Identity Series Part IV: I am a Disconnect

Identity Series Part IV: I am a Disconnect: The verbous and eloquent person that I might be at the dinner table in my own community has become a less talkative one, well practiced at nodding, ohhing and ahhing in agreement with conversations, so deftly covering up the fact that I haven’t actually understood 100% of it, I hardly notice. My habit of filling in the gaps with soft gauze is refined, as an illiterate person is at hiding their disability. Defaulting into the state of disconnect .


Image: “The Disconnect” mixed media on linen, by Emma Louise Pratt. Reuse by permission of the artist.

A few days ago I watched a short video on a news feed of women in the UK reacting to David Cameron’s insistance that immigrants should “learn English or leave”.

I particularly liked one reaction of an immigrant, which was to state that the English had never made much effort to learn the languages of the countries they had colonised. It was my default reaction to “like” this, given my New Zealand experience of what colonisation does.

In the late nineteenth century, Māori children were told to leave their language at the door of the classroom and only speak in English at school. It was reinforced with admonishments and corporal punishment in some schools. Parents wanted them to have the economic and social advantages of being educated in and through English. It came with a cultural price.

As a language teacher, we still insist that learners try only to use the language they are learning in the classroom and not fall back on their mother tongues – luckily for most, corporal punishment is a thing of the past!

Learning the language of the host country, the invaders or the economically dominant

Being forced or coerced into learning the language of the host country, the invaders or the economically dominant is nothing new. Two thousand years ago, Romans who could, were having their children educated in Greek. It gave their children access to superior education and the economic benefits that trading with the Greeks and any greek influenced area afforded.

My own Great Great Grandfather learnt his lessons in another language -French. He would have spoken his indigenous Jèrriais tongue in everyday life on the island of Jersey outside the classroom. Jèrriais*** is an ancient form of Norman language which falls under the umbrella of Romance Languages. He also studied German, and was at home in Hebrew and Ancient Greek. As his father was English, he could speak English fluently too which wasn’t so common. Lucky for him though, as he was going to need it. Native Gaelic speakers of the Hebrides even into the 1970s were instructed in English as the vehicular language. Children were expected to know English by the time they started school.

After eleven years spent in a country where the main language spoken is not my mother tongue, speaking from my personal experience, failing to try to learn that dominant language, politics aside, only leads to cultural and social isolation. And very importantly, it severely restricts your liberties.

I am an immigrant. Living on the edges of a society at times it seems. When local friends ask me about how I get on, I liken not being fluent, to living with a level of hearing loss. I am lucky to have reached a sufficient level to manage daily life without trouble now. It’s taken time, and I can see that the edges of this host community where I live, ebb and flow like a tide. Sometimes I feel fully integrated, other days like a complete outsider.

Not fully understanding a language limits how you can function in a new community. It makes dealing with a bank, the tax department, buying a home, a car, getting a licence, studying, all harder. Here, I’m more likely to be cheated. And imagine not knowing your rights? Your rights and those of your children to health care, to safety? Often, because you can’t engage, other people end up doing things for you. Your personal sovereignty is handed over.

You become so accustomed to the loss, you stop noticing it.

This daily helplessness with dealing with a world outside your own community grows and takes you over. Even after all these years, and with a good command of the language, I still cannot function at the level of my native tongue in terms of wit and quickness, nuance and shades of meaning. The verbous and eloquent person that I might be at the dinner table in my own native language has become a less talkative one, well practiced at nodding, ohhing and ahhing in agreement with conversations, so deftly covering up the fact that I haven’t actually understood 100% of it, I hardly notice. My habit of filling in the gaps with soft gauze is refined, as an illiterate person is at hiding their disability. Defaulting into the state of disconnect .

A much loved mentor of mine once said, and I often remind myself of it, that a body of water that is fed by no stream and goes nowhere, becomes stagnant.

