Love letters to Savusavu
Nansi Thompson talks to painter Claudia Jowitt about the threads of whakapapa, influence and connection that make up her changing practice.
The surface strikes first: wrapped around a frame or sitting inside it, contained and bleached. But it is a surface with depths. Up close we can navigate through layers of fossilised possibility and pattern, glimpses of embedded treasures, and undercurrents of the palest and, yes, the prettiest of colours. Armed with cake-decorating tools to pipe, splurge and embellish, shamelessly paying tribute to ‘women’s work’, and drawing strength from her Fijian whakapapa, Claudia Jowitt is “quietly insistent” on rewriting the rules of painting.
Jowitt graduated with a Master of Fine Arts from Elam School of Fine Arts in 2015, following an honours degree from Auckland University of Technology. In 2016, she was the inaugural recipient of the Tautai Pacific Arts Trust residency at the Dunedin School of Art. Jowitt remembers her residency as a time that she made a fundamental shift in her practice, seeking “to make work that was connected to the place it was made”.
In recent solo shows – Across Waters (2018) at Bartley+Company Art in Wellington and Namotu (2017) at Melanie Roger Gallery in Auckland – the sophisticated kitsch of Jowitt’s earlier work, with its sweeps of tinted white and 1980s pale, has become more compact and complex. The currents of paint are precise; the ordered chaos defies logic. Dense and alive, the paintings could have been lifted from lagoons in the Pacific, where she has also been spending time. One new series of smooth-surfaced watercolours, Savusavu, is named after the town in Fiji that her father’s family is from – its markings look as delicate as dress patterns or the dotted lines on faded navigational maps. Equally complex, Jowitt’s paintings of extruded acrylic hold within their layers fragments of masi (Fijian white tapa), magimagi (braided coconut sinnet) and qari (crab). These humble found gatherings become carefully placed microcosms that shift your focus and draw you close. From a distance the bits and collected pieces hum within the overall pattern.
“In some ways these works are love letters to the coral reefs around where I whakapapa to in Fiji, that I have seen struggling with global warming and the rise in cyclones hitting the coast. I’ve also of course been still thinking about what constitutes ‘feminine practice’ in the art world, and where the lines between craft and fine art are drawn. The pastel colours I use are not only colours I have lifted directly off the coral reefs in Fiji, but also play up this feminine parodying.”
Claudia Jowitt acknowledges the deep importance of her family. Along with her two sisters, she was raised by a mum who worked nights and weekends in a fabric warehouse in order to be at home during the day for her children, and a dad who was a gardener for architect Ian Athfield. Trained by Athfield, her father went on to become an architectural draughtsman himself.
“Looking back, I don’t know how they did it or how they managed to keep the household going on what they did. I feel nothing but gratitude and admiration. My maternal grandmother Margaret was also an integral part of my life until her death at 90 last year. She was a firecracker – she taught me to love art and painting.”
Another major influence was her uncle, the photographer Glenn Jowitt, who passed away in 2014 at the age of 59. From the early 1980s Glenn Jowitt was known for his groundbreaking and prolific work documenting the peoples of the South Pacific, first in Auckland and then in many visits to the islands. He was also a fun and loving uncle. Watching him work, the young Claudia Jowitt knew she wanted to be an artist too. Although he was from her mother’s side of the family, the Pākehā side, it was Glenn Jowitt who encouraged the family to seek out the other side of the family tree. Claudia took up the challenge and at 11 years old began researching a family secret.
“I am a product of a mixed Pākehā and Fijian lineage. My grandmother came over to New Zealand to quietly adopt my Dad out before returning home to Fiji. It wasn’t until the Adult Adoption Information Act passed in 1985 that Dad was able to access his original birth certificate and establish his heritage. In trying to reconnect, he was met with resistance from some of our closest relatives – secrets were meant to stay secrets. But through his sister, whom I found when I emailed the Fiji White Pages, we found acceptance in our wider vuvale (family). On our third trip back, two years ago, we finally got to meet my grandmother.”
Growing up without Fijian culture or language, Jowitt and her father have both been on a journey of recovery. For the past three years they have been attending Fijian classes at the Pasifika Education Centre in Ōtara. Jowitt has also immersed herself in craft and cooking workshops, and mined treasures at Auckland War Memorial Museum. Her hands bear Melanesian traditional tattoos she recently received from Julia Mage‘au Gray – in the Fijian veiqia tradition, in which women tattoo women. Fijian titles appear on her recent paintings: Cakau (‘reef’), Buqu (‘grandmother’), Medrea (‘entangled vines or branches’, also meaning ‘to be tangled in speech’). Other titles are drawn from wry Fijian proverbs – Moce vaka ura, for instance, meaning “The prawn always sleeps with one eye open”.
