Makyla Curtis is an artist whose work intersects poetry, printmaking and letterpress based in Tāmaki Makaurau | Auckland. Her current exhibition, Apertures, at Angela Morton Room, Takapuna Library, is the culmination of several projects completed as part of her Master of Visual Arts at AUT in 2021. The show features artist books, poems, wall hangings and site-specific ephemera, including stones, plants, and pieces of driftwood. Digital screens display images and text from the 45 site-visits Curtis made over the 2-year period documenting notions of the space, people, objects, and family connections.
Her site visits included collecting ferns in Taranaki, mimicking Victorian era ideas of collecting ferns, based on the work of botanical artists and diarist who arrived in the area in 1841. This part of the project was looking at the phenomenon of Pteridomania – an obsession with ferns in Victorian England leading to a nationwide craze of collecting, pressing and growing ferns. At the same time, the fern became a symbol of the rural ideal with people associating them with a type of utopia. Fern mania was at its peak around the time the treaty was signed, and Curtis imagines the ferns discovered here by settlers would have given them a sense of connection to their homeland. She observes how ferns have become a part of our national visual heritage from sports, kitchenware to bus seat covers, and links this visual imagery in the Pakeha psyche to the fern fever phenomenon.
On a visit to Taranaki, she was gifted a hag stone (stones with a naturally formed hole in the middle) and became fascinated by their mythology of being able to see through time by looking through the hole. This kickstarted a project of working with hag stones as fundamental metaphors of time gazing, photographing them at specific sites. The most significant part of her research was examining personal family stories, her family’s connections and tracing their history back to the ships that bought them here. This was also the most challenging part of the project, raising questions about what it means to be a Pakeha New Zealander, how her family got the land their name is connected to and what that that means for the families that had that land taken from then.
Her journey involved visiting Hamilton’s Gap named after her family who received land there under the waste lands act of 1859. She collected pieces of driftwood, some of which she sliced and hand-printed onto paper and thin cotton silk. The transparent nature of the fabric allows for the printed images and words to merge when placed together, and for details to come into focus when the pages are pulled apart. As the viewer moves through the pages there is an accumulation of knowledge and information so that you can see through the fabric what you have previously looked at and ahead of you. She compares this to the process of uncovering information about her own family histories, how individual details have little meaning until other layers of meaning are added to them over time.
Working in a multidisciplinary way allows Curtis to engage with all the forms of artistic expression that interest her. She sees printing and writing as interconnected and offers her the opportunity arrive at a deeper reading that each medium wouldn’t be able to achieve on their own. This discovery was made while studying image and text in NZ poetry as part of her master’s degree in English. With reference to poets Cilla McQueen and John Pule, who both also make extraordinary art works, she argued that bringing text and image together takes the viewer to more interesting places that wouldn’t be achieved by the image or poem alone. In her practice, she tries to combine the two so that each has equal weight instead of one simply illustrating the other.
Curtis started writing poetry as a child, her grandfather wrote poetry, and her father read poetry. While living in Edinburgh she learned the art of letterpress and became a volunteer at MOTAT on returning to Auckland. One project Kyla was involved in was re-building type cases designed by William Colenso who arrived in New Zealand in 1834 tasked with printing the bible in Te Reo Māori. Colenso, who was effectively NZ’s first printer, designed the type cases by dropping all the English letters that were redundant in Te Reo. Makyla used the type cases to print He Whakaputanga and Te Tiriti o Waitangi and has since designed her own type case to include type with macrons and making more commonly used letters in Te Reo more accessible.
The tactile, hands-on nature of printmaking is one of the things Curtis finds so magical about the process, believing that each print holds so much of the person who made it. Therefore, a lot of her work is printed without a press as she likes to feel with her fingers how much pressure to apply to each part of the matrix. She believes objects tell stories and are imbued with the energies of the people who used them.
Apertures can be viewed at the Angela Morton Room Te Pātaka Toi Art Library, Takapuna, 12 Feb – 25 March 2022. Makyla will be at the Angela Morton Reading room on Friday, 4 March to facilitate the handling of the books.
Te Pātaka Toi | Art Library: @angelamorton.room
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