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Tea, wit and powerful message

Award-winning artist Jann Lenihan – wearing a korowai made for her by daughter Nan Walden. PHOTOS/SUPPLIED

Erin Kavanagh-Hall
[email protected]

“Sardonic wit”, a passion for social justice, and several hundred cups of tea have won a Wairarapa artist national acclaim.

Earlier this year, Jann Lenihan and her daughter Nan Walden were selected as finalists for the 2022 Molly Morpeth Canaday Award – and their works are now on display at the accompanying exhibition at Whakatane Library and Exhibition Centre.

The award, named for expressionist painter Molly Morpeth Canaday, is open to artists throughout the country, with this year’s competition attracting close to 300 applicants.

Lenihan, from Masterton, was the winner of one of four Merit Awards, presented at the exhibition opening on February 12.

Lenihan’s winning piece, a T-shirt constructed from “200 plus” recycled tea bags, was intended to offer satiric commentary on New Zealand’s colonial past – as tea provides the “ultimate symbol of British imperialism”.

She attached a gold tag in the T-shirt’s collar to represent the Crown, as well as a label with “cleaning instructions”: with the phrases “unconscious bias binding” and “do not whitewash”.

Her piece, called “Tea Shirt”, was praised by judge Bob Jahnke ONZM, New Zealand sculptor and graphic artist, for its design, unconventional materials, and biting use of humour to communicate a powerful message.

With numbers at the exhibition opening limited due to covid restrictions, Lenihan was unable to attend – but was able to watch a livestream of the awards ceremony, for which she submitted an acceptance speech via video link.

She said she was initially confused when she received an email from the exhibition organisers, inviting her and “a plus one” to the opening.

“I knew they had to limit the numbers, so I just replied and said ‘no, thank you.’

“They emailed back, and said ‘well, confidentially, you’re one of our prize winners!’ I couldn’t believe it – I ran, screaming, around the house.

“I was blown away – absolutely thrilled.”

Lenihan, an artist since childhood and retired art teacher, said her work has taken on a more political tone in recent years, inspired by her research into New Zealand history and the damaging impact of European colonialism on Maori.

Her reading spurred her to use her privilege as “tangata tiriti” (a person here by the virtue of Te Tiriti o Waitangi) to create artworks that challenged racism and Eurocentric supremacy.

“Tea shirt” – Lenihan’s highly-praised political artwork.

In the artist’s statement she submitted with “Tea Shirt,” Lenihan wrote: “T-shirts are so common here they are often not noticed, just like white privilege. Tea forms a part of British identity and has become a symbol of colonialism.

“I have used (unconscious) bias binding around the neck – like the weight I carried until I learned more of our history.

“I drank all the tea made from these 200 plus bags. They are now part of me.”

At the awards ceremony, Lenihan was moved to hear Jahnke, a professor of Maori art at Massey University, read out her statement – and acknowledge he had to work on his own unconscious bias.

“I was actually trembling when I heard that,” she said.

“Bob Jahnke has been a real advocate for Maori artists – so it was a wonderful affirmation of my work and the kaupapa I’m communicating.

“I felt so humbled.”

In his judge’s feedback, Jahnke called Lenihan’s piece “a seductive work with alluring golden hues that hover between abstraction and figurative floral elements. Liquid gold to quench the thirst for dominion, sealed with the stamp of Britannica.

“Recourse to ‘unconscious bias’ around the neck to protest white privilege reveals an impassioned sensitivity as tangata tiriti and sardonic wit.”

In her acceptance speech, Lenihan thanked the “wahine toa” who influenced her work: environmentalist Tina Ngata and Te Pati Maori leader Debbie Ngawera-Packer.

She also acknowledged her supportive whanau – including daughter Nan Walden, whose piece “Half Cast”, a miniature korowai representing her Maori and Pakeha heritage, was also selected for the exhibition.

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