How can I reach out and know another world or point of view if I haven’t got the language skills to engage? We may find the language to be the language of the occupiers, but if it is the only vehicle to freedom, what choice have we?

The problem, when I see people being forced into learning a language, is that they won’t learn it well, and certainly won’t love it. I’ve experienced it as a teacher first hand. It’s heart-breaking. Language is a taonga**. I side with immigrant woman against David Cameron in this. How many languages do you speak David?

In Spain, young children, my four year old daughter’s age, are attending English language classes after school. Much like their ancestors of the Roman Empire, parents hope to give their children an advantage in the competitive job market, and it’s obligatory to have an upper intermediate level of a foreign language to be able to graduate from university in the European Union. The wheels of history turn.

My Great Great Grandfather left his island at age fifteen to go to the Australian gold fields with his parents. He continued to study languages and became a teacher, moving to New Zealand. The final language he became fluent in and loved was Te  Reo Māori*. He died in 1913.


*A national census undertaken in 2013 suggests there were approximately 125,000 speakers of Māori (around 21 % of all Māori and around 3 % of all people living in NZ). However, the survery Te Kupenga undertaken by Statistics NZ in 2013 suggests there were approximately 50,000 (11 %) Māori adults who could speak Māori well or very well. Many of the very fluent speakers of Māori were likely to be over 65 years old.

Moriori, an earlier indigenous language is now extinct and has not had any native speakers since the 1930s (though the language has been recorded reasonably extensively in written form).


**taonga – treasure

***The latest figures come from the Jersey Annual Social Survey issued on 5 December 2012.- 18% of the population could speak some Jèrriais words and phrases with more than 7% of those over 65 being fluent or able to speak a lot of Jèrriais. Two-thirds of adults said that they could not understand spoken Jèrriais, but more than a quarter are able to understand some, and 5% more can usually or fully understand someone speaking Jèrriais. 4% of people said that they could write some Jèrriais, although under 1% could write fluently. Just under a third (32%) said that they could understand something written in Jèrriais.




Huerto del Rey Moro I Koekoea and The Fig 900mm x 550mm acryllic and coloured pencil on canvas. Emma Louise Pratt 2012.

The Garden of the Moorish King

Giving a First Hand Account

by Dr. Warren Feeney

To assume that the paintings of Irene Ferguson and Emma Pratt are figurative, detailing the artists’ experiences of the world is as accurate as it is misleading. In her attention to the small detail of the narratives and allegories that inhabit Ferguson’s imagery, she frequently gives due attention to familiar traditions of painting from Western art, yet the curious cut-and-paste realization of these images seem to be as much about respecting the art and culture of Europe as it is about drawing attention to the art of painting as the supreme act of deception.

And although there may be a stillness and underlying order to the townscapes of Emma Pratt’s paintings, there is also a pervasive sense that she is an artist simultaneously setting out to deface or take apart an iconography that seems almost too precise, too composed and somehow not quite at home. And Pratt’s images seem better for the implication of such a desire – a wish for more, or something else just about to take place on the surface of the picture plane.

Witness might better be described as an exhibition of figurative paintings that deals with the nature of our experiences of the world as it questions the very act of painting as a means to encapsulate the tasks and principles it represents. It is no coincidence that both Ferguson and Pratt seem conscious of their role as artists and makers of figurative images, a tradition in the fine arts informed by well-known conventions predominant from the Renaissance to the late 19th century. Yet, references to social realism, 19th century landscape painting, classicism, formalism or expressionism, also recognize the value of such conventions as a means to disassemble and reconfigure images in ways that appear relevant and pertinent to their own experience. Are the paintings of Ferguson and Pratt a witness to humanity’s experience in a global community in the 21st century, offering a sincere and first-hand account of such? Yes, but they offer even more.

Ferguson and Pratt make works that shift and fluctuate, giving consideration to the context of all possibilities. If Ferguson’s imagery is a composite of references that take in snapshots of the sublime, literature, cinema, painting and photography, Pratt’s art is assembled from an iconography that seems both nostalgic and actual – as much about the ephemeral nature of memory as it is about the here-and-now, even to the point of the presence of paint as substance on the surface of the picture plane.

