ORGANISER Sarjeant Gallery, Whanganui OTHER VENUES Sarjeant Gallery, 1 November–6 December 1989; Manawatu Art Gallery, Palmerston North, 14 November–12 January 1992; Fisher Art Gallery, Auckland, 25 January–27 February 1992; Gisborne Museum and Art Gallery, 5 March–3 May 1992; Robert McDougall Art Gallery, Christchurch, 21 May–5 July 1992. SPONSORS Greater London Arts Council of Great Britain, Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, Agfa Gevaert New Zealand PUBLICATION essays Anne Noble, Mother M. Xavier McMonagle
Photography is about establishing the relationship between reality and experience.—Anne Noble.
London’s Tyburn Convent is home to a community of nuns who live by the ancient monastic rule of St Benedict. Based at the corner of Marble Arch and Bayswater Road, it’s a quiet sanctuary in a hectic city. Headed by a New Zealander, the Tauranga-raised Mother Xavier McMonagle, the nuns' work is charism—prayer ‘for the needs of the world’.
After stumbling upon the Convent by accident, Noble approached the nuns with the idea of producing a photo essay on their daily routines and rituals. Noble entered as a guest and stayed for six or seven weeks between 1987 and 1988. She ate, prayed, and worked with the nuns, while observing their silent practice, and photographed them. Noble says they carried on with their activities regardless of her presence.
In New Zealand Women Artists, Anne Kirker writes that Noble attempts to ‘make visible the underlying realities of all her subjects’. The fifty-five black-and-white photos in In the Presence of Angels cover every aspect of convent work and life—praying, working with the sick, even engaging in leisure activities, with a photo of Sister Simeon playing rounders in the garden. Noble says, ‘I wanted to show the outward aspect of an inward spiritual activity without disturbing the contemplative nature of the order or breaking into this silent, starkly beautiful realm.’ In Art New Zealand, Sara L. Knox observes that, in contemporary society, it is rare to enter convents, and argues that Noble’s photos express the ‘timelessness of that world’.
Within the show sits a vase of white lilies, symbolising the Virgin Mary’s purity, chastity, virtue, friendship, and devotion. The show is on at the same time as Billy Apple: As Good as Gold: Art Transactions 1981–91. Knox says the shows offer a ‘crude opposition of an unself-conscious spiritual world to an ironically self-conscious commercial world’.
The small foldout catalogue includes six postcards of Noble’s works, a small reflective piece on the project by Noble, and an essay by Mother-General Xavier McMonagle, telling the story of the journey of her faith and the Tyburn Convent.