Wellington artist Guy Ngan, now aged eighty, is one of New Zealand’s most prolific, yet unsung artists. He works across a dizzying array of media—architectural and freestanding sculpture, design, painting, drawing, interior architecture and printmaking—and is best-known for large-scale public works made during the 1950s-80s dotted in towns and cities across the country. When Ngan was approached to gauge his interest in mounting a solo exhibition (his first in a public gallery since 1979), he was adamant that at eighty he was ‘too young for a retrospective’. Instead, he wanted to develop a project, where a body of sculpture and a series of paintings never previously exhibited alongside one another could be brought together to explore his long-held fascination in the history of early settlement in the Pacific.
The works in this exhibition represent one man’s exploration, through history, image and form, of his place in the Pacific and in Aotearoa in particular. The exhibition focuses on three bodies of work. The ‘Tiki Hand’ paintings and ‘Anchor Stone’ sculptures are Ngan’s homage to early navigators who around 3500 years ago traversed great ocean distances from mainland and Island Southeast Asia through places now known as Micronesia, Melanesia and Polynesia. These works show his fascination with form and have a strong engagement with modernism and its truth to materials, but also use a personal vocabulary of symbols. Oceania No. 6 depicts a ‘bird’s eye view’ of a Pacific archipelago. Searching, where a wood-cut waka (canoe) form has been printed over a painted surface, presents us with a vessel for ocean-going. The ‘Tiki Hand’ form personifies the mighty early explorers and navigators of the Pacific. Tiki Hands II (Green Fingers) and Tiki Hands Generations pay tribute to the significance of genealogy and the debt we owe our ancestors; Tiki Hands Encompassing Immense Space acknowledges the incredible achievement of successfully crossing oceans and Tiki Hand Triumphal Elevation celebrates arrival and the resulting new beginning.
The ‘Anchor Stone’ sculptures are inspired by a taonga (treasure) Maungaroa te punga tapu o te waka Matahoura (ME015920) now at Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa, a photograph of which is in the exhibition. Colloquially known as ‘Kupe’s Anchor Stone’, it is thought to be from legendary early Māori explorer Kupe’s waka Matahoura, which for a time was moored in Porirua harbour. This greywacke boulder is said to have been left behind when a new local stone replaced this anchor, as evidence of Kupe’s presence in a new land. Anchor’s made from stones have been used by many sea-faring peoples and Ngan is captivated by their form, but also how they represent that all-important landfall. The seven sculptures in the exhibition are a small sampling of works in this series, and include forms carved in a range of woods and cast in bronze.
Guy Ngan’s larger-scale public works collectively act as markers by which we can navigate a particular period of urban growth from the late 1950s to the 1980s, when public and commercial building was particularly active and processes of commissioning and siting public art integrated ‘within’ architecture were being developed. The large mural in this exhibition was made in 1973 for Auckland’s Newton Post Office comes to City Gallery Wellington from Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki which was gifted the work after the remodeling of the Post Office building. Other large-scale works in Wellington include a sculpture on the façade of the Reserve Bank building on the Terrace, a concrete relief on the National Archives building (ex Government Print building) in Thorndon and a concrete sculpture in the centre of the Stokes Valley roundabout.
Guy Ngan was born in Wellington in 1926 to Chinese parents. He spent a large chunk of his early childhood in China, returning to New Zealand for study. In 1951 he continued his study at Goldsmith’s School of Art, London University, and later the same year he was admitted to the Royal College of Art, London, where on graduation in 1954 he was given the Royal College Continuation Scholarship (₤600) for one year. Added to that the British Council awarded him with a scholarship to the British School in Rome with the allowance of ₤12 a week plus travel expenses. He returned to New Zealand to become a public art works consultant at the Architectural Division, Ministry of Works in 1956, where he stayed until 1960 when he went to work for Stephenson & Turner Architects (1960- 1970). Guy Ngan has had a long-term involvement with the NZ Academy of Fine Arts, including ten years (1976-1986) as Director.