham’s practice can make to larger conversations about art in this country.
But this shouldn’t take away from the things that this book does really well. It is an introduction to Graham’s life and career that should find an audience. It is attractively produced, with high quality illustrations. The content will be useful to those with a stake in the art world and the stories of Māori and New Zealand art that are told in collections, museums and publications, as well as to people who might not care about that kind of thing but who want to know more about Graham, or Māori art, or that sculpture that they see in the public park or in some specific institution. Mostly I am struck by how appropriate the scale of this publication is, being both substantial and in a sense modest. This is not a coffee-table book that glorifies and elevates its subject, but rather a book to be read and consulted and enjoyed. It is, first and foremost, a useful publication, and the confidence and geniality of that seems perfectly suited to what this book has to say about the nature of Graham as a person and an artist.
Damian Skinner is curator of Applied Art and Design at the Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira. He is a co-author of Oceania: A new history (Thames & Hudson, 2012), which won the UK’s 2014 Art Book Prize. His other books include The Carver and the Artist: Maori art in the twentieth century, published by Auckland University Press.