In Witness, certainty and suspicion occupy the same spaces. Ferguson draws together subjects, objects, values and beliefs through time and space, resolving all their differences of opinion, yet she equally observes that she sees herself constantly wanting to… ‘be some other place.’ Pratt’s paintings of Seville – the work of an expatriate from New Zealand now resident in Spain – are described by her as ‘personal travel maps’ yet they are also work by an artist who is living abroad – and by choice recognizes that she is an outsider.

How to make sense of this assemblage of distances, beliefs and encounters? It is a question that both artists direct back towards the gallery audience. Ferguson’s art is a celebration, (even a eulogy), to painting as deception – an unreality of our experience of the world. In Dorothy Falls, her pastiche of an idyllic pastoral landscape, her attention to detail, the treatment of light, and collage of contemporary and historical references, could all be part of a long-lost parable or peculiarly modern fairy tale. And in making the question of this painting’s intention a subject for debate, Ferguson turns the viewer’s attention, self-consciously back upon them. Implicitly, we are required to occupy the same stage as the figures that inhabit her paintings. Ferguson’s subject becomes how to read, decode and make sense of a narrative that is overtly oblique. She also notes that it is not just the content of her work that is important, but also the physicality of her paintings, occupying the gallery space, maintaining a ‘presence… but also [being] not of this world’:

I like that moment when as a viewer you stand in front of a painting. Perhaps it’s the spot where the artist stood and you see the abstract nature of the paint and feel the physical act of mark making that has made this image. The paint will assist the image to hover between the real and the abstract.

Pratt’s imagery is no less demanding; digital images, videos and photographs, all coalesce to seek out and locate a place that might seem like home. This is an idyllic and elusive world. Pratt observes:

My work has its basis predominantly in landscape with, at times, other images which help portray my mythologies and cosmologies. Images have been sourced from stills uploaded online from webcams, video stills, quick shots out of a car window, old photograph albums, all catching the fleeting, the changing, the expanding and the eternal. I trace the existence of many worlds or ways of seeing: a nostalgic past, where “home” is, [a series of] shadowy pasts where I was not, and an ever increasing, global present.

Ferguson and Pratt are in good company. Their consideration of painting as a conduit for ‘ways of seeing’ has its own close association with Spain, a country where Pratt has lived since 2000 and both artists worked together.​1 Diego Velázquez’s painting of the Madrid Place and court of King Philip IV of Spain, Las Meninas is a work that also addresses essential questions about painting’s representation of the world and the viewer’s relationship with a work of art. Famously, as Velázquez looks out at the viewer in this work, his audience becomes aware that they are both looking, and being looked at, similarly confronting themselves as the potential subject of the painting.

And if Ferguson and Pratt are artists whose practice belongs to – and is separated from – grand traditions of European art, the paintings in Witness are equally a part of – and distanced from – New Zealand’s art history. Pratt is an expatriate New Zealander and former artist-in-residence in San Lucar de Barrameda. She met Ferguson in 2008 in Seville when she was the recent recipient of the Adam Portrait Award in New Zealand. Both artists acknowledge a cultural distance that continues to look their way just as it did for expatriate artists throughout the twentieth century. Ferguson currently lives in Melbourne and misses the contact with Spanish art and its traditions, while Pratt –as a longstanding resident in Seville – acknowledges that she misses the landscape of New Zealand. It’s a sentiment perfectly summarized almost 100 years ago by Frances Hodgkins as she reflected on her departure from the place of her birth:

Perhaps I ought to have been content with what was a very interesting life, but I felt I was only groping; that I had not realized myself.​2

Working between countries, connecting via the internet to discuss their painting with one another, there is a degree of both intimacy and distance in such a relationship. Pratt assembles images of a place somewhere far away, consistently on the edge of realization, erasure and reconfiguration. Ferguson’s art seems to draw from all four corners of the globe, virtual and otherwise. Yet, both make works that are as specific as they are representative of a state of flux and permutation – A first-hand account, if you like, of paying witness to a poignant, tangible and ultimately transitory experience of being.

