I Considered All the Acts of Oppression
Dame Jenny Gibbs
I was first intrigued by, then admired and ultimately loved the paintings of Colin McCahon. It was he who taught me how to really see the New Zealand landscape, constantly seeing “McCahons” when I travel through it.
In early 1993 when Webbs Auction House announced the sale of McCahon’s “last painting”, I appreciated him sufficiently to know the painting had to stay in New Zealand. Sure enough, at the auction were representatives of several Australian institutions. As I held my own during a very tense bidding battle my husband Alan, sitting beside me, turned and whispered “How do you spell oppressed?” He had spotted one of the truly endearing features of this painting; it contains several instances where the artist has mis-spelled words and then corrected, or in the case of “oppressed”, spelled it correctly, then had doubts and visibly scrubbed out the second “s”. I find it really moving to see the artist’s self-doubt so graphically displayed.
I have lived with this wonderful work for sixteen years. On Colin McCahon’s death, it was found lying face-down on his studio floor. Of the blank square I am often asked if the painting is unfinished. I simply point to the words beneath the square, “Here again I saw emptiness under the sun”. I have no doubt McCahon is illustrating emptiness. Though, it may well be unfinished. It is not signed and the words trail off in despair from a man who sought and failed to find faith.
My conviction that McCahon is a truly great artist has led me over the years to the belief that the best New Zealand artists are truly world class. I therefore have, for many years, championed the need to put NZ art into that most international of contexts, the Venice Biennale. New Zealand finally joined that great international showcase in 2001 and I was privileged both that year and the following Biennale in 2003, to be appointed Commissioner for New Zealand.
Now eighteen years later I have again been Commissioner for New Zealand at the 2019 Venice Biennale. I am immensely proud of the calibre of every artist we have sent to Venice. They have all affirmed for me that our artists can stand proudly on the world stage and that hopefully others can take up the challenge of promoting them out into the world.