Feminist environmentalism is at the heart of Rebecca Smallridge's art practice. Her exhibition Regeneration considers the environment; its histories, colonisation, mythologies, use and misuse, and humanity's role in its stewardship. Rebecca spent time on the West Coast as a teenager and frequently returns there as an adult, sharing a special affinity with Paparoa National Park. Regular visits to the area have sparked a deep curiosity into its threatened ecology, which continues to inform her work.
Like ghost atolls or miscarried utopias, Regeneration emits a sense of melancholic fragility. Each exquisite biosphere contains distinct flora and fauna, bleeding dripping and weeping onto a white expanse. The seemingly incomplete compositions, interspersed with visually dense clusters provide an abstract openness. Akin to when your eyes adjust from bright sun entering a shady forest; lush, verdant wetlands in meticulous detail subtly emerge from fluid pooling ecosystems.
Fantasy or corporal? Abstract or illustrative? They are a muddied blend crafted to confuse and lure you in. Rebecca's process starts by immersing herself in the native bush. Walking, photographing, sketching and gathering samples to bring back to her studio. Employing a wet on wet technique, she begins her paintings on the floor, pouring organic, simplified shapes of thinned ink, watercolour and natural pigment onto a wet surface. The resulting stained blots of translucent blue, green and orchre, imbedded with granules of earth seemingly hover and drift over above the white background. From there she experiments, intuitively inserting layers of dense botanical specimens into the abstract foundation. Otherworldly, yet familiar, the paintings, envelop the viewer in the humid native bush of the West Coast. This is Rebecca's restrained yet urgent call to protect an irreplaceable taonga.
Rather than weighting down or chastising the viewer on our detrimental treatment of the natural environment, rebecca provides insights into why we should care, Why we should take action.
Titles such as Kahikatea wetland - carbon sink and Biosphere articulate the value of nurturing the forest; a natural reservoir, absorbing more carbon than it releases and in so doing, lowering the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere. A juvenile Kahikatea tree is depicted in Carbon Sink, surrounded by seedlings, a Kahu (swamp hawk) circling above as it collects Ti Kōuka (cabbage tree) leaves to weave into its nest. These are scenes common to the artist who says:
'Kahikatea grow close together therefore often withstand stormy weather. The farmland adjacent to the Nile river (Waitakere) would have originally been a Kahikatea or Rimu forest, thousands of seedlings popping up under the Mānuka and Punga canopy. Up North Kahikatea stands are rare as much of the low lying wetlands and forests have been converted t farmland. We now recognise the value of indigenous biodiverse rainforest and the role they play by restoring the health of our ecosystems.'
While she sets great store in her role as a custodian and carer of the land, Rebecca is conscious as a Pākehā, she is inherently attached to the patriarchal colonial history of this place and the bias and privilege that comes with her identity. Emphasising value other than that of commercial logging or food production, Rebecca includes flora and fauna intrinsic to the forest ecosystem or known for their medicinal properties. Her painting Kōtukutuku (tree fuchsia) for example, celebrates the gnarly, knotted and moisture rich tree with its papery bark, deep purple flowers and berries. Kōtukutuku are considered of low value in the commercial logging industry, however, play a vital role in the ecosystem.
They are pollinated by birds such as Tūī, Tauhou (Silver eye), Hihi (Stitchbird), Kererū (Wood Pigeon) and Korimako (Bellbird). In return, the tree provides birds with fruit, the nectar rich flowers attract bees and the leaves feed native moths. In other works, the artist communicates the healing virtues of Kawakawa, Houhere and Mānuka which have been utilised by Māori for generations to maintain the wellbeing of the body, spirit and community through traditional healing practices. Rebecca paints in tender detail - each leaf, branch, bud and fruit, demonstrating their worth alongside her respect and awareness of a Māori worldview.
But the details matter less than the whole. Each of these paintings speaks of a search for regeneration; they represent a gravitational pull towards a healthy indigenous biodiversity where remedies are still waiting to be actioned. In the meantime, we have Rebecca's drifting spheres in blue or brown or green, teaming with native plant life, insects and birds. As much as they are a lament for the past, they are moreover communal cyphers for hope, inscribed with Talismans for safe-keeping.
Word by Lydia Baxendell.