Dr. Warren Feeney

1 Pratt has resided and worked in Spain since 2006. Ferguson visited and worked with her in 2008, and also acknowledges an admiration for artists such as Velazquez, Goya and Murillo.

2 Gordon H. Brown, Traditions and Departures: New Zealand Painting 1900-1920, Wellington: Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council, 1972, p. 21.

WITNESS by Emma Pratt and Irene Ferguson

Hastings City Art Gallery.

1 September 2012 – 11 November 2012

‘The expanding artistic toolbox now includes such seductive digital media that painting seems to have lost its prominence in public exhibition programs. It is fair to say however, that audience desire has never waned. Notable paintings have reached unimagined prices at auction, initiating a reassessment of ‘art as good investment’ in our strapped economic times. In recent shows at Hastings City Art Gallery, visitors have exclaimed on more than one occasion “But where are the paintings”?

It gives me great pleasure then, to bring two consummate painters, flagrantly exposing the most extraordinary facility with the medium to your attention. Despite now living abroad, Irene Ferguson in Australia and Emma Pratt in Spain, are our very own. These wonderful New Zealanders follow the footsteps of a tradition of great women painters, Frances Hodgkins, Rita Angus, Doris Lusk, Lois White, Louise Henderson and proudly take painting into the 21st Century.

Emma and Irene reference and use new media in their painting practice. Both articulate the influence of photography, now made instantly accessible in digital format.

Irene has been constructing photographic imagery in collage to depict the here and now, as well as reference the history of art. She constructs paintings that draw attention to the superficiality of images while exploring our multi layered experience of space and time.

Emma also is interested in an altered sense of time and space. She sees her paintings as personal maps. They are images constructed of people echoes, movement of foliage and the addition of a bird larger than life, suggestive of its sound. These elements are indicated by isolated colour and paint on the move in what appears to be a landscape ‘snapshot’, overtaken by organic paint. The overgrown vacant lot she visits in Seville now depicted in her painting, takes her and us back across time and place to a New Zealand wilderness that allowed for exploring and hut building.

These two artists now share their lives, thoughts and inspiration with each other through mediated technology, photography, the internet, the phone and they support each other in their combined experience as New Zealand artists abroad. It is important that we support them too. The old adage of “you don’t know what you have got until it’s gone” affects us all, however when it poignantly surfaces in the work of an artist abroad, it makes us re-think where we are, and why they left. Perhaps by publicly celebrating theses wonderful painters, we may lure them back to the shores of Aotearoa one day.’

-Maree Mills, Director Hastings City Art Gallery


“Carl Theodore Sørensen watched children playing on construction sites with sand, bricks, and tree stumps, and proposed in 1931 a new kind of playground – skrammelejepads, or “junk playground” – of old cars, packing crates, and timber so children could build their own places. He saw “nicely designed” play equipment and hopscotch lines painted on asphalt as evidence of adults’ profound misunderstanding of children’s play.

The first ever adventure playground built in 1943, in Emdrup, just north of Copenhagen, was a flat, open area of dirt sunk below the level of the surrounding land and bounded by berms covered with dense, thorny shrubs; entry was through a small wooden building on the corner. The whole created a frame for activity and for messy constructions. The dense boundary provided privacy and shielded the children’s work from view. Photographs from the 1940s show an open space with piles of bricks, old boards…

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Blanca's View in the Community Garden

Blanca’s View

La Tata is ninety and has a very full, straight set of knashers. Her lips stretch over them, as if she is trying to keep them in. She speaks in her low gravely voice to eight week old Blanca. Blanca looks back at her, smiling over my shoulder. When La Tata first saw her at one week old, she clasped her hands together mumbled benedictions and then waved her hand in a vague sign of the cross over the pram. She had told me then of how the mystery of life transfixed her -how could a child come from our bellies?

