*advisory note. This blog includes mention of drug and alcohol abuse, mental illness, and suicide*
The parallels between art and archaeology are closely interwoven. If you were to study art history in school or university, or even for personal enjoyment read Grombrich’s The Story of Art (now in its 16th printing with over 8 million copies – it’s worth a read), you will find that archaeology is at the beginning of the history of art (Grombrich, 2006). Through rock art and decorated objects, the story of art starts as part of its contemporary life and later, much later, whether as a fragment or in its full form, the work lives on as art and archaeology providing part of that all-important interpretation of our social narrative. So, when does art become archaeology? Archaeology, Anthropology and Art History form a trinity covering the analysis and retrieval of material culture, the patterns of use through cultural meaning, norms and values, and an interpretation of aesthetic value through visual means. So, does something stop being art and become archaeology? No, not really. It is how it is researched, curated, or presented to us, either in a gallery or museum, that creates a norm or a value on how we interpret it.
The art in archaeology, as presented in art history, continues to be an influence and inspiration to many artists. However, it can be a complex of cultural appropriation, and then there is the discussion of taking something out of its context and placing it in a museum or gallery (really this is a whole other blog post) and then also the concept of ‘found art’… (see below- another blog post, but don’t hold me to it as they may be a bit of an unravel). But this is a blog about archaeology, and the purpose of this post today is a far simpler story of a historian (and part-time artist) finding artists in archaeology.
It should not have been a surprise to me (but it was) when through the course of my work supporting archaeologists with their research and report writing, that a distinctive cursive form was appearing in archaeological site record forms. It was type of handwriting that when reading it you could almost hear a halting, but knowledgeable, voice, aware of differences, a script suited to the canvas. All the forms were signed with an artistic flourish of ‘T. Fomison’, Tony Fomison. My colleagues were like ‘yeah he was an archaeologist’ and I was ‘nah he was an artist’! It could be said that whilst my colleagues and myself were vaguely aware of Fomison’s other professional pursuits, we were all conditioned by our respective education, meaning that our perception of Fomison’s skill set was that art, or archaeology, was the dominant force in his career. In my case Fomison’s work had been part of my art and design education focusing on New Zealand art. I had known of his connection to Māori rock art but always as an artist.
Born Anthony Leslie Fomison in Christchurch 1939, Fomison was the eldest of five children. His father, who served with the second Echelon to Maadi Camp and Italy during the war, was a tram driver who later worked at the Dunlop factory in Christchurch. Fomison’s mother worked at the Christchurch public hospital. Fomison grew up in Linwood and was not a well child. It was his mother that encouraged the young Fomison to draw (Fomison, 1994). It was during his time at Linwood High School that the ‘bookish’ Fomison started to cultivate his interest in archaeology and photography, compiling photographic essays. Fomison went on to study sculpture at the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts from 1957-1960, avoiding a boilermaker apprenticeship, and, from there, went on to work for the Canterbury Museum as an archaeological assistant (Fomison, 1994). Here, between 1959 and 1962, Fomison cultivated his essayist style of photography, which resulted in work such as documenting the eeling season at Wairewa/Lake Forsyth (Fomison, 1994).
In 1959 Fomison had been endorsed by Canterbury Museum archaeologist Roger Duff. Along with Owen Wilkes (later a prominent peace activist) and others, on behalf of the museum and Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga), they surveyed the Māori rock art in South Canterbury (Fomison, 1994). It has to be noted that a Theo Schoon had traversed the area in 1947, and made his presence known by scrawling his signature on the limestone rocks at Craigmore (Byrt, 2019). Theodorus Johannes “Theo” Schoon was an Aotearoa New Zealand artist, photographer, and carver interested in Māori art, carving, geothermal activity. He also performed Javanese dance (Skinner, 2000). You could say Schoon held a forthright approach to everything and everyone in his life. Schoon was described by Anthony Byrt in 2019, on the release of his biography by Damain Skinner, as being ‘hinged on whether he’s master or mulch’, in as many words, lacking self-awareness and an artistic agenda that divided many of his acquaintances on his work and insistence (wanted or not) on providing advice (Byrt, 2019). I have tried to be measured in my appraisal of Schoon but Byrt’s colourful take on the artist can be read here.
Fomison recorded the archaeological work in field books, took tracings, and completed a card index of over 450 entries, creating a body of work that must be viewed as a ‘vital component’ that would stand alone archaeologically and provide a wealth of process to his art (Fomison, 1994). The relationship with Duff and the museum was terminated in 1962. Fomsion continued to work from time to time in an archaeological capacity with fieldwork in Taranaki in 1980 and in Rotorua in 1981 (Fomison, 1994). The amount of work that Fomison covered in three years in Canterbury and Banks Peninsula was vast, and archaeology was an aspect of his career that was never far away and was revisited, including the controversial artist Theo Shoon, throughout his life. In 1987 Fomison published an article in the New Zealand Archaeological Association (NZAA) newsletter on the topic of Shoon and the retouching of rock art (Archaeopedia New Zealand, 2015). Shoon was accused of having retouched rock drawings during his work recording them. Fomison reviewed the evidence and found it was clear that Shoon had modified some of the work as a ‘restoration dot for dot’ in Shoon’s words (who I imagine did not have an awareness of his white saviour mentality) (Archaeopedia New Zealand, 2019).
