Posted on Tuesday December 19, 2017
As part of the Friends’ studio tours programme, a group visited Bob Kerr’s Wellington studio in September. Up two flights of stairs in the Cuba Street building that is occupied by Enjoy Public Gallery, and previously housed galleries run by Elva Bett and Peter McLeavey, his space is a former stockroom. But it is light and airy, with windows covering the outside wall, and white paint everywhere else.
Kerr first came to the public’s attention when with author Stephen Ballantyne he created New Zealand’s first graphic novel, Terry and the Gun Runners in 1982. More recently his children’s books have had historical themes. Later in the session, Kerr will unfold original working sketches for a double page spread from Changing Times, a history of New Zealand seen through the eyes of a delivery boy for a small-town newspaper.
Now he says “I’ve become a history painter. What I am working on is a painting called The Great South Road. It is about what has been called The Great War for New Zealand in the Waikato in the 1860s.” The painting’s 11 oil on canvas panels are tacked to the wall behind him, still being worked on, paint bleeding across the edges on to the wall.
“They need to work together as one painting, so I keep them together while working on each one. They are about 90% finished now”
Kerr grew up in the Waikato in the 1950s and 60s “but there wasn’t any mention of the New Zealand Wars at Tokoroa High School”. It was the publication in 2016 of Vincent O’Malley’s history of the war that inspired him to choose the topic as the subject of his latest exhibition.
The panels, each with a painted location caption are aligned in order of the progress of the campaign moving south from Auckland. But some are current, others are contemporary.
“I can jump about in time. This last one (the AA sign for the Puniu River) is present day, but the second panel here is the Bombay Hills just after the road was built to allow Cameron to get his troops and supplies south.”
“I’ve made the river bigger than it really is here. Historians are responsible for ‘true history’ and they have to stick to the facts. I can change things to represent the bigger picture. I see myself as an honest liar”.
The back wall of the gallery is covered with photos of Kerr’s preparatory road trip, visiting locations which had such significance at the time, but are now hardly visible from the highway. The Mangatawhiri river which was the recognised boundary between European settlers in Auckland and Māori territory in 1864, today flows unseen under the road at the foot of the Bombay hills.
The paintings are spare, horizons aligned under heavy skies. Fortifications at Rangiriri and Pāterangi are constructed as simple sculptural elements on landscapes empty of people. The deaths of Māori in a burning whare at Rangiaowhia, are hinted at with just a plume of grey smoke rising in the distance. Kerr’s art is now the sort that asks us to ask questions, and doesn’t provide easy answers.
A series of smaller works in progress are scattered around the gallery. One refers to the area around Rangiaowhia prior to the campaign, which was growing much of the food that supplied the settlers in Auckland. It is a still life of apples, on a small table by the window. A caption reads “Wheat was being grown … and orchards of the highest quality fruit trees”.
A bright Spring light streams in from the window, and the subject apples are still sitting in front of the painting, which is not quite complete, as we leave.
Bob Kerr’s exhibition ran from 24 October to 11 November at Whitespace Gallery in Crummer Road, Ponsonby.
The painting ‘The Great South Road‘ Oil on canvas, eleven panels, each panel 41 x 88cm, 2017 was acquired by
Waikato Museum | Te Whare Taonga o Waikato
The New Zealand Wars are currently featured in the Te Papa exhibition Rā Maumahara | New Zealand Wars, to mark the first Remembrance Day on 28 October 2017.