As a child in the early 1950s, Aucklander Susan Te Kahurangi King seems to have developed some kind of regressive autism. Her normal learning development was disrupted around the age five when she lost her facility to voice words. This, at an age when most children begin to chatter.
Autism is a spectrum disability. We all exist somewhere on the spectrum. Research into autism is ongoing, including research into the genetic pathways and triggers that influence emotional response, memory and learning.
In some cases, these channels for the reception and the processing of emotional and social signals are interrupted or simply do not form. Other times, new pathways of communication seem to compensate by opening and intensifying.
In Susan's case, what might have developed as verbal chatter instead developed visual propensity. Susan had always shown a special inclination toward drawing but that inclination developed as some kind of genius.
Susan was able to make rare visual music by freely associating and re-assembling the fragments of her life. She became a spectacular composer, making jazzy improvisations, distorting scale, using various viewpoints and progressions and mutations of shapes like a musician sounding out melodies and testing variations and sounds. She was endlessly riffing on sampled visual moments.
Various techniques to describe her subjects
Cartoon characters were the staple material for her work and she developed various techniques to describe her subjects. In some drawings the figures have been rendered as solid by applying a wood grain to their surface. In other drawings, the contour line is rendered as a void by filling in the spaces on either side.
In yet another favourite manner, Susan drew silhouettes – elegant, stylised figures that float in the space of the page. She seems to have set sail on a private ocean to explore all the possibilities of the medium of pencil on paper.
I am a fan of Susan's work. As a drawing teacher, I am impressed to see this command of the medium. To see such wonderful invention page after page is as rare as diamonds and to know it came from a child is miraculous and thrilling to behold.
Not all of Susan’s art is remarkable. There is fine work and rough work, exceptional work and lesser work. But there are well over 10,000 drawings in this archive. After numerous visits I have not seen them all.
This archive itself is also a miraculous, and important, piece of work. All these drawings have been sorted and filed. It has been an act of devotion and great patience by sister Petita, and a testament to her family's love and awareness.
Susan’s parents and grandparents saved everything she produced – from scribbles on scraps of envelopes to drawings in the margins of advertising flyers or business invoices.
Recognition by the international art community
Susan's family valued her work when the art and education institutions surrounding them were unable to. It is possible Susan's current recognition by the international art community will give an extra push to shift attitudes in this country about the treasure that exists outside the gates of academia.
Leading New York art critic Jerry Saltz has also recognised the uniqueness of Susan’s art. He writes:
“The Outsider Art Fair provided the biggest new discovery of the week. In a magical booth organised by gallerist Chris Byrne and Marquand Books, I saw the prescient drawings of Susan Te Kahurangi King … One can only hope that some museum will be able to forgo buying two or three paintings by twenty something phenoms and use the money to save this work from being scattered and a possibly great talent from being fully appreciated.”
I agree with Jerry Saltz’s pleas for our current art institutions to relax their collective grip on what does or does not constitute legitimate cultural value, and to be more willing and able to recognise and celebrate original creative expression, wherever it occurs.
Hey Te Papa, Auckland Art Gallery? That sounds like your cue. Hello? Hello?
Stuart Shepherd is the curator of the visual arts programme of the Auckland Outsider Art Fair 2014. Susan Kahurangi King’s artwork will be on display at this event, to be held in Britomart, from 21 to 23 November.