DRAWING PRODIGY DISCOVERED DOWN UNDER CHRIS BYRNE ON SUSAN TE KAHURANGI KING’S REMARKABLE RISE IN THE CONTEMPO RARY ART WORLD
The artist Gary Panter introduced me to Susan Te Kahurangi
By spending time viewing King’s drawings and their chronology,
King’s work one day during lunch. According to Gary, there
it’s possible to discover how seemingly "non-objective"
was no distance between the artist and her drawings—they
concentric shapes have evolved from the truncated vestiges
constituted direct and unmediated expression.
of appropriated cartoon characters. It’s also possible to find visual lists or indexes of certain objects, which get reconfigured
I was enthused to meet Susan during my first trip to New
and distorted beyond recognition in subsequent pictures.
Zealand. By then, publisher Ed Marquand (Lucia | Marquand,
What becomes evident is the rigorousness of King’s vocabulary,
Seattle) and I had already exhibited a chronological sampling of
regardless of and indifferent to the time and medium.
her sketchbooks in Paris. Even before having the opportunity to examine the extent of the artist’s oeuvre, I was convinced
There was a roughly 15-year phase when King ceased drawing
that Susan was among the greatest draftspersons and
altogether. She resumed in 2008, fueled by renewed interest in
her work, not long before the filming of Pictures of Susan (directed by Dan Salmon of Octopus Pictures Limited, 2012),
During this time, I had become familiar with the personal story
picking up nearly where she left off.
behind the pictures. Susan was born in 1951 in Te Aroha, New Zealand, as the second eldest in a family of 12 children.
In 2016, the Institute of Contemporary Art, Miami, organized
“Te Kahurangi” literally translated means "the treasured one”
a survey of the artist’s work, accompanied by a published
monograph. That same year, the American Folk Art Museum in New York established the Susan Te Kahurangi King Fellowship
By the age of five, Susan’s ability to speak was in decline, and,
Program. In 2017, the American Folk Art Museum included
sometime between seven and eight, she stopped speaking
King’s drawings in the group show Vestiges & Verse: Notes from
completely. As her inability to verbally communicate became
the Newfangled Epic.
more apparent, her acumen for and commitment to drawing heightened. By the age of seven, she showed an extraordinarily
King’s artworks are represented in significant national and
precocious talent. In 1960, the family moved to Auckland
international public collections, including the American
to enroll Susan in a, then, newly-established special school,
Folk Art Museum in New York, the Philadelphia Museum of Art,
which she attended for close to three decades.
the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Chartwell Collection (Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tãmaki) and the Wallace
Susan’s family—beginning with her maternal grandmother,
Arts Trust, Auckland, New Zealand.
Myrtle Murphy, and continuing today through sister Petita Cole’s selfless dedication—have cared for and preserved, not
Susan currently lives with family in Hamilton, New Zealand,
only her work, but the anecdotes and artifacts that become
where she continues her practice as an artist. ■
so important for present and future scholarship, as academic interpretations will certainly accumulate around her work.
14 THE OUTSIDER