Visitors to Te Papa's current art exhibitions would struggle to miss the works of New Zealand-born photographer Alexis Hunter writes Glory Days arts and lifestyle contributor Georgia Munn. In fact, this "small but perfectly formed" group of Hunter’s works, entitled The Model’s Revenge, is front and centre in the national museum's art space - the first thing your eyes meet - which is very much the intention of Te Papa senior art curator Sarah Farrar.
Farrar says she wanted to place a woman artist in a place of prominence, and that it was important to her to open the new season of Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa with “a strongly feminist statement". It's a fitting spot for this series of photos, which speak about issues facing women with a unique and humourous voice.
Alexis Hunter was born in New Zealand and studied in Auckland, and relocated to London, where her twin sister lived with her artist and filmmaker partner Darcy Lange, in the early 1970s. As an antipodean transplant, Hunter brought with her a more egalitarian, "almost DIY attitude" that differed vastly from British concepts of class and society. She "just got stuck in" without worrying about what others thought of her bold and outspoken work, although Farrar says Hunter was still acutely aware of the class system around her.
Hunter soon realised painting wasn't the best medium to express her political ideas and ambitions, and that photography allowed her the total control of being both the subject and the artist. She worked at the forefront of the feminist art movement and feminist theory, and exhibited her photographs with various collectives of woman artists during the 1970s.
Hunter's New Zealand-ness is seen in The object series, featuring photos of isolated portions of men's bodies, with several focusing on their tattoos. This was a reaction to a lecture Hunter attended in London where a British academic spoke about tattoos in a “patronising and offensive” way - she was struck by the narrow view, as growing up in New Zealand she’d seen the importance and tradition of Maori and Pacific Island tattoos. Other photos in this series emphasise sections of the male body without ever showing their faces, twisting the gaze and objectifying as women have been throughout Western art history.
In the title image of this Ngā Toi | Arts Te Papa exhibition, The Model’s Revenge, Hunter photographs her own nude torso pointing a gun straight out of the photograph, reversing the gaze back at viewers while asking them who calls the ‘shots’ with a visual pun. This sense of humour is prevalent in Hunter’s photographs, which use the power of humour to speak about political and social issues.
Hunter worked in commercial animation to support herself as an artist, and other works in The Model’s Revenge are similar to film strips, telling small stories through series of photographs that let viewers apply their own narratives and prejudices. One series of “photographed performance” shows a beautifully manicured woman's hand fondling a fabric-clad object, which is eventually revealed to be a video camera and then turned out towards the viewer in the last frame with yet another visual punchline.
Another filmic series shows the same manicured hand playing with rough, rusty machinery and becoming literally dirtier and dirtier with each subsequent shot. Although these images are not explicity sexual, it's difficult not to infer sexuality from them. It's no wonder that, in conservative London over forty years ago, Hunter struggled to find film processing studios to print her work.
Although these images were shot several decades ago, the messages behind them are still incredibly poignant to modern viewers. The themes of gaze, fear and objectification and the potent feminist viewpoint in Hunter's works are just as applicable now, despite gender equality becoming a more mainstream - and increasingly commodified - issue. Farrar says it's thrilling to see younger generations engaging with these works and learning about Hunter, and at a recent floor talk - the uncompromisingly-named 'Gender, Sexuality, Power' - mothers and daughters attended together and engaged in discussion about how we make sense of these works.
Hunter firmly believed that art was a vehicle for communication to speak to the masses, so her works are befitting of a national institution where many visitors are not a traditional arts audience. Farrar is glad that the museum can inspire its visitors, with this and other exhibitions, to ask “what moment are we part of?” and “is Hunter’s work still relevant to audiences today?” In the artist’s own words: "While there’s inequality and patriarchy in the world there’s a need for women-centred theory and philosophy and direct action."
We love Alexis Hunter and strongly recommend you get to Te Papa and see these wonderful photographs before the exhibition ends on the 26th February. Find out more about her and the show on their website.