Art history tells us a lot about the present moment through its interpretation of the past. In historicising the work of bygone artists, it reveals changing attitudes and contemporary concerns, writes Emma Ng.
This year Wellington is host to three exhibitions recognising artists linked to the region: Gordon Walters at Te Papa, Theo Schoon at City Gallery and Guy Ngan at The Dowse. Their proximity reminds us of the artists’ overlapping lives and careers; all three studied together at Wellington Technical College in the 1940s, under the English sculptor Alex Fraser. But this coincidence also highlights just how differently they were received and canonised within New Zealand art history. In the case of Walters and Schoon — whose careers were both tarnished by accusations of cultural appropriation in the 1990s — these exhibitions feel like second or third drafts of their place in art history. In the case of Ngan, it highlights the paucity of institutional recognition for his work during his own lifetime.
Despite his prolific output, Ngan received scant attention from major public galleries. With the exception of a 2006 exhibition at City Gallery Wellington, no solo showings of his work were brought to fruition by public galleries after the 1970s, and few art writers engaged with his work. As a result, his practice has not been brought into Aotearoa’s art historical fold for proper consideration.
This is not to say that Ngan was not successful. His 2012 induction into Massey University’s College of Creative Arts Toi Rauwharangi Hall of Fame (at the age of eighty-six) recognised his lifetime of work, including his contribution to the country’s urban fabric via a great number of public commissions. His work is held in the collections of Te Papa, Auckland Art Gallery, and The Dowse. He was awarded an OBE in 1983 and was a well-known popular figure, with newspaper clippings referring to Ngan in familiar and respected terms.
He regarded the City Gallery show, Journey: Aluminium Panel, Tiki Hands, and Anchor Stones, as his “first exhibition in 30 years”. Reviewing it for the Dominion Post, Mark Amery suggested that Ngan had fallen victim to fickle fashion, explaining: “in part why the work of this interesting senior artist has not received much critical attention”. But it seems that Ngan was not an artist forgotten, but one who New Zealand’s art institutions struggled to fully appreciate, even during the most productive decades of his career. As Amery also notes, it is revealing that the catalogue for Journey featured a lengthy list of public commissions, but did not include a record of exhibitions.
We’re doing double duty here: unravelling some of the complexities that have contributed to Guy Ngan’s lack of critical recognition, and recording them so that they become part of his art history. Some of these factors relate to Ngan’s cultural identity. He identified as ‘Pacific Chinese’ at a time when this was a bold assertion, and there was perhaps societal reluctance to engage with and understand him on those terms. We should remember that Ngan would have faced outright racism during his lifetime: a reality for Chinese New Zealanders through much of the twentieth century. And his inexhaustible productivity almost certainly played a part, too, with the perceived ubiquity of his work eliciting some suspicion and dismissal from art-world gatekeepers.
First and foremost, it is necessary to understand the uniqueness of Guy Ngan’s work and life. There is no other New Zealand artist who provides a neat template for understanding Ngan’s art practice and the way he used it to situate himself in the world. At the outset of her paradigm-cracking essay, ‘Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?’ Linda Nochlin wrote, “In the field of art history, the white Western male viewpoint, unconsciously accepted as the viewpoint of the art historian, may — and does — prove to be inadequate”. To appreciate Guy Ngan’s legacy, it is necessary to attempt to understand him on his own terms.
In March 1983, late in his decade-long directorship of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts, Ngan wrote a piece titled ‘Visual Arts and Daily Bread’. In it, two particular themes emerge that might guide our interpretation of Guy Ngan’s practice: his understanding of art as inextricably entangled with life itself, and an enduring interest in grand historical narratives.
In the short unpublished essay, Ngan, who proudly traced his own ancestry to Confucius, suggests that the artists of his time should situate themselves as students of “early Greek culture, the Han and Tang dynasties in China, the Renaissance period in Europe, and the highly sophisticated society of Georgian England”. His ultimate message is that art powers the engine of cultural development, and should be understood for its contribution to everyday life. “Most important of all,” he concludes, “is learning to understand that having art as a part of our everyday living should be as natural and normal as having our daily bread.”
It’s with this in mind that we should consider the breadth of Ngan’s all-encompassing practice, which included painting, sculpture, furniture design and architecture. He was interested in being an artist in relation to everything else. We might understand this as a commitment to the gesamtkunstwerk, the total work of art, a concept the Bauhaus had been pioneering in a modern sense during the decades of Ngan’s childhood. His early training encouraged this lack of distinction between art and craft. In Wellington, he learned from Chinese cabinetmaker William Gee, and trained in drawing and sculpting with Alexander R. Fraser at night classes at Wellington Technical College. These ideas were likely reinforced during his years at the Royal College of Art in London in the early 1950s, where he experimented across the college’s different workshops. In hindsight it’s apparent that the aspects of Ngan’s production that were not intended for exhibition — pieces of furniture, or even the home he built with Jean Ngan in Stokes Valley — sit in a grey area that art history has struggled to account for.
