TRIBUTE – Viv Kepes ‘Bouquet’, 23 Feb – 19 March 2021
Viv Kepes and Janneth Gil were both profoundly moved by the shocking attack on Christchurch’s Muslim community on 15 March 2019. As artists they were conscious of both the historical role of the visual arts as an act of witnessing and remembering of historical events, and reparative power of art for a traumatised society.
Many in Christchurch’s Muslim community already came from highly stressful situations as refugees or immigrants navigating an unfamiliar society. It is a diverse community from many parts of the word, many cultures, bound together by religion, and even then, from different sects. Suddenly a relatively private community that had previously been overlooked or subjected to paranoid hostility, was placed on a very public platform foremost in the public consciousness. In some cases the more conservative families had lost the husband or father, their main point of contact with the city.
Gil and Kepes approached the task from different angles. Kepes chose to record the public’s grief and empathy manifest in the vast piles of flowers and tributes that accumulated outside the mosques and were later displayed in Christchurch Art Gallery. Gil addressed the violence itself, concentrated on the victims and their families, working in close collaboration with them in an ongoing archival installation project. Both are engaged on a mission of solidarity.
Art allows us to approach horror, violence, and the emotionally charged, in indirect ways that engage an audience without retraumatising the community, indulging in voyeurism, or estranging viewers with aggressively implied criticism. Art can mediate and guide in unprecedented situations where we lack the experience or are too emotionally overwhelmed to know how to respond. Importantly, the art in this exhibition does not put the Muslim community in the position of passive subject to have narratives projected on or to be fetishized. We are challenged to engage.
While angry protest against racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia is a legitimate and understandable response to the horror, a combative strategy also runs the risk of alienating an audience. Aside from the obvious evil of the gunman, apportioning broader blame is a critical abstraction that does not translate terribly well to many New Zealander’s experiences or understanding of a world where conflict and violence are a commonplace.
The exhibition’s emphasis on reparative aesthetics, on the other hand, is a way of easing the public into the social and political issues without judgement. Beauty and emotion first, with a thoughtful critical chaser. We are brought closer together rather than pointing fingers at each other. Art can step up to be therapeutic and healing and stimulate important and necessary conversations about the systemic issues of these social poisons in our society.
Gil and Kepes have taken on a powerful responsibility and challenge as interlocutors in this context. They are bridgebuilders, helping us feel a way forward through the unthinkable. This is a secular meditation, an opportunity for deep reflection. It is impossible not to be moved.
– Andrew Paul Wood
Viv Kepes presents 51 paintings in total, the same amount of victims lost in the Mosque terrorist attacks.
Selection 9 of 46 small square paintings:
Following the horrific events of March 15, 2019, one of the most striking visual memories of the period were the huge walls and drifts of flowers that the residents of Christchurch left in front of the Al Noor and Linwood mosques. Flowers seem miraculous things, they spring from the earth for only a short time to share their beauty and bring joy, reminding us of the ephemerality and frailty of life. Perhaps they also hint at something beyond.
These floral tributes form the inspiration for Viv Kepes’ vividly colourful paintings. Not unlike the work of Georgia O’Keefe, we are projected into the inside of each flower, expanded to architectural proportions. Unlike O’Keefe’s crispness and solidity, Kepes applies a romantic soft focus, adding a further layer of distortion in the painting process. The atmosphere is contemplative and private despite being collectively experienced in a public place. But it’s not all sadness, there is delight and pride in the paintings as well. Flowers can contain so many readings and interpretations in their petals.
Kepes’ paintings provide a visual enticement that leads us into deeper feelings of grief, solidarity, and resolution. We are invited back into that feeling of communal mourning and empathy. The titles for each painting are drawn from the notes and cards left with the flowers, each like a little prayer from the heart – brief statements of love and aroha, oneness, sympathy, and “kia kaha”.
“I wanted to portray in paint what I felt to be the opposite sentiments to that of the terrorist. Ideas for my work always seem to grow from emotions I feel and intuitive responses to situations. As the project started to grow, I realised there was a need to immortalise the deep feelings of empathy, unity, love, and solidarity that our Canterbury community brought to our local Muslim community after the attacks.”
We see that many of the flowers are, in fact, silk. Their fine weave seems more like a coarsely textured hessian. This is partly a result of studying the floral tributes as displayed in Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū over three days in September of that year. As Kepes says:
“Many of the affected community were unable to visit the tributes at the time they were laid by the mosques and on Rolleston Ave, being busy supporting one another within their community. For some, the first time they were able to appreciate the tributes was during this display at Christchurch Art Gallery. The non-perishable tributes were lain out beautifully, along with many notes and cards and fresh flower bouquets.”
Only artificial flowers were suitable for ongoing display, although the first paintings were of real flowers from photographs Kepes took of the tributes outside the mosques. This might be interpreted as a gesture to that sense of the flower as a symbol of life’s fragility, but the silk flowers also endure and go on.
The power of the paintings is to re-engage the viewer with their feelings at that moment. It is difficult to maintain that strength of public feeling and empathy, and Kepes’ paintings are a meditative aid in getting back into that mindset and remembering why inclusiveness and compassion are important. The imagery transcends cultural contexts – the power of the flower is relatively universal – but is also sympathetic to sensitivities around figurative depiction in Islam. The paintings require no background or cultural knowledge to be appreciated or move their audience.
East and West meet on a divan of flowers.
– Andrew Paul Wood