Between Fine and Folk

The Paintings of Teuane Tibbo


In 1975 Barry Lett Galleries in Auckland celebrated its 10th anniversary with an exhibition featuring two works by each of the 14 of the gallery's regular stable of artists. The catalogue accompanying the show listed an impressive array of now iconic works of New Zealand art including Ralph Hotere's Long Red Line from the Human Rights Series, Michael Illingworth's The Painter and the Poet, Milan Mrkusich's Four Elements Above (Crimson), Colin McCahon's Journey into a Dark Landscape II and Don Binney's Sun Shall Not Burn Thee by Day nor Moon by Night.

Hanging among these and other paintings in the anniversary exhibition were two works by self-taught Samoan artist Teuane Tibbo: Fale Faa (1965) and Tusi Tala Hotel (1975). Were the same exhibition to be staged today the presence of these two colourful and highly decorative paintings of remembered scenes from Mrs Tibbo's childhood in Samoa might appear to stand apart from this company of blue-chip New Zealand painters and paintings.

Teuane Tibbo sitting on
the right side of Tony Fomison
who was paying her a visit at a
Grey Lynn rest home in 1977.
(Photograph: Mark Adams)

It is clear, however, that Teuane Tibbo's paintings at one time sat comfortably alongside those by the leading New Zealand artists of the day, although even at the time of the group show at Barry Lett Galleries, Anthony Green separated out Mrs Tibbo's work from his general critique of the exhibition calling her a 'special case, a charming primitive'.(1) Nonetheless, Tibbo's work readily found its way into the collections of a great many Public Art Galleries in New Zealand as well as the National Gallery of Australia and collections in Japan and Germany.

Most who see Tibbo's art respond to it on a purely sentimental level. We note the symmetrical, often mirror-image compositions and the artist's favoured motifs including giant hibiscus, pineapples, coconut trees, sentinel-like waterfalls and a multitude of people cooking, dancing, playing music and interacting with the enchanted tropical landscape. When looking at these paintings we also note the skewed perspective - in one work an attempt at a birdseye view of children paddling canoes has them lying down in their boats; in another a tiered compositional arrangement places a boat coming into the harbour at the top of a painting as if floating in the clouds while the people waving from the shore are arranged in rows beneath.

Untitled 1968
Acrylic on hardboard, 650 x 850 mm.
(Collection of the
Citizens' Advice Bureau,
Queen Street, Auckland)

When Teuane Tibbo appeared on the Auckland art scene in the early '60s, the usual assortment of adjectives used to describe the work of a self-taught or naive artist was attached to her paintings by reporters and art critics alike. The various commentators described Tibbo's work as honest, unique, delightful, direct, intuitive, appealing, child-like, simple, uncalculated, unsophisticated and refreshing.

The story of an elderly Samoan grandmother's rise to relative art-stardom was recounted in numerous newspaper and magazine articles in the early '60s and briefly revived again in the early '70s. The novelty value of the story saw Teuane Tibbo labeled 'Polynesia's Peter Pan', the 'Grandma Moses of the Pacific' and, in Hamish Keith's words, a 'genuine dyed-in-the-wool primitive'.(2)

It is not my intention, however, to simply reiterate the view that Teuane Tibbo's art was and remains an adorable, tabloid consumable. Nor do I intend to consign her work to the multifarious genre of folk art, along with whittled picture frames and bottled sailboats; the only places where her painting has been seen in the past two decades in exhibitions such as The Innocent Eye at the Dowse Museum, Not Bad Eh! at the Rotorua Museum and The Top Half at Lopdell House Gallery as well as within the pages of Richard Wolfe's book All Our Own Work - New Zealand's Folk Art.

Flowers for Pat Hanly c. 1964
Oil on hardboard, 400 x 450 mm.
(Collection of
Betty Beadle, Auckland)

Neither of these approaches to Teuane Tibbo's art addresses the deeper reason behind her popularity within the fine art circle of the '60s. If one were to question why Tibbo's work was exhibited in the company of paintings by McCahon, Illingworth, Hanly and the like, one might conclude that this is because folk art was the fashion of the day. The Auckland art community of the period created a space for her painting within the domain of Fine art because folk art, such as that produced by Tibbo, in all its unpretentious, unlearned splendour, fed directly into the anti-establishment, anti-capitalist mood of the times.

