Primary Care is an exhibition currently showing at the Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena (Dunedin, New Zealand). It brings together a selection of artworks, photographs, ephemera and archival materials to consider aspects of physical, spiritual, community, mental and public health. The exhibition represents a range of approaches to health and wellbeing, and traces the history of developments in the medical field. It includes items relating to health promotion and disease prevention, diagnosis and treatment, patient education, deinstitutionalisation, community care and Māori health.
Among the work on display is one of Dunedin Public Hospital’s most treasured artworks, borrowed for the exhibition: ‘Your Health is Your Wealth’ by Dame Robin White.
The grandiose architecture of Victorian-era psychiatric institutions and their subsequent closure are remembered in works like George O’Brien’s 1883 painting of Seacliff hospital, and Ann Shelton’s diptych, Cell (after An Angel at My Table) Seacliff Asylum, North Otago (2003).
The Seacliff Lunatic Asylum (also known as Seacliff Asylum, and Seacliff Mental Hospital), built in the late 19th century and located approximately 40km north of Dunedin, was once the largest building in New Zealand. Up to fifty staff and 500 patients were housed on the premises under the supervision of Medical Superintendent Sir Frederic Truby King, who was appointed in 1889 and held the position for 30 years. Sir Truby King’s influence on healthcare extended beyond Seacliff. He also lectured in ‘mental diseases’ at the University of Otago and, in an effort to improve the health of women and children, established the Karitane Hospitals and the Plunket Society.
The title of Shelton’s diptych (above) recalls another Seacliff patient, the renowned New Zealand author Janet Frame, who was wrongly diagnosed with schizophrenia. Planned surgical treatment – a lobotomy – was cancelled when her first book, The Lagoon and Other Stories (1951), was awarded a national literary prize. Frame described her years at Seacliff in her autobiography An Angel at My Table.
A notorious Seacliff patient whose artwork is included in the exhibition was Lionel Terry, a white supremacist who emigrated from the UK to New Zealand around the beginning of the 20th century and began to distribute his self-published texts warning against the ‘yellow peril’. In 1905, after failing to successfully lobby the New Zealand government to end Asian immigration, Terry shot dead an innocent Chinese man named Joe Kum Yung on Haining Street, Wellington, in an act of ‘political protest’. Terry was sentenced to life imprisonment on the grounds of insanity and spent the remainder of his life in psychiatric institutions. He escaped from Seacliff several times. Eventually Sir Truby King negotiated special privileges for Terry, on condition that he never try to escape again. These priviliges included a garden to cultivate anad a private studio where Terry could paint and write poetry.
An early government community care initiative was State Housing. In 1905 Prime Minister Richard Seddon began a scheme providing low cost rental housing to residents on low to moderate incomes. After a slow start, the growth of New Zealand State Housing peaked shortly after the second World War, when the Labour government built as many as 10,000 houses per year. In recent decades, State Housing’s utopian ideals have been overlaid with concerns about poor maintenance, overcrowding, poverty-related diseases, government sell-offs and, recently, moral panic relating to perceived methamphetamine contamination. For her Health, Happiness and Housing series in the late 1990s, Ava Seymour photographed state houses around New Zealand. Drawing on the Dadaist tradition of collage, her distorted figures positioned against suburban backdrops recall the works of Hannah Höch and Diane Arbus, and ‘suggest the deterioration of the social dream represented by state housing.’
Robyn Kahukiwa offers a more holistic approach in her poster series published by the Department of Health Te Tai Ora in 1990 and the Public Health Commission Rangapu Hauora Tumatanui in 1995. These bold, empowered works illustrate the four cornerstones of Māori health and wellbeing, devised by Emeritus Professor Sir Mason Durie: taha tinana (physical health), taha wairua (spiritual health), taha whānau (family health), and taha hinengaro (mental health). In Te Whare Tapa Whā model, the four cornerstones represent the four walls of a wharenui, all of which need to be present for a balanced and healthy individual.
Primary Care is showing until 25 August 2018 at the Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena, University of Otago, 90 Anzac Ave, Dunedin. Open Monday – Saturday, 10am – 5pm.
Andrea Bell is the Curator of Art at the Hocken Collections, Uare Taoka o Hākena (Dunedin, New Zealand).
- Rhonda Bartle, ‘Give me the Impossible – the story of Truby King and the Plunket Movement’
- ‘History of State Housing’
- Robert Leonard, ‘The End of Improvement: In Defence of Ava Seymour’, Art Asia Pacific, no. 23, 1999