for Eyeline Contemporary Visual Arts number 74
by Ema Tavola
As a South Auckland based curator interested primarily in contemporary Pacific artists, an Australian photographer called Rebecca Ann Hobbs crossing my path in Otara, the heart of Polynesian New Zealand, has been a rare and intriguing occurrence.
Since 2008, Hobbs has been working as a lecturer at Manukau School of Visual Arts, an institution located in suburban South Auckland. Practical and theoretical visual arts education within the socio-political context of working class, predominantly Polynesian suburbia is geographically and academically dislocated from the wider art world. Delivering, teaching and discussing visual arts and appreciation is based on people and pictures, books and the Internet. In a relative gallery desert, art hype can be transparent and context becomes vital; meaning and mana is central.
In researching this article, I came across a new form of insight to Hobbs’ work: student contextual responses documented in personal blogs. I’m drawn to them because they are like virgin artistic readings from fresh minds; discourse based less on institutional and/or academic rendering, more on lived experience and unedited thoughts. One such response noted that Hobbs’ photography doesn’t “make the viewer feel abstract”[i]. In opposition to the published texts around Hobbs work, about absurdity and the human condition, I like the honesty of blog and the public/private interface; it is raw and self-published, democratic and empowered.
I have experienced Hobbs’ work in both traditional and non-traditional art contexts, and the formation of my relationship with her imagery and position has been at times cautious. There are few artists whose work can translate from the institution to the grassroots with little lost in translation. I find myself drawn to Hobbs’ video works for their ‘made in New Zealand’ quality: whilst not directly referencing the political space of Aotearoa, the themes speak to what I know and love – artistic commentary about the spaces between culture, power, gender and land. Through these works, the themes of blackness, race and constructed spaces, movement and site, Hobbs’ creates pathways for connections, value and interpretations for audiences beyond the traditional gallery scope.
In her recent survey exhibition, Failing, Falling, Flying at Auckland’s St Paul St Gallery, the space was divided into two areas. Gallery 1 showed an impressive photographic narrative, a series of series made in Australia, California and New Zealand. People and moments, landscapes and performance: white people and black people, falling, jumping, vomiting. In Gallery 2, Hobbs’ recent video work ah-round (2009) was projected to dominate the space.
I first saw ah-round in the Trust Waikato National Contemporary Art Award exhibition in 2009. Presented on a wall-mounted flat screen monitor, the subject’s black skin in the hyper-green landscape made blackness present. I was drawn to it. I watched the work over and over again, thinking about Hobbs’ statement, “constructed spaces inside constructed spaces whilst thinking about faraway places. (Inside, inside, out)”
At St Paul Street Gallery, the large-scale projection of ah-round took my appreciation of the work to another level. The subject, watering tropical plants in an urban greenhouse, is circled by what feels like spy-cam crossed with perfect cinematic movement. The subject is slowly circled, watched and analysed by the lens. He moves to what we hear as a faint reggae beat spilling out from his earphones; he is at ease with the privacy and intimacy of good music and escapism.
The camera gaze is at times threatening, speaking in the language of cinematic horror conventions. But at times the subject seems to be performing as if he’s being watched. Voyeuristic and filmic, the motion of the camera seems to stimulate contemplation, about representation and site, romance and colonisation, music and meaning.
Hobbs notes that the viewer is implicated in this work, forced to confront their own attitudes towards the black male, the Noble Savage and the ‘Other’. Considering colonial histories and Anglo-American popular culture, this is a brave, confronting and exciting proposition to what is likely to be a predominantly white audience. For me, he represents a sense of security, because he is we, and we are present.
Ah-round is embedded in Hobbs’ research with Edward Saïd’s Culture and Imperialism – the work has been devised to investigate and expose the coloniser/colonised interface. Engaged in a romantic relationship at the time with the work’s subject, Madou, Hobbs’ awareness is also an intimate reflection of societal expectations of whiteness and blackness. Lampooning racial conventions, ah-round represents a personal and political analysis of the black body and the lens, the gaze and the colonised experience translated into music and political movement.
Since seeing this work for the first time, I have developed a deeper relationship with the artist. We met at first in the gym and began talking about dancehall culture. I told her about a Polynesian nightclub with a vigorous dancefloor, and then one night took her there. We found a mutual appreciation for all things dancehall, and my interest and fascination in her most recent video work Bridge evolved to a full-on love affair.