When he returned to New Zealand from Europe in 1956, it was to take up a role working with Gordon Wilson in the Ministry of Works’ architectural division. There he advised on how public art might be incorporated into architectural design, and conceived a number of wall sculptures, murals and friezes that were incorporated into new buildings around the country.
Sadly, many of these works were not valued as artworks and often left to deteriorate, or were destroyed or lost. A typed résumé dated April 2000 bears a list of ‘Major Art Works Completed’ by Ngan. The artist annotated the list by hand in 2005, turning it into a bitter catalogue of the artworks’ fates: “camouflaged… demolished… whitewashed… destroyed… disappeared… degraded… mutilated… vandalized… sold… gone… ?”.
Spurred by “the need for better protection of New Zealand’s cultural heritage in the area of public art”, Wellington artist Bronwyn Holloway-Smith has researched the disappearance of civic works created by E. Mervyn Taylor during the same mid-century period. Her work in this area highlights a late-twentieth-century phenomenon: Taylor and Ngan both suffered the misfortune of producing works that fell victim to a social climate that neglected public artworks — and by extension failed to value their authors.
Ngan produced an incredible number of public works, partly because he advocated so effectively for the commissioning of art for public spaces, even after leaving the Ministry of Works. As a result, however, there was more than a whiff of snarkiness about his output. One particularly sniffy and suspicious piece, published in City Magazine circa 1985, zeroes in on Ngan, describing him as part of a “Wellington art mafia”. Deeming his work mediocre, its author Ian Wedde suggests, “Ngan would seem to be cosy with the council… For all we know he might, as a consultant or commissioning agent or judge, be awarding himself commissions”. (“The Wellington Art Mafia Dossier,” City Magazine, c. 1985) Of “occasional observations/grumbles about Ngan’s ubiquitousness”, Heather Galbraith wrote that they carried “an inferred subtext that a ‘jobbing’ artist was somehow lower on an art hierarchy than one whose work appears within a museum and gallery context”.
Thinking about the perceived ubiquity of Guy Ngan’s work, it is tempting to wonder about how things may have been different if he had worked with more public gallery curators. One of the curator’s roles is to guide artists in the editing of their work, selecting particular pieces from their potentially vast catalogue of artistic experimentation to display. On the other hand, what this really implies is filtering Ngan’s work through the tastes of curators (likely Pākehā), in order to shape it into an appealing oeuvre for dominant art-world tastes. Ngan would likely have had no interest in subjecting his work to such a process.
In this respect, Ngan seems the opposite of Gordon Walters, who worked on his pītau paintings for a decade before showing them publicly in 1966, by which time they were fully developed. Walters is held up as an exemplar of high-modernist process, whose continual refinement took him toward an inevitable and essential formal apex. Ngan, by contrast, was driven to continual making and sharing. The book that he produced with Ron Sang, one of his great supporters, embodies this open approach. Described as a scrapbook, it combines photographs, drawings and annotations that capture his work in its various stages of genesis, completion and reception.
Walters presents another interesting opportunity for comparison, having stumbled into fierce debates around biculturalism due to his free formal appropriation of Māori visual culture. Guy Ngan also sampled from the patterns and taonga of the Pacific. As well as making sculptures inspired by Maungaroa, te punga tapu o te waka Matahourua, also known as Kupe’s Anchor Stone, Ngan made a large number of paintings that featured a three-fingered ‘tiki hand’. For Ngan, the form found in Māori whakairo represented the shared ancestry of Pacific and Asian cultures through its similarity to a bird claw, pointing to the “reliance of early navigators on sea birds”. He was invested in the idea that Polynesian navigators had migrated from Japan and Taiwan, seeing himself and his work as part of that continuum. Ngan was fixated on the tiki hand form from 1971 onwards, deploying it within a stylised modernist language, with its symbolism consolidating his personal identification as ‘Pacific Chinese’.
Strangely, it seems Ngan was both of his time and ahead of his time. Of his time, because like Walters and Schoon, he instrumentalised and appropriated Pacific motifs for his own cultural agenda. And he was ahead of his time in seeking to make himself at home as a Chinese artist born in Aotearoa, by seeking connection and commonality with the cultures of the Pacific in a way that bypassed Pākehā mediation. But for a nation already preoccupied with understanding and working through fraught bicultural relations between Māori and Pākehā, society was wholly unready to and perhaps uneasy about engaging with the ‘other’ cultural identity that Ngan put forth. Even today, understanding the place of non-Pākehā tauiwi in Aotearoa is far from straightforward.
Like every other part of Ngan’s life, his Pacific Chinese identity was something that he embodied completely and confidently. The classical Chinese education he received as a young boy living in China was supplemented by rugby and wood carving upon his return to New Zealand. His cross-cultural education continued, through his impeccable British art school credentials, extensive travel around Europe’s great historic sites of artistic production, and return visits to China. But despite his self-confidence, there was simply no framework and perhaps little desire on the part of New Zealand’s art institutions to interpret and contextualise Ngan’s culturally specific practice. As Yiyan Wang has written, “it is one thing to have a “multicultural” society in which many diasporic communities live and thrive, but it is quite another for a society’s high culture to absorb cultural values and aesthetics from other traditions”.
