JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 black and white photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against grey walls in the main gallery space and the office area. 18 of the works are archival pigment prints, made between 1959 and 1982 and printed recently. The prints are sized 15×15 inches and are available in editions of 25. The other 3 works are vintage gelatin silver prints, made in 1962 and 1971. These are sized roughly 7×8 or 8×10 inches. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: As the needs and challenges faced by migrating peoples around the world are becoming increasingly acute, our interest in (and awareness of) the successes and failures of past colonizations, resettlements, immigrations, and diasporas seems to be riding a rising wave. Almost regardless of geography and who is leaving, who is arriving, and who is already there, the broad issues of cultural assimilation, adaptation, and transplanting fall into surprisingly consistent patterns, the blunt realities of shared coexistence forcing us to grapple with similarities and differences on a very human scale.
Ans Westra was born in the Netherlands but moved to New Zealand in the late 1950s. At that time, the indigenous Māori population was in the midst of a transformation – in the post World War II period between the mid 1940s and the mid 1980s, Māori moved from the country and coast to the cities in massive numbers, the rapid migration leading to nearly 80% of Māori citizens living in urban areas. This put them increasingly into daily contact with New Zealanders of European descent, and forced them to adapt their traditional ways to the modern realities of industrialization and employment. Inspired by the humanism in the Family of Man exhibition, Westra was there with her camera to document these changing lives, and she has continued to do so for more than 60 years.
This show is essentially an introduction to Westra’s work, and is mostly populated by modern prints of some of her most memorable images from the 1960s and 1970s. As inherently an outsider to Māori culture, it isn’t entirely surprising that Westra likely received a wary welcome from many of her subjects, and from the mix of pictures on view here, it seems she often turned her camera to children, who were perhaps more open to her intrusions. Her strongest images find those children at moments of contrast, where their heritage is being shoehorned into European-style patterns. Of particular note are her pictures of school, where younger Māori children learn to tell clock time and say their morning prayers with folded hands, the clash of cultures made clear; an image of young boys dressed in dapper sweaters selling newspapers in the street offers a similar dissonance.
Westra’s pictures of young men and women provide a different slice of 1960s-era cultural assimilation, from Elvis-style crooning to awkward dancing at the community center. “Main Street, Wairoa” captures two young Māori women walking down the sidewalk in prim dresses and white gloves, with a nearby group of Māori boys watching them closely, the age old males watching females ritual transplanted to the city. “Cuba Street, Wellington” takes that idea further, the long haired Māori men hanging out and talking with a white girl outside a Chinese restaurant, the triple play of cultural mixing captured in a single resonant frame. Other images of mid 1970s scruffiness on the state highway, and Mongrel Mob men drinking beers track the search for Māori community amid all the dislocations.
Westra memorably captured the distances and barriers felt by Māori migrants in a composition that recalls an image by Gordon Parks. In Westra’s picture, a well dressed young Māori family window shops along Main Street, looking in toward a store selling gowns and furs with a sense of cautious uncertainty; in Parks’s image, a young woman and her daughter, both in party dresses, wait outside on a similar covered sidewalk, underneath a neon sign pointing to the colored entrance. Both photographs show uneasy coexistence and the stubborn impediments to assimilation, finding the friction just underneath the surface.
With whole populations likely on the move in response to climate change in the coming decades, Westra’s images provide some historical clues to what happens when traditional peoples are transplanted into modern circumstances and cultures are forced to adapt. While the specific situations are now dated, the underlying currents and conflicts her images represent are still surprisingly relevant.
Collector’s POV: The modern prints in this show are priced in rising editions starting at $1200 each, with some prints currently at $1800. The vintage prints are priced at $5120 each. Westra’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.