Bridge (2010) premiered in manu toi; artists and messengers, curated by Nigel Borell for the opening of South Auckland’s first purpose-built arts facility, Mangere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku. Whilst Hobbs’ photography captures moments of mid-action, her video works realise and actualise movement, of the camera and of the body.
Bridge was completed for her first showing in South Auckland in an exhibition that acknowledged artists who have special relationships with the site and space. In writing about the work in the exhibition’s catalogue, I spent time with the artist at the site, discussing the work at length. Based on our mutual admiration for dancehall culture and long, in depth conversations about feminism, sexuality and South Auckland, I wrote a short text called Liquid Lady Swagger[ii].
Bridge is set against the backdrop of the Manukau Harbour; a single-shot dance/walk performance takes place along the old Mangere Bridge, which used to connect the suburbs of Mangere to Onehunga, and the cities of Manukau (South Auckland) to Auckland City. Now overshadowed by a multi-lane highway, the old bridge sits close to the water, once removed from its high-rise replacement. It is the territory of fishermen and cyclists, people parked in cars, fish and chips, dogs and walkers; a site for urban contemplation.[iii]
The character in Bridge walks with intention and sassiness in her stride. Her strut is interrupted with moments of dancehall possession – bursts of hot liquid movement, curves and pure attitude. She is cloaked in winter armour: jacket and beanie, gloves and hoody, but her intervals of fluid-lady-swagger warm her and items are slowly discarded. From unisex baggy layers, femininity is revealed and accentuated in movement and poise, purple hoop earrings and ponytail.
In dance mode her movements, drawn from Jamaican dancehall culture, are articulations of sexuality and control; a theatrical performance where sensuality is at the surface. She pops and grinds, drops and sways with authority. The attitude is in the turn of her head and the curve of her back – in these moments her sexuality is palpable. Whilst inspired by that which grew from Jamaican grassroots, here the vocabulary of her movement has trickled down through global popular culture, via hip hop and dance schools. She is bold and technically astute: her movement is the effect of dancehall plus swagger divided by fitness and confidence.
In walking mode, her undercover attitude is coded in the bounce of her step and the stretch of her stride. She performs an experience of control, between formal and explicit expressions of strength and conviction.
Located on a structure that connects landmasses and bureaucratic city limits, the bridge is ‘the space between’ that distinguishes difference. It draws on the similarities of two sites, creating a safe, dry middle ground. The female character embodies a connection between two states. She is the interface and flux of sexuality and privacy, masculinity and femininity, local and global. She suppresses herself in a codified language of muted strength, and expresses herself with fluid sexual prowess.
Installed in a wall of speaker boxes, the intervals of dancehall possession in Bridge speak to the all encompassing takeover of dancehall on body, heart and mind. Like feeling the bass in a club in the pit of your stomach, the music is physically consumed. A dance form where woman is boss without validation of man – the music becomes her heartbeat releasing electricity that loosens the joints and liquidises the hips.
In both of Hobbs’ recent video works, the subject’s performance is filmed in a time-based single shot. In the case of ah-round, the shot is defined by the time it takes to circle the subject completely. In Bridge, the shot is defined by the length of the pedestrian walkway. Hobbs reduces the use of editing within her video, accentuating the position of the gaze – unedited, the manipulation of the act of representation is minimised and the control of the gaze is evident and present.
Notably, Hobbs was the only international and/or Pākehā exhibitor in manu toi; artists and messengers; she was positioned alongside some of New Zealand’s most prominent Māori visual artists (Te Aue Davis, Robert Jahnke and Maureen Lander) and exciting contemporary Pacific artists (Siliga David Setoga, Terry Koloamatangi Klavenes and Leilani Kake).
Within the post-colonial cultural landscape of New Zealand, a young nation with a problematic identity complex, Hobbs’ artistic and intellectual position is confident and confronting. Raising issues of race and belonging, history and change generates controversial insights into power and struggle. As an outsider looking in, Hobbs is noted for her refreshing and informed commentary on the politics of culture and representation. She acknowledges the power of the lens and wields the gaze with thoughtful precision. As open ended statements that allow the viewer to ‘not feel abstract’, Hobbs relinquishes understanding and interpretation of her work to her audience.
[ii] Liquid Lady Swagger – Rebecca Ann Hobbs, manu toi; artists and messengers catalogue, Mangere Arts Centre – Ngā Tohu o Uenuku (Manukau City Council), Auckland, 2010