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Handboek: Ans Westra Photographs

27 June 2007

One of New Zealand’s most significant photography exhibitions – a major survey of the work of Ans Westra – opens at the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu next month.

Westra, born in Holland, and living in New Zealand since 1957, is New Zealand’s best known and most debated documentary photographer. She was awarded a Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 1998.

Handboek: Ans Westra Photographs spans 45 years of ‘everyday’ life in New Zealand – a veritable trip down memory lane for some, for others a glimpse of recent history looking at what we wore, what sport we played, what was fashionable and how we lived.

Art Gallery Director Jenny Harper says the exhibition is both revealing and reminiscent. "It will provide gallery-goers of all ages with an opportunity to review and discuss New Zealand as it was then and is now. We are extremely pleased to be able to show such an important range of works by one of our best-known image makers, Ans Westra."

The opening of Waiwhetu Marae is among the earliest photographs in the exhibition, which begins with images from the late 1950s. Ratana Church, Parakino Pa School, the Springbok tour demonstrations, James K Baxter’s funeral, photographs of Maori and Pakeha, old and young, politicians, pop groups – will crowd the walls and jostle for attention in display cases.

A special DVD for the exhibition and related film programmes will give background information to the times.

Westra took photographs primarily for school journals, the Maori Affairs Department magazine Te Ao Hou and book publications, such as Maori, Notes on the Country I Live In, Wellington: City Alive, and contributed to more controversial books such as Down Under the Plum Tree, and Tim Shadbolt’s Bullshit and Jellybeans. These will also be on display.

The section on Washday at the Pa, the school publication she achieved notoriety for in 1964, is sign posted with The Dominion’s billboard of the time Author Angry at Banning of Book, and is well documented with letters to the paper, expressing views for and against the book.
while a distressing episode, was a personal highlight for Westra. She has kept in touch with the family and recent photographs are on view.

Westra has chosen to record the lives of people who are not necessarily, materially well off. She does so from a positive, humanist view of the world, reaching out shyly to understand people from behind the shield of her camera lens. Although hers is a visual language and non-judgmental, she believes New Zealanders should be proud of their identity.

"We should value what is here – the landscape, the lifestyle. We are so intent on trying to be like everyone else," she says.

"Ans has recorded differences we often don’t see, or are unwilling to see. She shows those differences, and their value, from a slight distance, and in so doing highlights them. That is how a really good documentary photographer makes a contribution, and the show will certainly bring this out," exhibition organiser Luit Bieringa says.

Handboek: Ans Westra Photographs has been organised by BWX (Blair Wakefield Exhibitions) in association with the National Library Gallery, and is drawn from the collections of the Alexander Turnbull Library.

The images will be on display at the Christchurch Art Gallery, from 13 July to 4 November 2007

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