Cook Strait, 1978 watercolor on paper by Guy Ngan. Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust Collection, Ruawharo Tā-ū-rangi. Photo / Provided
What at first appears to be an abstract work is actually an image of Te Moana o Raukawa, Cook Strait.
Here the sea and landform are clearly defined by the artist’s use of blue and green, although without its title and use of color this structural arrangement could be read as something altogether different. less tangible.
Painted by the wonderful Guy Ngan, Cook Strait is housed in the Hawke’s Bay Museum Trusts Collection. A stunning watercolor by one of Aotearoa’s most prolific artists.
Born in Wellington in 1926, Ngan was a second-generation Chinese New Zealander who, as an adult, called himself “Chinese of the Pacific”. Her family, originally from Guangzhou and apparently frustrated with the way they were treated in Aotearoa, returned to China when Ngan was still in primary school.
Ngan’s family raised him artistically; in China, he received books and art materials and received a good foundation in the arts.
Just ten years after they arrived in Guangzhou, the war between Japan and China broke out and the city fell to the Japanese. At the age of 12, Ngan and his brother returned to New Zealand by ship and it was there that Ngan began his career in design in earnest.
After a short apprenticeship, Ngan traveled to London where he completed a degree in wood, metal and plastic design. Eventually he returned to New Zealand, but not before gaining professional experience in Rome, Scandinavia and North America.
Working as a designer, Ngan continued his artistic practice, becoming a full-time artist in 1970. Between 1944 and 2012, Ngan created over 40 woodcarvings, sculptures and public murals across New Zealand. He has exhibited in solo shows at numerous public galleries, including Hawke’s Bay Cultural Center, now known as Hastings City Art Gallery. In 2019, Ngan was the subject of a retrospective at the Dowse Art Museum and has been back in the spotlight lately.
The Hawke’s Bay Museum Trust is fortunate to own three works by Guy Ngan, including this one purchased at the Hawke’s Bay Cultural Center exhibition in 1979.
Ngan’s foundational upbringing, cementing a love for the arts early on and his formal training and experience in the design industry would have set in place the key ideas and aesthetics of his work at the start of the piece.
Kingsley Baird, a former apprentice and friend of the artist, sums it up well when he says: “Guy was intensely interested in humanity, including the migrations of peoples around the world throughout history and, principally, to what connects them, culturally and genetically.”
This work by Ngan shows his affinity with the environment of Aotearoa but also a sense of travel and movement. It beautifully captures the coast, its swift waters and its impossible shore, though in many ways it is the story of people’s interconnectedness through travel and migration. This is expressed by linear movement in the water and landforms that seem to collide with each other, communicating the passage of people and time.
There’s also a lot of designer here, and an architectural influence in the structural emphasis of the painting.
One of Ngan’s most obvious influences in his career is modernist architecture and his saying of clean living spaces that put people’s habits and needs first. As much as this work by Ngan is a landscape, it seems as though he transformed that landscape into a man-made structure, the design of which reflects the history of humanity’s movement through the world.
Baird hits the nail on the head when he talks about Ngan’s concern for humanity being evident in this work. A work that goes beyond the literal interpretation of a landscape and that says so much more about what it is to be human.
You can view this work along with other great work by Ngan in the online collection available at the MTG Hawke’s Bay website www.mtghawkesbay.com.
Toni MacKinnon is an art curator at MTG