Divergent: New Photography Aotearoa presents the work of three emerging artists: Cao Xun, Telly Tuita and Tia Ranginui. The exhibition has been organised by New Zealand curator Robert Leonard, his first project in Brisbane since leaving the Institute of Modern Art in 2013. Aotearoa/New Zealand artists featured prominently in Leonard’s program at the IMA, which in turn facilitated the original Ryan Renshaw Gallery’s relationships with artists such as Yvonne Todd, Gavin Hipkins and Peter Madden.
The Renshaws’ evolution from traditional dealer gallery to a project-based model lends itself nicely to a proposition like Divergent. Leonard brings together distinctive, early career practices that use photography to articulate the complexity and changing demographics of Aotearoa/New Zealand society. Leonard sums them up with typical wit as “putting their own spin on our identity-politics, melting-pot moment.”
The fourteen works on display represent a tightly edited selection that still feels comprehensive. The elegant and spacious architecture of The Renshaws’ renovated warehouse ensures that individual images are given breathing room without sacrificing the potential for meaningful connections. Leonard is known for iconoclastic and sometimes provocative exhibitions that disrupt the canon. Working with a diverse range of artists, galleries and publications, he is uniquely qualified to curate an exhibition on the state of photography ‘across the ditch.’
Arranged across a single gallery wall, Cao Xun’s modestly sized, unframed prints evoke the aesthetics of online advertising and street photography. The Auckland-based artist’s close ups of anonymous subjects using a bicycle and mobile phone headset reveal how these objects have become extensions of the body. One intriguing composition features a plastic glove containing noise cancelling ear buds, while other images feature multiple bodies entangled to the point of collapse. There is an overall sense of disconnection and unease in these works, reflecting the artist’s own experience as a queer person.
Facing off in the middle of the gallery, Telly Tuita’s brightly coloured, performative self-portraits form the physical and conceptual spine of the exhibition. As a child, Tuita left his native Tonga for Australia and now lives in Wellington, making him, as Leonard observes, “doubly displaced.” Tuita’s highly theatrical images reference colonial photography, the Four Horseman of the Apocalypse and the artist’s idealised vision of Tonga from his childhood. Tuita describes his work as TongPop Nostalgia, reflecting the artist’s dislocation from his original culture.
A wall spanning both gallery spaces presents Tia Ranginui’s contemporary retelling of patupaiarehe, the fair skinned, mountain dwellers and supernatural beings, who, according to Māori lore, were the first people of Aotearoa. Tua o Tāwauwau/Away with the Fairies imagines the patupaiarehe as red headed hipsters who vape, instead of conjuring mists, and live in suburban Whanganui. The works’ acknowledgment of Ranginui’s Norse ancestry, in addition to her Māori heritage, attests to the unfixed nature of identity that is a defining concern of the three artists in the exhibition.
Divergent is the type of exhibition we don’t see enough of in Brisbane: a curatorial project presented by a commercial gallery, of interesting work not previously shown locally. It is encouraging to see The Renshaws’ reconfirm their commitment to showcasing Aotearoa artists with this exhibition. Brisbane has a deep pool of talented artists, organisations and projects like the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, but we have to engage with what is happening elsewhere on an ongoing basis, especially our regional neighbours. Knowledge of our wider context is essential to understanding and improving what we do here. There is something genuinely exciting about seeing new art for the first time, and I’m grateful to The Renshaws and Robert Leonard for giving me that this week.
Hamish Sawyer is an independent curator and writer based in Meanjin (Brisbane).