Ans Westra

Lunchtime Concert. Cuba Mall.

1976
gelatin silver print
300mm x 360mm

signed Ans Westra, dated 1976 and inscribed Lunchtime Concert. Cuba Mall in ink verso

Provenance

Acquired directly from the artist, 1976.

Essay

Ans Westra’s Lunchtime Concert, Cuba Mall, 1976, captures the essential nature of her photographic practice. Eight years after Wellington’s most famous str...

Read full text
Estimate $2,000 - $3,000
Achieved $2,345

Ans Westra

Lunchtime Concert. Cuba Mall.

1976

gelatin silver print

signed Ans Westra, dated 1976 and inscribed Lunchtime Concert. Cuba Mall in ink verso

300mm x 360mm

Auction N˚2

Estimate $2,000 - $3,000

Achieved $2,345

Ans Westra’s Wellington

by Andrew Paul Wood

Ans Westra’s Lunchtime Concert, Cuba Mall, 1976, captures the essential nature of her photographic practice. Eight years after Wellington’s most famous street was turned into a pedestrian mall as the result of a public campaign, Westra puts us in the midst of the vibrant urban life for which the street has long been a by-word. As Lawrence McDonald notes in his 2012 PhD thesis on the photographer’s work, “Westra’s camera is overwhelmingly interested in people, or, more precisely, people captured in certain social situations.”

Westra moved to Wellington in 1958, and, with the exception of a period in Europe, frequently documented the vicissitudes of her local communities. The mid-1970s were a time of dramatic social change, and as the national capital, Wellington was a major epicentre of this change. In 1975 the United Women’s Convention held there was one of a series of feminist events that challenged and empowered New Zealand women. That was also the year thousands of Māori walked on a hīkoi the length of the North Island to Parliament in protest against the continuing theft of their land. For the first half of the 1970s, Westra was effectively the in-house photographer for Alister Taylor’s publishing company, making her an observer of much progressive political and social change.

A number of Westra’s Wellington photographs are set in characterful Cuba Street. In terms of the city’s street life it seems an obvious psychogeographical location where things happen—you only need to stake out a place to observe from and wait, camera at the ready. In these photographs, Cuba Street is very much a character in its own right, as is perhaps demonstrated in Young Māoris Come to Town (1962), or Watching a Miss New Zealand Parade (1971). This particular image coincides with a body of work brought together in the now rare and hard to find 1976 publicationWellington: City Alive, created in collaboration with novelist Noel Hilliard (1929-1997) and published by Whitcoulls in Christchurch. It was an excellent pairing. While Westra is not afraid to appeal to sentiment, she never romanticises human life, and Hilliard’s prose, drawing on his journalism background, is as coolly objective as it is celebratory.

There is not much direct evidence of the era’s social upheavals in this photograph, but those tensions lie just beneath the surface, hinted at in some of the subjects’ postures. The title explains the event depicted, a lunchtime street concert, but for Westra, the public is the real subject, and the reason why they’re there is almost irrelevant. We don’t know who was playing and it really doesn’t matter. The photographer is an unobtrusive, observing presence. All the Westra ingredients are in place: Māori and Pākehā in their contemporary urban setting; a range of ages and types in scene; period fashions instantly identifying it as mid-‘70s; and the photographer’s affinity for children strongly foregrounded. It is very much an ephemeral slice of life in a city now unrecognisable, captured and preserved from before Wellington’s grandiose high-rise and motorway developments of the deregulated 1980s.