Mixed media artist Alexis Neal is consistently
drawn to depicting objects of taonga as she
sees them possessing a wairua or spirit beyond
their physical presence. The treasures included
in the semi-circular mezzotint entitled Treasured
(1997) include ear pendants, a carved piece of
bone and a shell necklace. These are not cheap,
throw-away items of jewellery purchased from a
ubiquitous mall jewellery store but are objects to
be worn, treasured and adored.
As an artist of both Mäari and Päkeha
descent Alexis’s work often explores the duality
of artefacts in terms of personal adornment and
material culture. This is well represented by the
feathers which were traditionally worn as statussymbols
by people of high rank. The prized white
feathers of the albatross such as those depicted
by Alexis were worn only on important occasions.
Each treasure in the work has an embellishment
function — the shell necklace, the tupa (shark
tooth earrings), the carved pendant — and they
are encapsulated in the form of a breastplate
or waka huia, kept close to the heart and stored
away for safe-keeping in a special wooden chest.
Their depiction speaks to both an ethnographic,
cultural heritage with the potency of taonga
breathing life into objects that have been
removed from their cultural context.
Although initially trained in printmaking
Alexis currently incorporates a broad range
of methodologies into her art practise and
the use of mezzotint here provides a dramatic
aesthetic. The Italian term “mezzotint” means
“half tone”or “half painted” and refers to the
method of engraving working from dark to light.
Originally used in the 17th century, mezzotints
were popular for the reproduction of paintings,
favoured for their luxurious quality of tone.
Traditionally a copper surface was evenly
roughened by a tool with a serrated edge. The
image is then formed by scraping away the
roughened surface after which ink is applied to
the plate and simultaneously wiped over with
rags. The smoother parts of the plate produce
solid black sections and the roughened areas
produce the image. Alexis exploits this technique
to its full potential creating an unbroken velvety
black section to form a backdrop to the delicately
drawn lines of the treasured items. Their casual
clustering recalls Alexis’s initial study in collage
and her continued interest in layering and
pattern. Originally trained at Elam School of
Fine Arts, completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts in
1997, Alexis later completed a masters degree
in printmaking and mixed media at Slade School
of Fine Arts in London. Since her return to New
Zealand she has held tutoring positions in
academic and community institutions including
Paremoremo, Auckland Prison, taught children’s
printmaking and been the recipient of Mäori
Print Wänanaga/ residencies in Whanganui.
Alexis is currently one of the guest exhibitors
in the Central Printmaking Council’s exhibition
Printmaking: Beyond the Frame which is on
show at the Gus Fisher Gallery until 30 August.