New Zealand: Canvas hopping from waterfronts to walls with no name
Perched almost precariously on the edge of the water, surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Tasman Sea, Wellington seems dainty and vulnerable. And it has used these attributes incredibly well to earn an enviable reputation.
People said it’s really small, that it was swept by blustery winds constantly, that it had a lovely coastline, that it was diverse and had an incredible buzz, that it dished up delectable food and delicious coffee, that it was the coolest little capital in the world. And yet, walking around, it was something else that caught my eye.
Everywhere, there were bright, evocative and utterly riveting instances of street and public art. On the sides of buildings and in alleyways, on the roads and in cul de sacs, on pavements and in the middle of streets, hanging precariously on the mountainside and leaping into the harbour – literally everywhere.
The art of the matter
Predictably, Wellingtonians are very proud of their public art initiative and that perhaps grew out of the civic authority’s anxiety over graffiti. The effort, especially where public wall art was concerned, was probably to institutionalise it and remove the anarchic element, but the result has been a rather strange one. There seemed to be an easy and indulgent relationship between the administration and the artists, the former probably secure in the knowledge that no matter how arresting the murals, it was impermanent at best. And so, it was no surprise that an array of murals dotted the entire downtown area, each so vastly different from the next.
Walking around, it was the sheer unexpectedness that made the whole thing utterly fascinating. From abstract forms to political statements, from heartfelt tributes to whimsical dreams, from humour to mystery, it was all there.
Any talk of street art inevitably arrives at a reference to Banksy and the influences were unmistakable. Despite the city council’s charter on mural projects, a significant volume of the art work is done under questionable legality and artists prefer to remain anonymous and work under such names as Ghostie, Editor, PNTR and BENT. The last even had an element of the inscrutable and mysterious attached to him (it has been documented that the artist is male). His iconic, gigantic grey pigeons spring up at the unlikeliest of places, almost always overnight, with silent undertones of debate ranging from identity to the tension between public and private spaces.
But nowhere was there any overt reference or messaging, which probably made it all the more powerful. Rather, the artist chose to let the viewer bring in whatever he or she wanted to into the reading of his work.
Graffiti over the edge
Elsewhere, there were massive images of warped animals or cartoonish renderings of the animals, which were at once striking and thought-provoking. Done by an artistic collective under the name BMD, it comprised two friends who kept themselves under wraps for nearly a decade before revealing themselves (Damin Radford-Scott and Andrew J Steel) recently, and announcing the dissolution of their partnership because both had evolved and were eager to pursue different paths, but insisted that they would continue independently. By far their most famous work was on the huge wall of a car park on Cable Street which directly faced the weekly Harbourside Market. Called the Shark Wall, it was done as a part of the Shark Awareness Week and to campaign against killing sharks for their fins. It stretched 50 mts in length and 9 mts in height, and featured 190 sharks in various colours, denoting the number of sharks killed every minute for their fins.
In complete contrast to such public messaging art, there were others that were personal and nuanced. Xoe Hall, a self-confessed pop artist had painted walls with recognisable characters with shades of Lichtenstein running through them. A bit edgy, dark and in your face, the stencilled figures nevertheless spoke to the passerby.
Nowhere was it more emphatic than on Ghuznee Street, where the artist paid tribute to iconic musician David Bowie. Overtly Andy Warholesque, there were three giant stylised stencils of the musician’s face. It was also very simple and that’s probably why it was also striking enough to stop passersby in their tracks and stare.
Where the streets have no aim
But wandering around, I discovered so much diversity that it was just too mindboggling. There was certainly graffiti art that adorned facades both on the main roads within building complexes or little cul de sacs that ended abruptly and which relied on the sheer joy of accidently stumbling upon them to deliver their impact. But there were also abstract forms, human and animal figures, objects and
concepts... Some were in muted colours, others seemed to have had a merry time with the whole
palette and then some. Such was the impact of this kind of art that even companies and corporate
houses seemed to borrow them. Like the oldest shoe brand Hannahs, which had painted their car slots with giant black shoes on a deep pink background.
And yet, splashes of colour and images staring down from walls, riveting as they were, were actually just one facet of Wellington’s public art. As if to provide a counter point to the two-dimensional murals, Wellington’s cityscape was generously sprinkled with sculptures and installations. At the Waterfront in the Te Aro area was the most representative of them all — a metal statue of a man standing at the edge of the water, dramatically bent against the wind, ready to take a leap. Done by English sculptor Max Patte, the work speaks of tranquility in the face of chaos and about being one with the elements.
Gone with the wind
Smart Alecky locals of course said it was about Wellington’s reputation as a windy city. In fact,
this self-deprecation was also evident in the Hollywood style name of the city erected on a hillock facing the harbour but with a twist – the last two letters of Wellington were depicted as being blown away! And just in case you wanted to know how windy it was, there was also the Zephyrometer, a kinetic sculpture of a giant swinging needle at Evans Bay by Phil Price, a Christchurch
artist, which showed both wind speed and direction.
In fact, round every corner and down almost every street in the downtown Wellington, there was something — the Philanthropist’s Stone and Bucket Fountain on Cuba Street, Nikau Palms in Civic Square, Per Capita on Cable Street, Punga Peke at Courteney Place, Tripod at Cambridge Terrace by Weta Workshop, and even a Gandhi statue at the Wellington Railway Station. But as I left the city, it was the faint glow of the Wellington sign on the mount that stayed for long. It seemed apt, since
it signified everything that epitomised the city.
Maori go round
The indigenous Maori people add such a rich layer to New Zealand culture and heritage that it is both
unmistakable and un-missable. Some of this comes through in Wellington’s street art scene. Artists such as Bruce Mahalski bring their native sensibilities to their art, especially in depiction of native animals and their integral place in Maori culture. But nowhere is this connection more pronounced than at the City to Sea Bridge. A pedestrian bridge made of timber connecting Civic Square to Wellington Waterfront, it is also an art work by prominent Maori artist Paratene Matchitt, combining Maori art forms with a modernist twist. The bridge is also a narrative depicted by two taniwha or mythical river creatures, two towering manu or local birds, whales, fish and other creatures and narrates the story of how Te Whanganui-a-Tara (Wellington Harbour) was created according to Maori legend.
New Zealand’s capital Wellington is located at the Southern tip of the North Island.
How to reach: There are no direct flights from India to New Zealand. Auckland in the Northern part of the North Island is the international gateway and Asian carrriers, including Jet Airways, offer flights with transit. Air New Zealand flies many times a time between Auckland and Wellington.