La Tata speaks of the wonderful things that Blanca will see and of the little that she knows, of the smartness of her big sister and most of all, that she is Andaluza, a Sevillana, and not to forget it. She told Clara the same when she was born. I think she finds the idea that part of them is not, and that they could disappear off to that very foreign, distant land and forget their roots, of great concern. Soon the chatter from over my shoulder ceases and I turn to see that La Tata has fallen asleep, her head tilted forward and her hands, that have washed and ironed countless amounts of clothes for three generations and soothed many crying babies are clasped together in the lap of her dark green wool skirt. Blanca looks on in a wide eyed baby stare. The telly blares in front of us with some midday South American soap opera.

Blanca hears sirens. She watches her mobile turn in the top of her pram. Innocent little bugs and butterflies swirl and bob around above her as we rattle through the cobbled streets. We pass a spray painted sign calling for Andalusians to rise up and strike. We heard from a friend, whose brother is a policeman, that they’re receiving special riot training. He may be just talking it up, but people are certainly getting angry. Laws are passed every day to cut spending, increase taxes, increase costs, reduce salaries…there are two million people out of the almost five million unemployed who receive no benefit and depend on their families. 350,000 people have lost their jobs since January. Corruption is everywhere among the rich who remain rich and even richer -we all know how untouchable they are. People are getting very angry.

Blanca is looking at the branches above us, thick with new spring leaves and blossoms. The vacant lot is full of children raising dust with their running games, climbing in the ancient fig, swinging on the swings and jumping along the old car tyres laid on the ground. I’ve never seen the place so full of people. People are sitting under the trees having afternoon tea, celebrating birthdays, studying or…a distinct smell wafts over my way… sharing a joint. Various raised garden plots have gardeners there weeding, planting, cutting back or harvesting. A man is pushing a wheelbarrow of dirt to continue caking the old children’s playhouse with a mixture of mud and straw. He’s creating a series of sculptures made of raw recycled materials. A giant snake’s head is forming at the end of the tyres, made of sticks, branches and straw, bent in to shape with eyes made of glass jars that used to contain olives. It kind of reminds me of the playground by the river in Wanganui, only this is all formed from the earth on which it stands. Next Saturday there will be a party here to celebrate eight years since the community gardens started.

Blanca is looking over my shoulder at the rain falling outside. It’s much needed. Extremadura is in a drought and the summer hasn’t arrived yet. Tomorrow my parents arrive, so I want to finish this postcard even if I have to type with one hand and hold her with the other. It’s been two years since I was home and this will be the first time that Blanca will meet her New Zealand Grandparents. She has faced the computer and wobbled her head at some pixelated people as her sister Clara has given the screen sloppy kisses, one for Nan, one for Poppa.

Finally Blanca looks at me.
It always takes a while to register
She looks at the outline of my face,
Then finds my eyes,
And cracks a smile.


The days are getting shorter and darker. Leaves are falling, leaving skeleton trees, black and wet. Halloween has become quite a presence in the last few years here in Spain. The big kids come in all dressed up as ghosts and zombie to give out sweets in Clara’s infant’s room. The radio hosts joke about Spain’s zombie economy run by banker ghouls (really no joke there). Everyone has a Halloween party to go to. Jokes and commercialism aside, being on this side of the world gives the festival sense. The 31st of October heralds the oncoming of the night, the withering of things, the preparation for winter and of our own mortality.

