Khartoum Place: Stepping forward

HAMISH KEITH
Last updated 05:00 02/10/2011
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ALEX BURTON/Fairfax NZ

Above: Khartoum Place today and, below, the reimagined, mural-free version.

Khartoum Steps
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The gateway to Auckland's new art gallery has become a hotbed of gender politics. Hamish Keith argues for the removal of the women's suffrage mural. 

OPINION: For longer  than anyone can remember, Khartoum Place has been a sordid blot on Auckland's urban landscape. Its rebuild in 1993 did nothing to change that. Rather than make it an attractive transition between Lorne St and Albert Park, it achieved little more than putting colourful ribbons on a pig.

Worse, the rebuild was meant to memorialise one of the great pioneering achievements of New Zealand – the enfranchisement of women – but instead of doing that, it provided a memorial that doubles as a makeshift urinal. There might be some cruel metaphor at work there, in that some things men do never change, but that, however true, is no comfort to those who value urban design and honour the suffrage movement and its heroes.

Opposition to Khartoum Place, the mural-clad stairway link from retail and food shopping to the front of Auckland's new art gallery, has been dismissed as just the unfeeling grumbling of an arty elite about a popular piece of public art and one of New Zealand's great memorials.

Led by the National Council of Women and a few great Dames, supporters of the mural and the current design of the Place have reduced the argument to a case of Art for Arts sake versus Our Righteous Memorial. Enough to terrify the boldest of local body politicians – who have not been very reliable in matters of urban design, heritage or art at the best of times. The bold rebuilt Auckland Art Gallery and the new easy physical and visual access to Albert Park should give them a reason to think again. In any case, do they really think it OK to defend a memorial to women that is pissed on every evening? There must be a better way. Both the brilliant new art gallery and the appropriate commemoration of the centenary of the suffrage movement deserve more.

There is an historical irony here too. The 1885 siege of Khartoum, of which the name this Place commemorates, was one British colonial enterprise that New Zealand flatly refused to have anything to do with. When asked to contribute troops to the battle, New Zealand's then minister of defence, John Ballance, told the British government, who had asked for them, that not only would we not be taking part, but our sympathies were on the side of the Sudanese rebels who the British were trying to suppress. Khartoum Place, sadly, was not named to commemorate that rare moment of New Zealand defiance, but several decades later when Lord Kitchener, the British warlord, who eventually lifted the siege, was visiting just before World War I. About the same time we gave the British a battleship which took us until 1945 to finish paying for – but that is another story. It is odd that one of the greatest achievements of New Zealand women should be named after an Imperial battle.

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Names in themselves are powerful memorials. Khartoum means nothing to us and stands for nothing in our history – national or civic – so here is the first thing that can be changed. Rename it Kate Sheppard or Suffrage Square and the rational transformation has already begun. There is a Kate Sheppard Pl in Wellington – by coincidence not too far away from Ballance St – so perhaps Suffrage Square might be the better choice.

Now to deal with the tricky bit – the tiled mural. In a city with its fair share of inadequate public art, this is by no means the worst. An appalling pohutukawa sculpture inflicted on the city by Transit New Zealand is streets ahead in that particular race. But the mural is embedded into the current configuration of the Place and if the area is to be opened up, as it should be, the mural and its constantly polluted water feature will have to go.

The water, an endless attraction to morons with dishwashing liquid or nowhere else to dump their scraps, will be no loss. There will be much public agonising over the mural. Views on the portability of these tiles are mixed, but if the Birdcage pub, an entire brick hotel at the bottom of the city's Franklin Rd could last year be moved uphill and down again, without losing a single brick, several hundred tiles could hardly be much of an engineering challenge. There is a blank reservoir wall in Ponsonby Rd which could provide a perfect home for the whole work.

In the new Suffrage Square the centrepiece could be a major work of sculpture by a New Zealand woman sculptor – we have more than a few up to the job – beautifully commemorating the suffrage movement. The result would be two memorials for the price of one thoughtful piece of urban design. The Place, of course, would become an open stairway over which the magnificent facade of the art gallery and the new vista of Albert Park would gracefully preside.

A recent poll, admittedly at the Auckland Art Fair, showed that 85% favoured a reconfiguration of the Place while only 15% wanted it left as it is. Interestingly, the figures were much the same for female respondents, of whom 83% favoured change. These were people expected to have views about art, but this was a poll based not only on the idea of change, but on an informed view of what the alternative could be.

When you think about it, there was nothing narrow or small-minded about Kate Sheppard and her fellow suffragettes. They stood and fought for radical change. They challenged not only how things were done, but how we thought about the way things should be done. Their motto was "Deeds not Words". The last thing they would want to be memorialised by would be a narrow battle for the status quo. I imagine they would be horrified to think that they were represented by a narrow dank stairway leading to the past. They were women of vision. They imagined a larger future. That vision and that future are not done justice by Khartoum Place. It is an historical irony too that in the part of the world this part of Auckland commemorates in name, millions of women are still waiting for the justice of a vote.

Suffrage Square could provide central Auckland with the kind of open, celebratory public space we currently have too little of. It is a critical piece in central Auckland's urban design and it deserves informed public debate, not dogmatic, factional head butting. The suffragettes stood for political courage, vision and change. Their political descendants could surely apply some to their memorial.

At the very least a reconfigured Suffrage Square will provide a place to celebrate White Camellia Day in the way it deserves, with space and light and joy and not in a damp and gloomy pen. More deeds, fewer words please.

Hamish Keith is a writer, art curator, arts consultant, arts commentator and broadcaster who lives in Auckland.

Have your say: letters@star-times.co.nz

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