ARTS - THERE has been much anticipation as to what Gisborne potter Baye Riddell will come up with for the first major solo exhibition he has staged for a few years, and here’s hoping the artist can make it to his own opening.
Riddell has this week been putting the final touches to his combined retro-spective/contemporary show and that has required considerable physical labour. Having spent months both creating new work and sourcing older pieces, his last job was to get them to the gallery.
And with the help of a van, a mate and the muscle-power of son Kahurangi, yesterday the job was done. More than 60 works — about half new, about half illustrating the course of his career — were installed in Tairawhiti Museum’s main gallery to make up the new show, Reckoning.
But if that was a mission, it is nothing compared to the journey Riddell has been on over the 40 years of his career in ceramic art.
It started small with the domesticware he first began firing in the smoke-belching, diesel kiln he made while living in Christchurch in the early 1970s.
As the new works show, however, it has gotten very big indeed.
Never mind the size of Riddell’s reputation — he was last year the first ever Gisborne artist to be awarded Creative New Zealand’s $65,000 Craft/Object Fellowship — the scale of the pieces themselves has burgeoned to the point where many stand taller than the artist himself.
“I guess that’s just part of the development,” he says. “I’ve always been interested in making large-scale works and, this time, I have.”
Among the larger new works is a seven-piece series of one-and-a-half metre high pou, the clay of each shaped, coloured and carved to represent the seven days of creation as described in the Bible’s Book of Genesis.
Then there is the trio of hefty, towering macrocarpa crucifixes that bear mask-like ceramic representations of Christ, the penitent criminal and the unrepentant criminal . . . an extension of the Nga Korero o Kaware: Conversations at Calvary work he exhibited at Te Papa Tongarewa: The Museum of New Zealand in the middle of last decade.
Referencing the oft-applied use of text in religious art, motifs and words rendered in brass, copper and zincalume are hammered on, one bearing the word “utu”. It’s all a little discomforting but, for Riddell, the word “utu” doesn’t mean revenge or retribution, as is often thought. It means, he says, “the price . . . the ultimate price paid by Jesus Christ”.
Riddell’s two main influences — his faith and Maori imagery — can be seen everywhere a viewer looks in the new show but it is only in more recent works that the two are firmly welded together.
It is as though the retrospective side of the exhibition demonstrates the maker’s march through the years of his career, until he reaches the point where he has the confidence and con-viction of a senior artist.
Speaking of that retro side, Riddell (Ngati Porou, Te Whanau a Ruataupare) says that to keep down shipping costs and the risk of breakages, he tried to source as many pieces as he could from local collections.
There are a couple of modestly-proportioned, narrow-necked vessels from back in the Christchurch days and a particularly enticing green glaze defines the pots created just a couple of years later.
Then there are figurines, triangular sharks-teeth shaped sculptures and increasingly decorative (rather than functional) pots, most created at the cavernous wharf-side studio he still keeps at the East Coast settlement of Tokomaru Bay (though he has worked at his Gisborne studio during recent winters).
Riddell’s family is originally from Toko but they moved to Hawke’s Bay as part of the great urban drift of the 1950s, when he was aged just six. It was his determination to reconnect with his roots that saw him return there in 1979.
At the time the artist was a relative newbie to his craft, having started in Christchurch half a dozen years earlier under the eye of renowned potter Paul Fisher who, like most at the time, was influenced by the practices of Japan and the United Kingdom. Even then Riddell was experimenting with the Maori motifs that were to become a fixture of his later work, a technique that earned him the somewhat dodgy title of The Native among his Cantabrian peers.
During the 18 months he worked with Fisher, Riddell had popped back to Toko for a family reunion and decided that was where he wanted to be. In 1975 he started the journey that, with stop-offs to establish potteries in an historic homestead (Ashcott) near Waipukurau and then another at another (Waipare) at Anaura Bay, by 1979 he had finally made it “home”.
Riddell’s plan for a holistic, sustainable lifestyle for him and his family was not without its challenges. Offsetting the positives of having a supportive network of other artists (among them well-known craftswoman Helen Mason) were negatives like relationship troubles.
But Riddell persevered with his output of work, his focus on his art becoming sharper with his committal to Christianity in the mid-1980s, and with his freedom to focus on Maori inspirations, among them the gods of his tribal ancestors.
Combining political and spiritual aspects of Maoridom with his Christianity, he says, means he can create work from a “culturally intact” perspective.
And as his own work developed, the importance of sharing what he learned also gained weight. Among the many education/art exchanges he has done was one to the University of Hawaii in 2007 — when he explored indigenous approaches to clay and ceramics in contemporary work — and he regularly leads workshops in Gisborne and around the country.
A founding member of Nga Kaihunga Uku national collective of Maori clayworkers Riddell says that, regardless of the period in which a work was created, everything he makes is his own interpretation “of beginnings, of endings, and of life in general”.