Of course, Tibbo was more than a little perplexed as to why everybody was so interested in her work. When she took up painting she gave no thought to exhibitions, sales or media attention as the two extracts from published interviews with the artist make clear:
'I just liked to paint and paint, and I thought the pictures would make nice Christmas presents for the family.' Her fast growing reputation as a painter still bewilders her. 'I didn't ever dream to be big like this,' she says plaintively. 'I just wanted to surprise my kids.'(3)

In an interview in 1974 Teuane Tibbo discussed the beginning of her painting practice with Pauline Ray:
So I just start painting Father Christmas coming down the hill, four reindeer in the snow. The next day I had four paintings, then 20. I couldn't sleep. It was a game to me. The television came, the newspaper and the artist (artist Pat Hanly, who encouraged her to go on painting). All the artists came and looked at it this way and that way. All the questions they asked! (4)

Vase of Flowers
Oil on canvas, 650 x 850 mm.
(Private collection, Auckland)

The folk artist, as these excerpts illustrate, does not attempt to contextualise, categorise or evaluate their artistic production. This is certainly true with respect to Teuane Tibbo. Her career blossomed as a result of an introduction by her daughter Audrey, an Elam graduate, to Professor Paul Beadle, then head of the faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Auckland. This, in turn, led to an introduction to the former director of the Auckland Art Gallery, Peter Tomory and the interest of the wider art circle soon followed.

The success of Teuane Tibbo's art relied heavily, therefore, on the trained eye of a number of art professionals and the long term success of her painting depended, to a large degree, on how long her personal style could endure. A number of articles infer that certain figures in the art community attempted to ensure that Tibbo retained her innocent eye for as long as possible.
And what of the future? Well she doesn't really know except , that she wants to paint and paint and paint. Already there are people who are encouraging her to do so, to carry on just the way she is now, in her own way. Her visitors have .included Professor Paul Beadle and Mr Peter Tomory. They have been interested, most interested in what they have seen.(5)

Gregory O'Brien raised an interesting point concerning the categorisation of Teuane Tibbo's painting in his 1997 review of Richard Wolfe's book on New Zealand Folk Art:
While knitted woollen cats and tables made of matchsticks fit neatly into the 'folk art' category, the work of so-called 'serious' artists challenges the book's boundaries. The work of painters like Tibbo and Dave O'Neill occupies a space between 'fine' and 'folk'. Their productions have a striking amount in common with the work of mainstream artists such as Tony Fomison, Nigel Brown and Michael Illingworth.(6)

Self-Portrait in the Garden 1965
Synthetic polymer paint &
oil on composition board,
650 x 850 mm.
(Collection of the National
Gallery of Australia,

There is no doubt that Teuane Tibbo was committed to her practice-this is evident not only through the consistent outpouring of work over a ten year period but also through the way that she mined the experimental possibilities of the medium-from the rich jewel-like impasto surface of Flowers for Pat Hanly (c.1964), to the beautiful tonal variations of the sky, sea and hills in so many of Tibbo's paintings and in her marvellous attention to detail and pattern seen in works such as her Kahloesque Self-Portrait in the Garden (1965).

It is, however, Gregory O'Brien's second point that interests me. While I agree with him to the extent that Tibbo's painting does indeed bear strong similarities to the work of a number of the mainstream artists of the day, I would like to manipulate this view slightly and consider the possibility that the work of the artists to whom O'Brien refers is in some way indebted to the painting of Teuane Tibbo.

Under the capitalised heading, 'The Wonderful World of Teuane Tibbo', the promotional blurb for one of the artist's early exhibitions at Barry Lett Galleries reads:
The ability to see with the clear and unconditioned vision of a child is a faculty we have lost-or more, of which we have lost awareness. The primitive or naive painter shows us our world with a directness and lack of sophistication which refreshes our own vision.(7)

This statement affirms the widely held view that the true naive artist offers some kind of rejuvenating tonic to those disenchanted by the modem world, affording the viewer a rare glimpse into a world free from rules, regulations. Teuane Tibbo's painting appears to have had just such a restorative effect on those who saw them. Further than this one might suggest that her art plays some part in the deliberately cultivated innocence that underlies the work of Michael Illingworth and Pat Hanly from the mid-late '60s.

Consider, for instance, the desire expressed by both Illingworth and Hanly at that time to abandon preconceived rules and conventions and to create a situation where they could harness the essence of pure creativity. Hanly's attempt to do away with all that it meant to be a virtuoso painter saw him confined to a lightless studio, a surrogate womb, where he could begin again. 'Only by returning to the womb,' he said, 'and eradicating twenty years of learned responses, might the spark of creation emerge on the canvas and show a genuinely new creation.' (8)

Hanly had watched Teuane Tibbo painting on a number of occasions. In most cases a painting would be started and completed in a sitting, seldom with any revision (although it is' said that Hanly himself touched up an inconsistency he saw in one of her paintings). This insider view of spontaneous, unmediated creativity might well have influenced Hanly's own decision to liberate his art from any formal rules.

