– Summer 2015

Events, Works, Exhibitions

Rethinking ‘Headlands’

Christina Barton

Opening night
of ‘Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand
Art’, Museum
of Contemporary
Art Australia (MCA), Sydney, 1992. Courtesy MCA

‘Headlands’ is more than an exhibition of New Zealand art. It is an experimental model for cultural dialogue, concerning differences and similarities between
two countries.

— Leon Paroissien, 19921

Over twenty years ago, on 1 April 1992, ‘Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand 
Art’ opened at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney. This was the first major international exhibition in the MCA’s newly refurbished landmark building on Sydney’s iconic Circular Quay. With 30 artists and 128 works, ‘Headlands’ was the most substantial exhibition of New Zealand modern and contemporary art to ever leave the country’s shores, and one of the very few to grapple head on with the complexities of its bicultural inheritance. Put together by a consortium of New Zealand and Australian curators, it marks an extraordinary moment in the art histories of both nations, as well as exposing the internal tensions within New Zealand culture and the fraught cultural dynamics of the era.

From an Australian perspective, ‘Headlands’ was an unexpected move. New Zealand, so close and supposedly familiar, hardly seemed ‘international’ in any real sense. Because the two nations shared a colonial history of British occupation, there appeared little need to delve into their differences. Mostly, in fact, the bigger country simply ignored its

  1. Leon Paroissien, ‘Director’s Foreword’, Headlands: Thinking Through New Zealand Art (exh. cat.), Sydney: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1992, p.6.

  2. While collectively these projects warrant analysis for the statement they make about the MCA’s original vision, ‘Headlands’ is the focus here. The exhibition’s particular complexities uniquely inflected postcolonial art history in the 1990s, but its local character has never before been examined in the pages of an international journal.

  3. Bernice Murphy, ‘Figuring Culture: Introduction to Headlands’, in Headlands: Thinking through New Zealand Art, op. cit., pp.9—12.

  4. Ibid., p.10.

  5. The Treaty of Waitangi was the document that ceded sovereignty to the British Crown in 1840 and its 
ratification in 1990 coincided with the 150th year of its original signing. It was agreed to by several but not all Māori tribal leaders. The nuances of its wording, drafted in both English and Māori, continues to exercise legal and political minds and remains a point of contention. The existence of this document, and its force as a founding contract between Europeans and Māori, is a fundamental difference between Australia and New Zealand.

  6. For more on this exhibition, see Lucy Steeds et al., Making Art Global (Part 2): ‘Magiciens de la Terre’ 1989, London: Afterall Books, 2013.

  7. In using these terms, I acknowledge Louise Garrett, who through them structured her analysis ‘Reading Headlands’, unpublished master’s thesis, Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington, 1997.

  8. Paroissien and McMurphy had previously presented ‘I Will Need Words’, an exhibition of
Colin McCahon’s word and number paintings, curated by Wystan Curnow, at the Power Gallery of Contemporary Art, as part of the Biennale of Sydney in 1984. ‘Headlands’ was initiated in large part to contextualise McCahon’s achievement by drawing attention to his contemporaries and to consider the myriad ways in which his example has been tackled, translated or even contested.

  9. Joanna Mendelssohn, ‘Headlands: The Sydney View’, Art New Zealand, no.64, Spring 1992, p.58.

  10. B. Murphy, quoted in ibid., p.58.

  11. These works, more than 120 in total, have never been exhibited but were circulated in reproduction at the time. Examples can be viewed on the artist’s website, at http://www.richardkilleen.com/work%20on%20paper/1992/1992%20page.html (last accessed on
28 March 2015).

  12. See Merata Mita, ‘Trick or Treat: Issues of Feminism and Postcolonialism in Relation to the Arts’,
Te Pua, vol.3, no.1, 1994, pp.37—41; Robin Craw, ‘Anthropophagy of the Other: The Problematic
of Biculturalism and the Art of Appropriation’, Art & Asia Pacific, 1993, pp.86–91; Francis Pound,
The Space Between: Pākehā Use of Māori Motifs in Modernist New Zealand Art, Auckland: Workshop
Press, 1994; and Nicholas Thomas, ‘Kiss the Baby Goodbye: Kowhaiwhai and Aesthetics in New Zealand’, Critical Inquiry, vol.22, no.1, 1995, pp.90—121.

  13. See Robert Leonard, Nostalgia for Intimacy: Gordon H. Brown Annual Art History Lecture 10, Wellington: Victoria University of Wellington, 2012.