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Religious celebration basis of Gragg’s new exhibition

Tuesday 11 April 2023 | Written by Joanne Holden | Published in Art, Features


Religious celebration basis  of Gragg’s new exhibition
Artist Joan Gragg, 79, has incorporated coconuts into the sculptures which are part of her latest exhibition, The Nuku. Photo: Joanne Holden/ 23041010

The artist who founded the Cook Islands’ premier art gallery has used a painting she created 15 years ago to showcase the ‘joy, variety, and innovation’ of one of the island nation’s oldest religious celebrations as a springboard for her latest exhibition.

The Nuku is the crux of 79-year-old artist Joan Gragg’s latest exhibition which opens tonight at the Bergman Gallery.

“I hope that everybody’s going to find it inspiring,” Gragg says.

“I hope that when they come in, they’re just going to be blown away with joy and happiness. “That’s the feeling I want them to go away with.”

The Cook Islands Christian Church has been running the annual Nuku Pageant in Rarotonga for more than 160 years, Gragg says.

The island’s six villages each put on a play for the religious celebration, held on October 26 every year.

Nuku was the focus of Gragg’s Masters in Art and Design from the Auckland University of Technology, a degree she earned after an intensive three-year course. She graduated in 2010.

“It’s such a great concept,” Gragg says.

“There are a lot of choices for what people can use in their Nuku. There’s the coming of the missionaries, there’s Bible stories. They have innovative subjects sometimes, like: what will Rarotonga be like in 50 years time, as far as religion is concerned?”

The aim of Gragg’s art is to showcase the “joy, camaraderie, love, and all the other great things that happen in a community in the Cook Islands”, she says.

“It’s a really special time when people get together, whether it be Nuku or getting ready for Te Maeva Nui.”

Bergman Gallery owner Ben Bergman calls Gragg “quite an important artist”.

“Her practice now spans five decades,” Bergman says.

“I think it highlights the depth of Cook Islands contemporary – how long it’s been going on, where it is now, and how far it’s still got to go.”

Nuku is a “celebration of the way Cook Islanders do things”, Bergman says.

“It’s a real spotlight on our culture, on our people, and our approach to everyday circumstances.”

Bergman took a “curatorial” role in the exhibition, working with Gragg to develop multiple art pieces centred on a black-and-white painting – measuring almost five metres long – she produced in 2008.

“I think Joan really hit on something in this painting, insofar as she brought an entire day’s Nuku into one composition and examined it on quite an intimate level,” Bergman says.

“We agreed to show this painting and then to build a collection of works around it, to really highlight Joan’s message.”

Gragg says her exhibition’s cornerstone painting expresses the “joy, variety, and innovation” of the Nuku.

“There’s Jonah and the whale, there are the people that are watching, the dignitaries dressed in their Sunday best, dogs barking.

“Then, I did some smaller paintings of people singing and being together and having fun. I usually paint in oil or pastel. I’ve also done sculptures, and I’ve used coconuts for the heads and silk or plastic flowers for a variety of ei.

“My art is figurative, mainly.”

Gragg has been working on the exhibition, which features 14 paintings and eight sculptures complementing her 2008 acrylic on black building paper piece, for about three years.

“There’s been a lot of interruptions. My husband died, and that really knocked me for six. I just had to get my head around it.”

Bergman says Gragg has been exhibiting at the gallery “for quite some time and is one of our senior practitioners”.

She founded the Beachcomber, which houses the Bergman Gallery – spurred by her interest in both art and black pearls.

“What Joan created was the first space in which contemporary art could be shown to a larger audience in a gallery style, and it’s certainly a mantra we picked up and ran with when we bought the company,” Bergman says.

Gragg was born in Rarotonga in 1943.

She moved to New Zealand as a teenager to study at New Plymouth Girls’ High School, continuing on to teacher training before returning to Rarotonga to teach for a year.

Her next voyage was to Australia, where she lived for eight years until 1976.

“When I came back from that sojourn, I seriously took up painting. I’ve always been interested in art,” Gragg says.

“My father was very encouraging. He would call and say, ‘Oh, you should go and look at the sea today, and the mountains, and see how that changes, and put it into your art.’

Gragg exhibited her art for the first time in 1984.

“There was a group of us. USP (University of the South Pacific) had advertised for a class that they were going to teach,” she says.

“Well, there weren’t enough people that answered the ad. The people that did apply – we got together and started painting every Sunday. We then exhibited on the waterfront in front of the Banana Court, and we hung everything up with pegs on a line.”

The last time Gragg exhibited at Bergman Gallery was in 2021 with Underneath the Mango Tree, her first solo show in 10 years.

“That was fun to do.”

Gragg’s latest exhibition opens at 6pm on Tuesday, and will run until May 2.

“All welcome,” she says.