The New Zealand Governor General H.E, the R.H Dame Patsy Reddy and Ben Bergman. Julian Zeman/Turama Photography/21031916
Cook Islands’ Bergman Gallery was again the only Pacific based gallery that took part in the Auckland Art Fair at the centre of the community Covid-19 outbreak. By Rachel Smith.
Exactly a week before the opening of the
Auckland Art Fair on February 24, all eyes were on the latest Covid news in New
Zealand. There was talk that the art fair was on, that the art fair was
probably off. And then that evening the official decision was made – the live
event was on, subject to Covid Alert Level 1 being announced the day prior to
“Given the proximity to the event, we are very
aware of how much work the artists have put in for this Fair, and the
commitment of participating galleries, especially after the cancellation of the
2020 event. We would be devastated not to have taken the opportunity on behalf
of the visual arts and events sectors,” announced Stephanie Post and Hayley
White, Auckland Art Fair co-directors.
“They took a big risk,” says Ben Bergman,
Director of Bergman Gallery, who arrived in Auckland from Rarotonga and headed
straight into three days of lockdown.
It was a risk that paid off, the 2021 Auckland
Art Fair opening as planned at The Cloud on Auckland’s waterfront. For Bergman,
the art fair has been two years in the making; works that were intended for
last years’ fair held over for 2021, and artists Mahiriki Tangaroa, Sylvia
Marsters and Raymond Sagapolutele creating new pieces during 2020. Of the 40
galleries at the art fair Bergman Gallery was again the only Pacific based
Tuesday (February 23) morning and it all comes
together as the Bergman Gallery booth is set up. This year the booth is double
the size of previous, Bergman snapping up extra space early on. The art works
arrive from the framers throughout the morning, each piece carefully unwrapped
and laid out as the puzzle of what goes where, comes together.
Marsters’ gardenia works fill one part of the
booth, four large canvases and a more recent series of smaller paintings. She
arrives just as the hanging is completed. It is the first time in over a year
that she has seen some of them, an emotional experience to be with them again.
“They have been wrapped up for a long time. I
finished them right before lockdown last year,” Marsters says of the larger
works. “All the years I’ve painted gardenias and they keep changing all the
time. I’m often surprised by the colours that I see. Recently, decayed flowers
come to the fore; elements of light come into play and exploring the reality of
life, death and renewal.”
“For me, the flowers transport me back to the
islands, the Cook Islands, where my father’s from, and painting the white
flowers has brought out all these different colours and emotions. And that’s
what I’m trying to project when you see my work – a space to contemplate, to be
present, and a respite from all the stuff that’s going on around us.”
Come the VIP opening on Wednesday morning, all
the galleries are in a state of readiness as guests are welcomed into The Cloud
with a mihi. This year Ben Chan works alongside Bergman at the gallery booth,
seconded from Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki where he works as Gallery
Assistant and Duty Operations Manager. Chan has the experience of participating
in art fairs on a large scale, having twice worked at the New Zealand pavillion
at Venice Biennale.
He met with Auckland based artists Marsters
and Sagapolutele prior to the art fair, for conversations about their work and
practice which he in turn shares with those visiting the Bergman Gallery booth.
“For me, if people don’t understand the work
then they won’t appreciate it,” he says.
Day one starts well with sales of work from
all three artists. There is audible and visual relief that the gallery’s own
risk to go ahead is paying off.
Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy visits the
booth and returns later in the morning to purchase one of Tangaroa’s works. By
the end of the second day all of Tangaroa’s paintings have been sold, news
which is quickly relayed back to Tangaroa, a Cook Islands based artist who is
not in attendance at the art fair this year. Like Marsters, her work was
created either side of the global pandemic.
“Covid had a significant impact on my work.
For a period of a month I self-isolated, so it was self-isolation on what is
pretty much an isolated island,” says Tangaroa.
“The idea that I had planned for an upcoming
solo show (In a Perfect World shown at Bergman Gallery in 2020) became
redundant and for a week I wandered around the house thinking, OK - now what?
It was by chance that I came upon a small self-portrait painting that I did
back in 2007; that triggered the change in my work.”
Her new work, a triptych created over the
Christmas/New Year period, was in turn inspired by this 2020 solo show. “The
idea behind the series was to reflect and summarise on what was an ill-fated
year - one that passed where we barely distinguished one ‘season’ to the
other,” explains Tangaroa.
Over the next few days, thousands of people
pass through the art fair. There are organised tours from across the country,
school groups, and families, all viewing and discussing the art works.
Sagapolutele and Marsters are at the booth every day, to talk about their work
and their process.
Friday afternoon and Sagapolutele is wearing
his mother’s lavalava as he gives his artist talk, the same lavalava as in his
work Change. His triptych of photographic images represents his mother,
himself, and his father, and investigates aspects of knowledge, love,
sacrifice, climate change and colourism, and all include his ancestor skull
“My work navigates this idea around cultural
identity – it connects me to my heritage as a Samoan,” he explains. “The bones
are about honouring my heritage. In Samoa, bones do not represent mortality; a
skeleton is a connection and not to be feared, it is part of who we are.”
He talks openly about the challenges of
photography which is not a traditional Samoan art form. “I’m an orator and
photography is the form I use. It’s about what is inside you, not what form you
are using. The camera is not the practice, the person is.”
It is these conversations, the opportunity to
hear Raymond put words to his photographic narrative, that bring extra layers
of understanding and connection. There is an exchange of responses – the artist
a witness to the viewers reaction to their work, and the viewer learning more
about the intention and process behind each piece.
For Bergman, the art fair has been a success
in many ways, not in the least of being able to physically make it there.
“It was a big question for us as to how to
raise the money to attend the fair, given Cook Islands borders were closed to
tourists in March 2020, but, between our generous long-term supporters, Palm
Grove, Bank South Pacific (BSP), Turama Photography and CITC Liquor, a great
fundraiser and some good clients, we were able to meet our targets,” he says.
As it goes in these times, the last day of the
art fair does not happen as Auckland moves back lockdown. There is gratitude
that this window opened, that artists and galleries and the art appreciative
could be together, that the art fair could happen at all.