Bergman’s Newest Exhibition and The Representation of Asian Artists
Anyone with experience in the art world knows that it’s a rocky industry to navigate. Many established artists benefit from pre-existing personal connections and various forms of privilege that allow their careers to progress in a way that’s unachievable for most those without the same luxuries. Essentially, in the art business, getting your work in the public eye is often about who you know. Over the past year, I’ve witnessed Bergman Gallery actively fighting against these industry practices by hosting a series of exhibitions platforming both established and emerging artists with diverse cultural backgrounds. Their latest exhibition, A Place to Call Home, is no exception. Featuring nine contemporary Asian artists currently living in Tāamaki Makaurau, the exhibition tackles ideas surrounding tradition, belonging and how these artists translate ancestral legacies within their own.
Historically, the representation of artists of Asian descent is a weak spot within New Zealand’s art world. Even Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki took years to expand their collection of Asian art beyond one work by Guy Ngan (which was confined to the Lower Grey Gallery on their ground floor) But the marginalisation of Asian communities obviously goes a lot deeper. A Bergman gallery representative states that,” ‘even as 1/4 of Aucklanders are of Asian descent, cultural institutions, general media and in everyday life, Asians are still generally grouped as ‘Other’”. A Place to Call Home works against this label of other; using painting, sculpture, ceramics and photography as a means to declare that, to these artists and their communities, New Zealand is home.
Upon stepping into Bergman Gallery, you’ll be greeted by the work of Tanja McMillan, the artist commonly known as Misery. You might recognise her signature style from the bronze sculptures adorning Karangahape Road or the large-scale murals nestled throughout the city. Tanja’s heritage is a rich collage of French Polynesian Tahitian, Hakka Chinese, Australian and NZ Pakeha, which the artist often draws upon throughout her creative process. She has multiple works in the exhibition, each a vibrant collage of vivacious characters and elements from the natural world. Her piece ‘Golden Noodle’ features human millipede hybrids, sentient mushrooms and tomatoes and playful figures adorned with what appears to be butterfly wings. Her work is kaleidoscopic, almost like a hallucination from an exceptionally good trip. Spilling over with playful exuberance, this work sets the tone for what’s yet to come. On an adjacent wall hangs Naomi Azoulay’s contribution, her vibrant portrait of Genevieve, a builder from South Auckland. The middle-eastern-born, Auckland-based artist is known for her portraiture, which intends to provide intimate reflections of sitters and decolonise art spaces. Notice the attention to detail, the tattoos and the soft draping of fabric.
Just around the corner sits the shimmering work of Louie Bretaña. With their heritage stemming from Manila and the Visayan province of Iloilo, Bretaña’s work is embedded with rich cultural elements and depicts vibrant imaginings of pre-Christianity Filipino deities. The simple act of walking around these pieces evokes a sense of wonder and captivation; reflective, glittering shapes take new forms as the sun hits them from different angles and transforms them into living beings. However, Bretaña’s work is not only beautiful; it reflects a powerful desire for decolonisation and aims towards the platforming of pre-colonial Filipino narratives and mythologies.
Adorning the rest of the room are Rhea Maheshwari’s pastel dreamscapes, informed by her Indian/ New Zealand heritage. Each piece glistens with silver leaf, another dynamic work that shifts and morphs as you move around it. The works of brilliant sculptors are also featured. Cindy Huang’s floral porcelain works draw attention to the interactions between early Chinese settlers and Maori during Victorian times. Western medicine was often unaffordable, and so Maori communities traded for traditional Chinese medicine. And though I hate using the word ‘delight,’ there’s no other way to describe Yeonjae Choi’s works. Each sculpture initially presents as a figure until you look a little closer. Behind their translucent faces lie mountainscapes which appear hazy and dreamlike due to the nature of the glass, implying the presence of a whole other world inside one’s head.
As you make your way into the back room, you’ll come face to face with the most-photographed piece in the exhibition; Bev Moon’s ‘Offering.’ The piece resembles a Yum Cha spread with knitted delicacies. Lean in and notice the way carefully crafted prawns are visible underneath the woollen dumpling skins and the expertly constructed dishes of dipping sauces. It speaks to traditions such as food and knitting being passed down through generations and their ability to keep culture alive. A large golden cat sits in the middle of the table, serving as a homage to her father. The piece is constructed from paper mache and features moving eyes that Moon created the mechanics for. Initially, the artist installed a sensor that allowed the eyes to follow you around the room before deciding it might be too unsettling. ‘Offering’ speaks not only to the multitalented nature of the artist but to the importance of keeping tradition alive under colonialism.
On the surrounding walls sit works from Luise Fong and Abhi Chinniah. Luise Fong has been a household name for a while now and is known for her distinctive, post-modern style. Her works are up for interpretation; they’re beautiful and ambiguous, waiting for viewers to embed them with their own found meaning. Abhi Chinniah’s photographs sit on the opposite wall. Taken during lockdown, these works feature migrant and refugee New Zealanders, the type of Kiwis that are not often seen in mainstream media. The images possess an element of liberation, with models in traditional clothing posed against rolling hills and green meadows.
While this exhibition has since ended, Bergman has plenty of equally mesmerising shows on the horizon. Their current showcase, Te Vaerua O Te Vaine, Our Mother’s Hands, ‘speaks to matriarchal intergenerational learning, celebrating women’s creativity and skills and passing down wisdom and knowledge from one generation to another.’ Featuring five women from across the Pacific, the exhibition is set to be a celebration of cultural identity, heritage and womanhood. The curatorialcurational practices informing Bergman’s showcases are something many art galleries should, and need to, learn from. Art holds a unique form of power that allows for storytelling, informing and platforming, and Bergman constantly uses this power to uplift those who are not always offered equal opportunities. If you’re an art lover, take the opportunity to support a gallery that works towards uplifting our community and keep tabs on the above artists (not to be cheesy, but it’s clear they’re all destined for great things.)
Te Vaerua O Te Vaine, Our Mother’s Hands Runs From 13 July – 5 August, Bergman Gallery