Local Culture: Richard Wootton’s ‘Marking Time: Portraits of the Inked’ at the Sarjeant Gallery

I’m pleased to report that I’m safely home from Kaikoura, and diving back into my local art scene.

richard-wotton-morgan-tompsett-wellington-2016
Richard Wootton, ‘Morgan Tompsett’, Wellington 2016

Back in 2009, the New Zealand media reported that one in five adult New Zealanders was tattooed, with the rate rising to just over one in three for people aged 18 to 30. Tattoo, (or ‘moko’ in te reo Maori) played a significant role in traditional Maori and Polynesian culture, and although it went into decline during the early to mid- twentieth century, the Maori cultural renaissance of the late 20th century brought the art form back into the New Zealand mainstream. In addition to, or possibly coat-tailing on, this change, tattoo has also gained a significant place in contemporary European (‘White’) New Zealand culture.

As a result, tattoos in New Zealand are not the blurred green outlines of anchors, hearts, and naked women glimpsed through the arm-hair on the considerable biceps of men whose backgrounds one might well imagine to be rather less than savoury. Rather, they are colourful, detailed, and exquisitely-executed works of art, which often carry a deeper meaning which is intensely personal to the wearer. All of this Richard Wootton has endeavoured to capture in his portrait photograph series ‘Marking Time: Portraits of the Inked’, currently showing at Whanganui’s Sarjeant on the Quay Art Gallery.

Although Wootton’s project centred around photographing tattooed people, the artist elected to do so in black and white. The overall effect – and intended outcome – is to reduce the impact of the tattoos by removing the colour whilst enhancing the ‘portrait’ aspect of each photograph, thus emphasising the reality that each person with tattoos is a tattooed person, and not merely a canvas for their body-art.

richard-wootton-miriam-and-drugo-whanganui-2015
Richard Wootton, ‘Miriam and Drugo’, Whanganui 2015

In our society it is considered rude to stare, and so the tattoos of a stranger are often something glimpsed rather than appreciated. Wootton’s exhibition removed that barrier, clearing the way for uninhibited appreciation of the art, and I greatly enjoyed having the opportunity to do this. However, every tattoo tells a story, a fact acknowledged by the name of the exhibition, and without hearing the story behind a person’s tattoos it can be difficult to fully appreciate what you are seeing. I would have enjoyed seeing small, one or two paragraph long, interviews with each subject in which they described the meaning behind their tattoos.

gottfried-lindauer-whetoi-pomare-detail-1896
Gottfried Lindauer’s ‘Whetoi Pomare’ (1896), is typical of his detailed portraits of 19th century Maori, which showcased traditional moko.

I would also have enjoyed seeing photographs of contemporary Maori sporting traditional moko. Almost all of the portraits (there were a few exceptions, such as a pair of Asian brothers, and a Pasifika man sporting traditional full-body Pacific tattoo) were of contemporary European-style tattoo, which is very different from the style used in traditional Maori tattoo.

Overall, however, it was a good exhibition and I’m glad I made the time to see it.

How do you feel about tattoos? Love them, hate them, have a few of your own? Let me know.

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