ARTISTS Shannon Te Ao, Susan Te Kahurangi King CURATORS Robert Leonard, Aaron Lister
This show pairs artists at different ends of the contemporary-art spectrum. Susan Te Kahurangi King is a 64-year-old self-taught artist. She stopped speaking around the age of four. However, she draws, endlessly and inventively, in pencil, pastel, and ink. Shannon Te Ao (Ngāti Tūwharetoa) is a 37-year-old contemporary artist whose videos and performances isolate and re-figure aspects of Māori spoken language drawn from whakataukī and waiata. Both artists are acclaimed. King was shown in Paris’s Outsider Art Fair in 2013; Te Ao was the only New Zealand artist in the 2014 Biennale of Sydney.
The show features some King drawings that appear to take Māori motifs as a point of departure. King’s father, Douglas, a Pākehā, taught Te Reo—he gave his daughter the middle name Te Kahurangi or ‘treasured one’. As a child, King drew on sheets of paper featuring Māori motifs that her father used in his teaching. She responded imaginatively, incorporating these found motifs into her own visual language. Another suite of recent drawings responds to paper dolls sent to King by musician Alastair Galbraith.
Te Ao’s Two Shoots that Stretch Far Out explores the possibility (or impossibility) of communicating with others. In a barn, the artist recites an English translation of a Ngati Pōrou lament to a donkey, a swan, a colony of rabbits, a brood of chickens, and a wallaby. His borrowed words, which originally addressed the breakup of a romantic relationship and were spoken by a woman, now seem to refer to what separates the artist from his fellow performers—and us.
King’s eloquent drawings counter her inability to speak, showing her responding to what others give her. Te Ao’s video may be full of words, but it highlights the futility of our attempts to connect with others. At the heart of both artists’ works are the possibility and impossibility of communication.
In 2016, Te Ao won the Walters Prize for Two Shoots that Stretch Far Out.