Pardon me, no offence intended

In early 2014, Auckland’s Gow Langsford Gallery exhibited Jono Rotman’s photographs of eight members of the Mongrel Mob. Among the mobsters featured in the show was Shane Harrison, accused murderer of 25 year old Sio Matalasi. 

The victim’s father, Iafeta Matalasi, was understandably distressed that the portrait was used to promote the exhibition. He called for the offending photograph to be removed from display. While both the photographer and gallery resolutely refused to “censor” the photographer’s body of work, the offending image was rapidly expunged from the gallery’s website, and removed from publicity for the exhibition.


Was it acceptable for the gallery to continue to display the offending work? How deeply or widely must the offence be, before an artist or gallery should agree to censor or exclude a work from an exhibition? Should the artistic intent behind the work, the likely audience, or the context in which it is displayed, make any difference?

The issues surrounding what constitutes offensive art are not new.

In New Zealand, perhaps the most infamous example is Tania Kovats’ Virgin in a Condom. Exhibited in 1998 by Te Papa Tongerewa Museum of New Zealand, the work comprised a small statuette of the Virgin Mary shrouded in a condom. Te Papa’s display of the piece provoked a nationwide outcry. Protesters marched in the streets, 30,000 people signed a petition for its removal, and both the artist and the museum’s CEO received death threats. Yet Te Papa refused to remove the offending work from display, asserting the museum was a space for the expression of divergent and controversial views.

In 2010, controversy struck again – this time, in the guise of a 2.5 metre high portrait of Clayton Weatherston, selected as a finalist for the Adam Portraiture Award. Weatherston, convicted of the murder of 22 year old Sophie Elliot, was at the time perhaps the most reviled person in New Zealand. Artist Liam Gerrard reportedly chose Weatherston’s image for this very reason - "I went for the most hated man in the country," he said. The National Portrait Gallery was quick to defend the judge’s selection of the controversial Weatherston portrait – Director Avenal McKinnon noted "You could, in some countries, say artists are not allowed to paint bad people or murderers. But in New Zealand we have this wonderful freedom, it's what democracy is all about.”

Other artworks that have recently (and perhaps less fairly) attracted the attention of New Zealand’s mainstream media are the photographic self portraits of Stephanie Key. Key, who studied at the Paris College of Art in France, created the self portraits as part of her course. The main reason the works became news here is because of the identity of the artist’s father, Prime Minister John Key. In 2013, in response to a self portrait in which the younger Key portrayed herself with sushi covering her breasts and an octopus over her groin, the Prime Minister quipped “"I told her to eat her food, not play with it. But, oh well, she's got sushi all over her."

In 2014, the media again sought the Prime Minister’s view on his daughter’s work. This time, the controversy related to a portrait on her Facebook page, in which the younger Key is posed in a pink Native American-styled headpiece. Batting aside suggestions that the portrait was culturally offensive, the Prime Minister said ''She will have her own view on what art is. All I hope, like any parent, is that she is happy and healthy and following her dream.''

While questions as to what amounts to offensive art occasionally catch our media’s attention, the issues are regularly played out in galleries throughout New Zealand. In the six years since ZIMMERMAN opened, we have shown a number of works that, while appreciated by many, have also attracted some controversy. Among them are:

•    Naga Tsutsumi’s intertwining naked men
•    Elspeth Shannon’s dogs engaging in doggy activities
•    Martin Maass’ works made from human hair
•    Paul Dibble’s bronze devils
•    André Brönnimann’s swastika imagery
•    Emily Valentine’s freakish feathered creatures
•    Andrew Moon’s Virgin Mary cradling a rugby ball

These works have variously been described as disgusting, sacrilegious, unacceptable, poor taste or “just wrong”. Some of Andrew Moon’s paintings enjoy a category all of their own, lambasted from a feminist reading as portraying women as temptresses, servants, or objects for the pleasure of men.

Whatever interpretation a viewer may bring to the works displayed at ZIMMERMAN, in each case the artist was inspired to create the work, ZIMMERMAN has elected to display it, and many other viewers have enjoyed the opportunity to engage with more challenging pieces. A number of these provocative works have also been acquired by local collectors – perhaps itself an indication that offence, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.


For further information contact ZIMMERMAN - www.zimmerman.co.nz / This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.