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Breaking the chains at Aratoi

Carolina Vargas Gonzalez, winner of the 3D Award at the Wairarapa Art Review – with James Thyne of Hillview Property, who sponsored the award. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

“Break the Chain” – designed to raise awareness of racism.

A ceramic piece with a powerful and timely message for all New Zealanders has taken out one of the top prizes at Wairarapa’s premier artistic competition.

Martinborough-based potter Carolina Vargas Gonzalez received the inaugural 3D Award for her work “Break the Chain” at the opening of the 2021 Wairarapa Art Review at Aratoi.

The review, organised by the Friends of Aratoi, is a biennial exhibition open to all emerging and established Wairarapa artists – in which close to 100 pieces are chosen for display at the museum by an outside judge.

Of the exhibited works, seven are awarded prizes, sponsored by various Wairarapa businesses.

For “Break the Chain”, Vargas Gonzalez received a $500 cash prize, presented by sponsor Hillview Property.

This is the first year the review has awarded a prize specifically for a three-dimensional work – with adjudicator Marcia Page, of Page Galleries in Wellington, praising Vargas Gonzalez’s piece not only for “its composition and technical excellence, but for its relevant and contemporary narrative”.

Vargas Gonzalez, born and raised in Chile, designed “Break the Chain” to confront viewers with the reality of racism and systemic inequality in Aotearoa: something she has experienced as a migrant and a mother to children of Pasifika heritage.

It consists of a group of handcrafted vases, in various shapes and painted in different shades of brown, bound together at the handles by a set of ceramic chain links, painted white.

On the perimeter, five more vases, also painted white, stand guard.

At Aratoi, people can choose to buy one of the vases as a separate piece – and are given a tool to cut through the chain.

They can also take a piece of the broken chain with them and display it at home – which Vargas Gonzalez hopes will help encourage “some important conversations”.

“I do want people to look at the piece, analyse it, and feel a little uncomfortable,” she said.

“I have heard people say things like ‘we’re not racist in New Zealand’. It may be more subtle than in some other places, but it’s still there.

“It’s there in the little comments people make, in the way you can feel people looking down at you, in the way you have to prove yourself more to get the same opportunities.

“This piece shows that if you have had negative ideas towards people who are different, you can change your perspective – and break the chain.”

Vargas Gonzalez says she has “always been creative” – and is particularly passionate about interior design, textiles and handcrafted homeware.

She first tried her hand at pottery in 2016 – and, after doing a ceramics workshop with a fulltime potter at Ventana Creative Collective, was inspired to start selling her pieces.

“Plus, it is very expensive to do ceramics as a hobby – you need all the supplies, like a kiln, a potter’s wheel, your own clay. So, I decided to set up my own business.”

She eventually set up a home studio in her partner’s old tool shed, and began selling her work under the name Nidito Ceramics – “nidito” being the Spanish word for “little nest”

She specialises mostly in ceramic tableware, such as bowls and plates, mugs, tumblers and spoons – as well as vases, planters and reusable coffee cups.

“Ceramic homeware is big in South America. When I was growing up, I clearly remember seeing muffins come out of the oven in these beautiful ceramic tins.

“I just love creating things that make people’s spaces feel pretty and cosy.”

Vargas Gonzalez said making “Break the Chain” was “very emotional” – especially when considering the times her children, three of whom are of Solomon Islands descent, have been the targets of racial abuse.

However, having her piece chosen for the review, and winning the 3D Award, was a welcome validation of her craft and the message within.

“I was thinking, ‘wow, someone supports and cares about what I have to say.’

“I definitely poured my heart into the piece – so I was over the moon”.

Vargas Gonzalez plans to invest her prize money into her ceramics business – and continue making “more artistic pieces”.

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