Wang, who is Professor of Chinese in the School of Languages and Cultures at Victoria University of Wellington, studies aspects of Chinese diasporic art production in the Antipodes. Adapting Pierre Bourdieu’s theory that taste is determined by those who wield the most cultural capital, Wang describes the “tyranny of taste” that Chinese Australian artists face: “creative work by diasporic artists is largely judged by the “art establishment” of the “host country” according to the established mainstream art criteria”. In part, Ngan’s work has not been deemed important to New Zealand’s art history because it has been seen to represent a marginal identity, rather than contributing to the formation of a mainstream narrative of national becoming.
Similar limitations impacted the production of Ngan’s work as well as its reception. I’m thinking here of some of the racist undertones of the public responses that stymied the installation of Ngan’s sculpture, Millennium Tree (2005), in Dove Myer Robinson Park, also known as the Parnell Rose Gardens. The sculpture, whose form was inspired by the staff of the Monkey King of Chinese legend, now resides in the Auckland Domain. Proposed in 1999 as a millennium gift from Chinese New Zealanders to Auckland, it was protested by Parnell residents, who cited “aesthetic clashes” with the Victorian-Edwardian gardens. Given the more overt anti-Chinese sentiment that reared its head in some of the public commentary, one wonders whether “aesthetic clashes” functioned as a kind of doublespeak, cloaking a multitude of objections that were rooted in racial and cultural rejection. One of the neighborhood’s residents was quoted in the New Zealand Herald as saying, “There is no Chinese involvement in the area except for the people who visit the hotels” — a stinging rebuke to the many Chinese Aucklanders who have long lived in the central city and its surrounding suburbs. In particular, the stainless steel sculpture was criticised for being ultra modern, yet recently a national Erebus memorial was announced for the park. It also appears to be a contemporary stainless steel design, but as yet no community objections have been raised.
Ngan lived through years of systemic legislative discrimination for Chinese people in New Zealand, as well as various phases of anti-Asian sentiment. Overt expressions of Chinese New Zealand identity in public space continue to be resisted even to this day. Even as Ngan celebrated wins, new battles appeared on the horizon for Chinese New Zealanders. In 2006, the Dominion Post cheered the relocation of his sculpture Geometric Growth (1974), which had been removed to make way for the new central library in 1989. (“Ngan sculpture finds new home,” The Dominion Post, November 2, 2006) The sculpture had sustained damage and deterioration since, so was recreated for its new permanent location next to the Michael Fowler Centre. Wellington City Councillor, Ray Ahipene-Mercer, reported that members of the public had even rung the council to say they were pleased to see the askew tower of steel boxes again. However, directly over the page in the Dominion Post was an announcement from the City Council about the redevelopment of Frank Kitts Park, including a proposed Chinese Garden. Coming across these two items, printed back-to-back on the same sheet of newsprint, was striking as thirteen years on, the Chinese Garden project has still not materialised. Its development has faced blocks at every turn, in large part because members of the public continue to question whether the prime waterfront location is an appropriate location for celebrating the history and presence of Chinese in the city.
Achieving late recognition is an artist trope (think: van Gogh) that has taken on additional dimensions as we assume the task of decentering art history with the new critical acuity imparted by evolving feminist and postcolonial thought. The under-recognition of marginal artists may have become a common refrain, but for Guy Ngan, his snubs sit in stark contrast with his successes, many of which occurred in spheres outside of art’s validating institutions.
We are fortunate that many traces of the artist do remain, providing a material basis for considering Ngan’s lifetime of work. But, this is not a case of restoring a forgotten artist to their place within art history’s existing parameters of success. Those parameters were, and perhaps remain, inadequate to understanding Guy Ngan on his own terms: his drive to make work for all to enjoy, the cultural hybridity he so confidently embodied, and the way his practice extended beyond his work to encompass his entire personhood and every aspect of the life he lived.
Art history is one lens through which we understand historical change, by studying how artists have made sense of the world around them and their place within it. In this regard, Guy Ngan has much to contribute to our picture of Aotearoa’s social and cultural becoming in the twentieth century. And in reconsidering his unique contribution from our current vantage point, we expand the bounds of art history for the artists working in his footsteps today.
This content was created in paid partnership with The Dowse Art Museum. Learn more about our partnerships here.
Special thanks to Heather Galbraith for sharing her memories of working with Guy Ngan with me for this essay.
This article is an adaptation of Emma Ng’s essay Guy Ngan, on his terms from the new book Guy Ngan, which will be published in August 2019. The book was made possible thanks to the financial support of Creative New Zealand, and The Dowse Foundation.