Helen Kedgley's deep interest in non-Western art began not in the multicultural melting pot of Porirua but within the refined walls of a Paris art school. Kedgley is the new director of Pataka where she has been senior curator of contemporary arts. She is also an artist, though her art is "on the back burner" and has usually been exhibited overseas, in Africa and India, and in France, where she studied.
Kedgley graduated from the L'Ecole du Louvre in Paris with a diploma in art history and from L'Ecole Nationale Superieure des Beaux Arts with an advanced diploma in fine arts. Her European education fitted in neatly with being the wife of then diplomat Chris Laidlaw. Before Paris, she graduated with an arts degree, majoring in politics, from Victoria University, and tried Elam School of Fine Arts in Auckland, for an unsatisfactory year. "Elam left a lot to be desired. It was an extremely macho environment. I headed off and into art school in Paris."
In Paris, she was accepted as one of a handful of foreign students and studied for four years, her exams and lessons entirely in French, and graduated with her advanced diploma as top student in her year.
"I loved the whole experience - five-hour exams in anatomy and perspective drawing that you never got in New Zealand schools. There was lots of art history involved."
One of her teachers was an impressive authority on Chinese art and Kedgley specialised in the subject. She graduated "with a very early passion for non- Western art".
Her interest was strengthened by her experiences on the diplomatic circuit.
She and Laidlaw travelled extensively and lived in 18 houses in five countries in the first 20 years of their marriage. Kedgley took several art-related jobs on the way, including one as a designer at the Science Museum in Oxford. She exhibited, painted and worked at the African National Gallery in Zimbabwe.
"Not everyone gets to live in Africa. Africa is fantastic, the landscape, the animals, the people, the extremes of life." She is, she says, "waiting for Mugabe to move on" before she returns.
Back in Wellington after diplomatic life, her appreciation of non-Western art first led her to work at Page 90 Artspace Gallery, a 1990 initiative of local women and the Porirua community. Page 90 was absorbed into Pataka Museum of Arts and Culture which opened in 1998 and was intended as a cultural centre also containing the library, a community room and a cafe.
As a curator, Kedgley brought a wealth of non-Western art, along with other home-made and some overseas art, to Pataka's galleries. That won't change now she has become Pataka's director. Nothing at Pataka will change radically, she says. "Pataka is doing very well. I don't feel the need to make too many drastic changes. In terms of visitor numbers, they're down in some institutions. Fortunately, ours are up."
A recent Porirua City Council report shows just how satisfyingly up. In the year to June 30, nearly 179,000 people dropped in to see what was on show in Pataka, more than 18,000 above target. There were fewer visitors than expected at City Gallery, Capital E, the Museum of Wellington City and Sea and the Carter Observatory. Kedgley is not smug, just happy to be able to influence what goes on. She has plenty of ideas. They will evolve.
"Pataka, is unique, she says, "because Porirua is a multicultural city, 27 per cent Pacific Islanders, 21 per cent Maori and the rest Pakeha. Pataka has been truly multicultural. Right from the start the exhibition programme has reflected the makeup of the community. In contemporary Maori and Pacific Island art it's a leader in its field."
And, she says, Pataka reflects the emergence over the past two or three decades of "non-Western art at the centre".
Exhibitions Kedgley has curated in her 14 years at Pataka have included The Eternal Thread - The Changing Art of Maori Weaving, which was launched in San Francisco and toured the west coast of America as part of the very successful Maori Meets America exhibition, mounted in partnership with Toi Maori and Tourism New Zealand.
"It was the first exhibition showing Maori weaving to the world, Maori weaving mostly done by women."
In 2008 she curated Samoa Contemporary, the first large-scale exhibition of contemporary Samoan art. This toured New Zealand.
"The artists were all New Zealand-born Samoan and every single one has gone on to have huge success."
Exhibitors included Shigeyuki Kihara, Greg Semu, Fatu Feu'u, Graham Fletcher and Niki Hastings-McFall. Hastings- McFall's work, In Flyte, will fill a gallery at Pataka for an exhibition from February 2. She reflects on the 2008 exhibition as "very ground-breaking, the fact that they were all Samoan. It's extraordinary how talented New Zealand-born Samoans are".
Last year's eclectic mix of exhibitions included the work of New Zealand artist Grahame Sydney, known for his Otago landscapes. The Sydney exhibition attracted record numbers of visitors. Kedgley also curated the popular Samoa and Germany: Old Ties and New Relationships, the first show ever to visually examine the historical impact of Germany's colonial past in Samoa from 1900-1914.
"It's not all Maori and Pacific art, but as part of the programme each year we have one big Maori and Pacific exhibition. Hastings- McFall's is the next."
Kedgley's role as director is a new one, established after Darcy Nicholas. Porirua council's manager of community services and also an artist, moved on from Pataka. The role will be bigger, Kedgley says - "more budgeting and that sort of thing". But she will still curate.
"Curating? I love everything about it. It's creative and rewarding. I love working with other artists. It's something I really believe in, the power of the exhibition."
That excludes, for the moment, exhibitions of her own. She has the space to paint her abstract work saturated with colour in the Kelburn house she shares with Laidlaw. Her two children, Anais and Jackson, have left home so there are fewer distractions there, and a spare room. But, with her new job, there is no time. Her art has become a weekend affair.
- The Dominion Post
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