2023 Arts Foundation Te Tumu Toi Laureate receiving the My ART Visual Arts Award
Fiona Clark’s photographs provide access to crucial forms of social history, often investigating the politics of gender, identity, and the body. For over four decades she has produced intimate and engaged images of bodies generally avoided by the public gaze, be they drag performers, professional body-builders, or people living with HIV. Performativity and the politics of identity would prove to be concepts which informed Clark’s later work, and these interests indirectly led her to document Auckland’s drag and trans communities. These works provided the methodology for much of Clark’s later practice, especially in their emphasis on a collaborative approach and a sense of responsibility towards her images’ subjects, as seen in the then-controversial Dance Party series, which was subject to censorship after being included in the Auckland Art Gallery’s 1977 group show, The Active Eye.
Her longitudinal relationships are evident in her ongoing documentation of the land, coast and waterways of the Taranaki region in which she lives. In 1975, while picnicking at the mouth of the Waitara River, Clark overheard locals talking about the dumping of liquid waste into the river and decided to join them at a town meeting about the issue. The friendships that began through this meeting would go on to have a significant effect on her life and practice, as she learnt about the history and values of Ngātiawa and Te Atiawa, and was introduced to iwi kaumātua. Since then she has continued to document and protest the ecological despoilment of the region, deepening friendships and working with the local communities to highlight ongoing environmental issues.
Between 2002–2006 Clark exhibited a series of solo exhibitions, entitled GO GIRL, at public art institutions across Australasia, including at the Dunedin Public Art Gallery, Dunedin (2006); Whangarei Art Museum, Whangarei (2005); and the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth (2002). In 2016 Clark participated in the SIART 9 Biennale at Museo Nacional de Arte, Bolivia and produced the solo exhibition For Fantastic Carmen at Artspace Aotearoa, Auckland. In 2017 the Dowse Art Museum in Lower Hutt exhibited work from her ongoing documentation of the North Taranaki coastline in the exhibition Te iwi o te wahi kore. A feature-length documentary, Fiona Clark: Unafraid was released in 2021.
“Fiona Clark is one of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most incisive visual activist photographers. For close to fifty years, she has used the camera to explore the lives of individuals considered to occupy the fringes of society, revealing the human dignity of people together and alone in a country at times gripped by repressive attitudes, including towards artists. Clark’s at times confronting, challenging body of work represents a serious achievement in New Zealand culture, and remains a beacon for fearless art-making. She is unquestionably one of the leading photographers of her generation and deserving of wider recognition. She is a powerfully authentic artist; true to her own spirit and values, Clark has taken risks to reveal the realities of people’s daily lives, while holding a mirror up to New Zealand society. Her distinctive style of photography has developed from her ability to relate to the communities she documents. Whether the people in her photographs are posing to show their physical prowess, resting in a state of exhaustion, or going about seemingly mundane daily activities, Clark brings an unfiltered power and political message to the image. The viewer is affected by the photographs which express two great values – grace and truth.”