Review — Marilynn Webb Folded in the Hills

Reviewed by Peter Simpson

Marilynn Webb: Folded in the hills is a substantial bilingual publication to mark the monumental retrospective of Ngapuhi, Te Roroa and Ngati Kahu artist Marilynn Webb (NZOM) (1937-2021) at Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

Marilynn Webb (1927-2021) faced three barriers to success as an artist in the 1960s: she was Māori (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Kahu,Te Roroa), she was a woman, and she was (primarily) a printmaker. As a feminist and politically aware person Webb was fully conscious of this situation. Her choice of print-making as her primary medium (linocuts, monotypes, woodcuts, engravings, embossing) was partly because it avoided the ‘barriers of paternalism and chauvinism’ and provided ‘a quiet creative space for women printmakers to develop’.

This impressive book fully documents an exhibition of the same name held at Dunedin Public Art Gallery from December last year to April this year (also to be shown at Christchurch Art Gallery); the three curators, Lauren Gutsell, Lucy Hammonds and Bridget Reweti, have each contributed a chapter to the book which also includes contributions from writer Bridie Lonie, artist Kura Te Waru Rewiri, and poets Cilla McQueen, Hone Tuwhare, essa may rarapiri, and Ruby Solly. Another noteworthy feature of the book is that (apart from the poems in English) all text appears in both English and Maori, even including the catalogues of works reproduced, a feature I’m not aware of having seen before.

The book is richly illustrated. There are four generous sections of plates, each comprising full-page and full-colour reproductions of high quality, separated by the catalogues and essays. The essays themselves are also liberally illustrated with photographs and reproductions, a smart feature being that these smaller illustrations are different (though related) in the English and Māori versions of essays.

Lauren Gutsell’s essay is largely devoted to Webb’s printmaking career. She trained as an artist and teacher under the far-seeing Art and Craft Scheme associated with Gordon Tovey and Pine Taiapa in which many Māori modernists including Selwyn Wilson, Fred Graham, Katarina Mataira, Para Matchitt, Ralph Hotere, Cliff Whiting and Sandy Adsett among others got their start as arts advisors in predominantly Māori schools in the upper North Island. Access to printing equipment in schools directed Webb towards print-making, a mode in which she was highly innovative especially in embossing (that is incised lines in linoleum leading to raised surfaces on damped paper without using ink) as in Cloud Landscape (1973), used on the cover. Ease of transporting works on paper led to considerable exposure of Webb’s work overseas, as in exhibitions in Japan, India, Yugoslavia, Norway, France and the United States.

Lucy Hammonds’ essay emphasises the importance to her career of receiving the Frances Hodgkins Fellowship in 1974, after which she settled in Dunedin. She established an especially close personal and artistic relationship with Lake Mahinerangi in Central Otago, where she bought land. Hammonds’ essay also documents the ‘deep entwinement of the personal and the political’ in her work and her deepening engagement with environmental and Māori related issues, such as the proposed aluminium smelter at Aramoana and French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Increasingly Webb began modifying her prints with autographic elements. Pastels became an important part of her practice, especially reds and pinks in her nuclear protesting works, often featuring bleeding rainbows.

Bridget Reweti, herself a Hodgkins Fellowship artist, focusses mainly on later series in her essay ‘To Recognise Whenua’, especially those in which Webb explores histories of occupation and settlement such as Going Through Fiordland (1997-2008) and In Hodges’ Wake (1998). 

This beautiful book represents, in Hammonds’ words,’50 years of uncompromising art-making concerned with our relationship to land, sky and water; a lifetime of tracing the potential of the horizon and finding strength in the embrace of the hills’ (p.131). 

Reviewed by Peter Simpson