Tribute – Bouquet, February 23 – 19 March 2021

by Andrew Paul Wood

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. When you are so shocked and emotionally overwhelmed by an event, sometimes that’s the only thing you can do as a public gesture of grief and empathy. Flowers seem miraculous things, they spring from the earth for only 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.

It is these floral tributes that form the inspiration for Viv Kepes’ vividly colourful paintings. Those who are familiar with Kepes’ macroscopic investigations of the microscopic structures of Rangitāhua / Kermadec Islands coral, will immediately see the relationship here. Each painting is a magnified view of around 30 or 40 times. 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.

The paintings are an unintentional example of Reparative Aesthetics, the use of beauty as an indirect vehicle for building empathy and awareness. Rather than aggressively confront – a gambit just as likely to lead to alienation and hostility as understanding – 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”.

“At first,” says Kepes, “I wanted to somehow 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. I usually have no idea what the work will be and how it will look when I start out. As the project started to grow, and in discussion with Janneth Gil and local Muslim friends, I realised there was a need to extend, to somehow immortalise, the deep feelings of empathy, unity, love, solidarity etc. that our Canterbury community brought to our local Muslim community after the attacks. Healing for the affected community will take a long time. In the wider community some folk appeared to be moving on quite fast. I found this unsettling.”

Although flowers generally do not feature as prominently in Islamic traditions compared to other major religions, the perfumes made from them are. The rose is especially important in Islam. The English word “rose” from the Greek “rhodon” means a flush or a blush, and through a shared Semitic origin, is cognate with the Arabic “wardah” meaning rosy or glowing. This is a point of connection that may be exchanged like a flower. A flower is innocent, is pure, is vulnerable. As a symbol of those things, perhaps it offers a chance at mutual understanding. As Kepes notes, “Muslim friends tell me that although they do not give flowers in mourning at funerals they were very touched by the floral tributes, that knowing what they represented really meant a lot to them.”

At this scale of magnification, we can immediately see that most 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 too busy supporting one another within their very shaken community. Some stayed at home for a time after the attacks. 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 some fresh flower bouquets.”

Obviously only the artificial flowers were suitable for ongoing display, although the first 20 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. Kepes says:

“Starting out on the project painting fabric flowers was the last thing on my mind. I’ve always loved fabrics and had actually intended all my Post Grad work to somehow be connected to painted depictions of fabric. Then my mother died – my love of fabrics came from her and other beloved deceased female relatives – and I could no longer bare to do anything connected to fabric. I explored tiny organic forms instead. I have a science background so that was quite exciting for me personally. I found the fibre forms, fabric folds and wide variety of colours in the silk flowers interesting. Many of them were large, transforming into more abstract works. Some were of unusual colours I would not usually work with. They added, from my perspective, welcome variety to the collection.”

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. They paintings require no particular background or cultural knowledge to be appreciated or move their audience.

East and West meet on a divan of flowers.

And strain not thine eyes toward that which We cause some wedded pairs among them to enjoy, the flower of the life of the world, that We may try them thereby. The provision of thy Lord is better and more lasting.
– Qur’an, Taa-Haa 20: 131

Thou seest the wrong-doers fearful of that which they have earned, and it will surely befall them, while those who believe and do good works will be in flowering meadows of the Gardens, having what they wish from their Lord. This is the great preferment.
– Qur’an, Ash-Shura 42: 22