Scottish-born brothers John Tait (1836–1907) and Alexander Tait (1839–1913) established themselves as photographers in gold rush Hokitika in about 1866, the period in which Catton’s The Luminaries is set. While building up a broader picture of photographers for the Hidden Light: Early Canterbury and West Coast Photography book and exhibition, I recalled an interview with the novelist at around the time of her 2013 Man Booker Prize success, and her mention of having restricted her reading for a year before starting the novel to nothing published after 1866, giving the National Library’s Papers Past credit as a vital source. The trails and condensed stories of many of the photographers in Hidden Light were largely brought together via this same indispensable means.
The exhibition He Waka Eke Noa brings together colonial-era, mainly Māori, portraiture alongside objects linked to colonisation – it’s a predictably uncomfortable mix. While the degree of discomfort may depend on one’s background or degree of connection to an enduringly difficult past, objects related to emigration and colonisation can be a useful lenses. As relics from a specific period in global history, when the movement of (particularly) European people was happening at an unprecedented scale, they hold stories with a measure of complexity that obliges an open-minded reading. There is no denying that they speak of losses and gains, of injustices and rewards.
In drawing attention to the theatre of personal grooming, Bad Hair Day brings together portraiture and caricature with a variety of less readily classifiable works of art. The densely packed selection spans a vast historical range. And in putting bowl cuts and bushy beards alongside wayward wigs and whiskers, it highlights the sometimes comical aspects of hair, especially when styles are extreme. If wry intent is discernible throughout the exhibition, however, we shouldn’t let this fool us: hair is a topic that easily turns serious.