The Waterfall 1968
Acrylic on hardboard,
650 x 850 mm.
(Collection of
Denys Watkins, Auckland)

Michael Illingworth's attempt to tap into the primeval source of his creativity saw him adopt a similar isolationist strategy to that of Hanly:
Painting is sometimes a joy, sometimes an agony. I have to be utterly shut away so that I can completely indulge myself, that I can do anything I like; attack, cry . . . . Sometimes I get into a wild frenzy and hurl things at my paintings. . . .But something will evolve from this fury . . . . I never plan a painting. It unrolls as I go along. It just happens. Most of my paintings are spontaneous gesture- the more spontaneous the more pure. Far too many painters force things out. They must come straight from: the heart, from the primeval being.'(9)

There are a number of visual similarities in the work of Tibbo and Illingworth. Both artists developed a cast of simplified figures without hands and feet and with little in the way of facial features. The landscape into which their characters are placed is often not much more than simple rolling hills or an open plain with a clear sky above. Tibbo then proceeds to fill in this field with evenly placed fales in a row and coconut trees or hibiscus bushes in between.

In one of the two Tibbo paintings bought by Illingworth in the '60s a mustard coloured strip of land flanks a river on which four boys are speeding along in canoes. A row of fales lines the river's edge and the riverbank at the bottom of the painting is segmented by a line of coconut trees bending in the wind.

Untitled c. 1965
Oil on hardboard, 650 x 850 mm.
(Collection of the
lllingworth family, Coroglen)

In my mind this particular Tibbo painting has something in common with Illingworth's 1965 Painting with Rainbow 1. Instead of a line of fales, however, a uniform row of pastel coloured suburban homes rest lightly on a ba~e ochre coloured landscape and two upside down faces stare out from the similarly segmented lower section of the painting.

What I find most interesting is that the sociological message conveyed in the work of Michael Illingworth and Teuane Tibbo is also similar, although Illingworth's dramatic pronouncements about the role of the artist in a society populated by 'machine made' phony people often overshadows the gentler, more hopeful sentiment underlying his work. Consider- for instance, the parallel between the two following statements: the first by Michael Illingworth in an interview in 1968 with Petar Vuletic and the second taken from televised footage of Teuane Tibbo in the early '70s.
The little faces in my paintings with no mouth and with hands waving signify two things - the feeling of a lost quality - what am I doing here? Where do I belong? And the feeling of possibility, purity, an ideal that perhaps might become something but is certainly nothing at the moment.(10)

This is a painting called Saleimoa. See all those houses there. The people can go in there and say, 'can we stay here?' And we say, 'eat here in this place and you can sit down and have good time with us.' Not pay back anything. The island style, you know, love one another. One is broke. Another one says, 'Ooh, look at the banana, look at the pineapple, all ready'. Go on. Go help yourself. ' Take it home when you feel like. Feed the children.' Another man come there one day with his bicycle and fill it with all his baskets there. Fill it up with fruit and take it home! And the big chief say 'No, come back, only these people inside here will get them. All join together now. Give back the pineapple and share them all out among these people.(11)

In my view the incredible depth of spirit at the heart of Teuane Tibbo's painting makes the categories of 'fine' and 'folk' largely incidental. For ten out of her 90 odd years of life Tibbo shared her painted vision of the world with those around her. It is clear that she touched many lives in the process, not least of all an enthusiastic group of fellow artists who appear to have carried the imprint of her work through into their own lives and art. It is perfectly fitting that the English definition of the artist's Christian name, Teuane, is 'keep it in the heart'. The name encapsulated the way that Teuane Tibbo's painting springs directly from the heart and remains in our hearts long after viewing.

1. Anthony Green, 'Pride and Profit: Barry Lett Galleries, 10th anniversary exhibition', The New Zealand Listener and TV Times, 14 June, 1975, p. 24.
2. Hamish Keith, 'From Samoa with Joy,' Auckland Star, 15 December 1973, Weekender p. 7.
3. Writer unknown, Weekly News, Auckland, 26 May 1965, p. 28.
4. Pauline Ray, 'Celestial Vision,'14 March 1974, publication unknown.
5. Harry Dansey, New Zealand Woman's Weekly, Auckland, 1 February 1965. Betty Beadle tells a story that when Mrs. Tibbo once asked to be taken on a trip to the Auckland Art Gallery she was hurried through the exhibitions so as to avoid undue influence on her own art.
6. Gregory O'Brien, review of Richard Wolfe's book All Our Own Work: New Zealand's Folk Art, first published as 'Self-absorbed provincial' in New Zealand Books, Vol. 7, No.5 (December 1997), reprinted in After Bathing at Baxter's: Essays and Notebooks, Wellington: Victoria University Press, Wellington 2002, p. 230.
7. 'The Wonderful World of Teuane Tibbo,' Barry Lett Galleries Newsletter, 22 September 1965, no 5 vol.1. 8. Patrick Hanly - Retrospective, Exhibition Catalogue, Dowse Art Museum, Lower Hutt 1974, unpaginated.
9. Peter Vuletic, 'Michael Illingworth-Alienation and Search for Innocence', Craccum, 2 September 1968, p.10. 10. ibid.
11. Teuane Tibbo, video footage circa. 1973, source unknown.