Jowitt says the process of reawakening to one’s language and culture can be complex. “My bloodline contains both the coloniser and the colonised… When asserting my Fijian heritage, I have always felt fraudulent, or needing to apologise for not looking more identifiably so. Through trips back to spend time with relatives, along with the language and protocol classes we’ve been taking, I am slowly beginning to realise this is not necessary. If you whakapapa back to your ancestral home, this is not something you can quantify into percentages of a bloodline; nor does living in another place take this away from you. You are part of the vanua (land) and it is part of you. But it is up to you to respect that and keep that connection alive.”
Curator, writer and artist Ahilapalapa Rands – of Hawaiian, Fijian and Pākehā descent, now based in London – has known Claudia since 2008, when they both attended an exchange programme at Carnegie Mellon University in Pennsylvania. They also shared art school days at Auckland University of Technology. Rands, who herself investigates, redefines and rejects the exclusionary in her own projects, admires Jowitt’s management of “the necessary dualism that comes from being an indigenous person raised in a Western world – especially if, like Claudia and I, you weren’t raised able to fluently navigate both. Creative practice becomes such a powerful tool for processing and unpacking this experience, while also a testing ground for reconnecting to language, land, culture and, most importantly, people. Over the years I’ve watched Claudia push wild boundaries in her practice while rigorously adhering to her cultural accountability as a Fijian – this balance is constantly in motion. And she has a curiosity and delight that’s been allowed to slowly develop over time.”
The recent shift in Jowitt’s practice was perhaps assisted by a muse. While on the Tautai residency in 2016, she discovered a painting in the storeroom of a Dunedin gallery, its frame in slight disarray. The work was Making Tapa (1965) by Teuane Tibbo. Jowitt was lovestruck. Tibbo, who had begun painting at 71 years old, in the mid-1960s became the first Samoan artist to be shown in a dealer gallery in Auckland. She was self-taught – though Jowitt sees this label, along with other suspect terms such as ‘naïve’ or ‘primitive’, as “more reflective of Pākehā history than of an indigenous South Pacific one”. Many of Tibbo’s paintings are now held in national and international public collections, and Making Tapa hangs proudly in Jowitt’s own home.
“I’m now doing all sorts of things I thought were absolute no-nos for maintaining a serious painting practice when I was in art school,” Jowitt says. “I want the works to be accessible on a number of levels – to have bit of slapstick or tactility that welcomes the viewer into the fold, rather than being hermetically sealed and speaking only to an art audience. I want my work to be inclusive, with an element of humour, while at the same time gesturing to a broader conversation about painting, femininity and learning about my Fijian heritage. Really they are a reflection of myself as a woman raised in the South Pacific.”
Jowitt’s paintings certainly contribute to the updated contemporary moment for women. In reclaiming concepts of femininity in colours and craft – whether cake decoration, collections of haberdashery or beachcombed shells – she challenges male-dominated histories and expands the definition of ‘serious’ art. I witnessed the work’s accessibility in 2018 when Jowitt exhibited in a group show of women painters at Franklin Art Centre. The detail in Jowitt’s work drew scrutiny from visitors who normally walk past abstract art. In a touch tour of the exhibition in collaboration with the Blind Foundation, vision-impaired visitors handled small versions of Jowitt’s paintings and listened to descriptions of those on the wall: “The next two pieces are rounds of acrylic on marble about the size of big fishcakes, with a web made of pale pink ‘worms’ over a layer of thin blue piping, thinner than string but thicker than cotton, reminiscent of the texture of a loofah.”
Jowitt’s painting is also drawing attention from the far side of the Pacific. Artplex Gallery – a new arrival on the art scene in Los Angeles, with the kaupapa of showing “internationally rising contemporary artists” – will exhibit some of Jowitt’s paintings in March. Back home, Jowitt is planning for the Auckland Art Fair and has works in a group show at new Hamilton gallery Weasel in mid-May. Her continuing presence, then, seems secure, and audiences can look forward to new revelations, new layers of reflection and rumination from this South Pacific artist.“I like the idea of making works that are quietly insistent,” Jowitt says. “If the painting is successful, then it should keep unfolding.”
Claudia Jowitt’s works feature in the Bartley + Company Art stand at the Auckland Art Fair in May. She also has a solo exhibition at Melanie Roger Gallery planned for October.
All artworks by and courtesy of Claudia Jowitt