The 1st of November is the Day of the Dead, or All Saints Day, which, unlike Halloween, has been celebrated here since the dawn of Christian times. It’s the day when you go to the cemetery to visit those who have passed on. Cemeteries in Andalusia are always white walled, out of town and flanked by Cypruses, so you can’t miss them. The cemetery in Seville is like another city, an airily beautiful and solemn necropolis, as the Romans called it, weighted with stories and local history, full of white mausoleums, walls with boxes and plastic flowers, crypts and headstones. I haven’t been there since we interred Javier’s grandmother many years ago –perhaps next year we’ll make the trip out there.
Javier’s mother dutifully made the trip despite her recently operated foot. She walked too far and now I have her swollen foot and ankle up on my knee and I’m giving it a gentle rub. You’ll need to sit still this afternoon with that foot up, I say. It’s very hard for this mother of six and grandmother of ten to sit still.
I get to thinking of the little trips I like to make when we come home to NZ. Out to the cemetery at Apiti is a constant, but the Thorndon and Karori cemeteries are due their visits too. My Step Grandmother always said Karori was far too cold and damp to be buried in. There she is, however, along with many generations of my mother’s family.
But it’s not just in cemeteries where we remember. We like to visit trees we’ve planted, drive down certain roads and stop in certain places for a cuppa. I like to crouch by the Rangitikei a while and throw some pebbles in. Or stop the car on the Desert Road to gaze about the volcanic plateau. In 2006 we carried water toSpain that we had collected from a certain stream on Taranaki. We’ve still got it, though I think it’s time to be sprinkled about and remember the loved ones we were with that day, some passed on, others with us still. I just haven’t been able to let it go yet.
In August this year while we were on our yearly escape from Andalusian heat, we visited some remote hill villages up north in the forested hill regions of Castílla y León. Coming from a river swim, we came into a village by chance and noticed the houses had large portraits of what appeared to be locals hung on the outside walls. The encaustic on scrap metal portraits had a dated look about them due to the sitters’ dress and the hanging of the portraits had it’s own special order, some hung by windows, some on odd walls. Stop the car!
I got out to investigate further and soon found the meaning of it all. One day back in 1967 a government photographer named Alejandro Martín Criado had come to the village to photograph all the villagers of age for their new ID cards – 388 people in all. Later the photos became part of an archive in his name. The Spanish artist Florencio Maíllo had come across the photo archive and put the proposal called “Retrata” (to make/take a portrait) forward to the local Council. His idea was to draw from the archive and situate the resulting painted portraits on the outside of the homes where the people had been living in 1967. All the paintings were then given to the descendants of the portrait sitters. In most cases, for the time being, the portraits were remaining on the walls of the village dwellings. I didn’t get a chance to walk further around the village due to the two tired children I had in the back of our car, so I will never know exactly how many works the artist made in his village wide installation.
I found the idea so simple, the works beautiful and refreshing. This was an act of creative generosity to enrich the village’s fabric of memory and sense of place. The project stayed with me all day.
I continued to ponder it into the evening while I sat in the village church where we were staying and stared at the family of bats nestled into the faded 500 year old painted wooden rafters high above my head. The rafters had been once covered in mystical beasts and flora, brightly painted in a style that had been brought to this region from Mesopotamia with Jewish and Muslim migrations. Once Islamic Spain had been conquered, and in order to show Spain’s loyalty to Christian Europe, conversions to Christianity were enforced on the Jewish and Muslim populations or expulsion ensued. Some of the converted had often made their way to remote hill villages to get away from the eyes of the Spanish Inquisition. Often the most pious crosses etched in the stone lintels of doorways belonged to the houses of the converted population. I thought of the Sabbath candles burning in secret behind shuttered windows and prayer mats hidden, traditional motifs in embroidery worn in secret acts of remembering.
Winter approaches. We look into the gathering night and remember. Clara and I collect yellow leaves in the park for a school project. They’re having a chestnut roasting party on Monday. I dig into the cupboard for blankets for the  beds and put carpets down on the cold stone floors.
Images: Various works from “Retrata2/388” by Florencio Maíllo in the village ofMogarraz, Peñas de Francia in the Salamanca Region of Castílla y León, Spain.
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