In talks with Pōneke-based artist, Elisabeth Pointon

Interview by Adam Bryce

Photography courtesy of Jhana Millers

We interview the early-career artist on her typographic-based exhibition, WHERE TO FROM HERE, currently showing at Wellington’s Jhana Millers gallery.

Tell me about your upbringing. I’m always intrigued as to what early-life experiences create great artists.

My mother is Indian, raised Hindu, and my father is European, raised Catholic; and spirituality was their meeting ground. My three brothers and I were brought up with Rumi’s sentiment “let the beauty we love, be what we do”. My parents made life for us as interesting as possible, and we were encouraged to do the same for ourselves. We grew up on a farm in Pukerua Bay, about an hour away from our schools and after-school activities so, when at home, we made our own fun.

Both parents have a real love of language — if we weren’t spending our commutes chin-wagging and debating or reading, there were audiobooks and segments on National Radio to pass the time. All four of us children were sent to speech and drama lessons — my parents were adamant that we would be given the tools to be able to articulate our thoughts and ideas as best as we could and establish our own voices, being very much aware of how difficult it would be to navigate the world around us as children of mixed-race heritage.

How would you explain what you do to someone who chanced upon your work?

I draw from my experiences in the workplace at a luxury car dealership. Language, accessibility, visibility and representation have been continued interests in my practice. As a queer, female Pākehā and Indian artist, my position in a traditionally white and masculine-led environment mirrors the experiences of many minorities in the workplace which, in turn, mirrors the experience of many minorities in the art world. I like to question who gets to speak, how, where, and why.

For me, much of my art practice has been informed by this very need to hold down supplementary jobs and by the specifics of these jobs as well. My practice often appropriates the visual language of big business, resulting in congratulatory banners, inflatable waving men, and aerial advertising.

Self-identifying as a ‘double agent’, referring to my work as an artist as well as bookings coordinator at the car dealership, I am interested in the potential to reshape corporate environments in a way that might facilitate rewarding and productive relationships with one another. The use of language and double entendre here is integral to my projects. Past artworks have included banners lifted from business emails reading “well done to all” or “good job”, presenting them as congratulatory instead of the cold deliberateness they originated from.

I am very aware that galleries don’t often make space for artists who are queer, brown and female, so I have tried to make the most of these opportunities by taking up as much space as I possibly can.

When viewing exhibitions, like most people, I like to make sense of what it all means. To me, the wording is an observation on how the art world has a tendency to hype act in a very commercial sense — artists acting like marketers and dealers like salesmen. What are your thoughts on the art world as it sits now, what needs to change, what is changing?

The entry into these institutional spaces is often very conditional for someone like me, particularly when you make work that investigates and critiques the very framework of the spaces you have been invited into. 

Quite frankly, a lot needs to change, but this isn’t a new argument — queers and people of colour have been challenging the histories and power dynamics in the art world for yonks, with very obvious solutions outlined. I think the ideology behind artist-run initiatives, in regards to accessibility and representation, safer spaces policies, and allowing space for other voices, is a good start in the direction towards alternative models of operating and engagement.

Are you inspired by art itself? 

Am I inspired by art itself? I don’t know if I can answer that without defining what art is, and art is different for each person. My idea of that changes depending on my mood, but I guess I am inspired by the Rumi sentiment “let the beauty we love be what we do”, even if that’s a bit twee for some people. 

I would also like to say I am so inspired by the creatives around me; their work ethic, commitment to research and generosity in sharing their labour. I am very fortunate to live in a flat of artists, each of whom is championing discussions around representation in their respective fields, and have really beautiful handles on their mediums. I live with Kauri Hawkins, Chris Ulutupu, Robbie Handcock, Moya Lawson and Haz Forrester, and quite often get engaged in some pretty phenomenal discussions around each others research, and the responsibilities that come with actively showing in public spaces.

I also draw lots of gumption from writers Dilohana Lekamge and Simon Gennard, from artists Aliyah Winter, Laura Duffy, Georgette Brown, Kasmira Krefft, Owen Connors, musicians Womb, Kōtiro (Ana Chaya Scotney) and Strange Stains, and designer Julia Palm, who are all working so hard to change the conversations of the fields they are all in, all the while working day jobs.  

What’s next for you? 

I have a few shows lined up that I am excited to work on. I also have some new research in which to centre my next body of work around, and I am excited to get started. I think, like most creatives in New Zealand, I am looking to take the next step of moving overseas. Obviously that’s not entirely possible at the moment, so I will try making the most of whatever time I have left here, “occupy everything and see what happens.” I might just go to the pub otherwise. 

JHANAMILLERS.COM

Big Time by Elisabeth Pointon, 2020.

Big Deal by Elisabeth Pointon, 2020.

Take Care by Elisabeth Pointon, 2020.

Where to From Here by Elisabeth Pointon, 2020.