It was from 1961 that Fomison started to focus more on his art, using painting as his main medium. In 1963 Fomison was awarded a travel grant by the Arts Advisory Board and travelled to England in 1964. Not a lot of work was produced and Fomison’s travels included a trip to Spain, then joining an ‘Apache’ street gang in Paris. Here Fomison drew pavement art for tourists. Fomison was later imprisoned and subsequently sent back to England. In England a drug habit found Fomison hospitalised at London’s Banstead Hospital. While hospitalised, Fomison began to paint again (Fomison, 1994). In 1967 Fomison was aided in his return to New Zealand, moving back to Christchurch and living on Riccarton Road with fellow artist Philip Clairmont. Clairmont, Fomison, and Napier based artist Allen Maddox formed a defiant grouping called the ‘Militant Artists Union’ (McAloon, 2009). As you can imagine, the trio exalted the bohemian lifestyle, expressionist and outsider art (see below), all fuelled by drugs and alcohol. They were all enablers of their vices and their talent. Photographer Marti Friedlander captured one of these moments between the friends as part of a documentative series of New Zealand artists. The image is now in the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū collection. This way of life did find Fomison spending six weeks in Rolleston and Paparua prison for drug offences (Fomison, 1994). After a brief stint in Beverage Street, Fomison moved with Clairmont into 300 Hereford Street, and it was it was here that Clairmont produced Fireplace. They lived and worked at the property between 1971 and 1972. the property is now a listed building with the Christchurch City Council (Christchurch City Council, n.d.: 269; Figure 4). In 1973 Fomison moved to Auckland (Fomison, 1994).
In Auckland Fomison immersed himself into Polynesian culture, all the while producing what you could call a distinctive, dark, tormented painting style. Fomison’s work can be uncomfortable, with skull and moon like faces, jesters, and caves, but is without influence from his peers. The term ‘Outsider Art’ has been associated with Fomison, as Howard Davis notes in his article ‘The Outsider Art of Tony Fomison’. Howard goes on to say ‘Fomison clearly relished depicting such unsettling creatures because he felt they literally embodied his deep disdain for ‘civilised’ bourgeois society’ (Davis, 2018).
In Auckland Fomison lived in several places including 17 Gunson Street in Freemans Bay, which was photographed by photographer Mark Adams in 1977. It was in Auckland that Fomison was introduced to Colin McCahon, becoming involved in reviving Tā moko (Fomison, 1994). Think of Friedlander’s images in Michael King’s Moko: Maori Tattooing in the 20th Century. In 1979 the Dowse Gallery in Lower Hutt held the first major survey of Fomison’s work, and it was at this time that Fomison met Paulo Sulu’ape II, a tufuga ta tatau (master tattooist) and started to receive the pe’a. Photographer Mark Adams captures the process of Fomison receiving the pe’a, which is a Samoan male rite of passage. The tattoo was completed in 1980. Fomison continued to live in Auckland, with a brief interlude in 1985 in Wellington as the first Rita Angus Fellow, living at Rita Angus Cottage in Sydney Street West, Thorndon (Fomison, 1994). By 1988-89 Fomison was nearing 50 and in failing health spending time in hospital. His frail health in childhood, combined with his later drug and alcohol use, likely to be contributing factors. Fomison’s final exhibition was in 1989 at the Gow/Lansgord Gallery. In 1990 during his visit to the Waitangi Day 150th celebrations in the Bay of Islands with an old friend, Merry Isaac, Fomison’s health rapidly declined. Fomison died 7th February 1990 aged 51 (Fomison, 1994).
You could say it was a poignant place to die for Fomison, whose immersion in Māori and Polynesian culture wove as a central core throughout his life and his art. His cohorts in the ‘Miliant Artists Union’ faired no less in their time. Clairmont had died aged 34 in 1984 by suicide and Maddox died in 2000 at age 51, having sustained himself and his art on a diet of whisky and cannabis. Maddox’s obituary by Gilbert Wong was quite the piece, but did quote Maddox, of Fomison and Clairmont: “One of the things about those two guys – and I can say this being schizophrenic and having caused them difficulties – is that they were non-judgmental.” (Wong, 2000).
If you want to see Fomison’s work, I can recommend the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū exhibition Te Wheke: Pathways Across Oceania that features Fomison’s Hill top watcher, 1976. This work is amongst my favourites of Fomison. The exhibition notes that the Te Waipounamu/South Island mountains still heavily featured in Fomison’s work despite his later move to Te Ika-a-Māui/North Island and that Hill top watcher could be ‘a reimagining of Aotearoa New Zealand’s pre-history’ (Te Wheke, 2020). There is much more to tell of Fomison’s work, but as a rambler I fear I will do it no justice. But I do still find that seeing Fomison’s writing in the course of my research gives me a little bit of a thrill that his work continues to influence not just in the art world. As for Theo Schoon? Well his mark was well and truly made, the good and the bad (and yes this is a whole other blog post too!).
So, on that note, time to wind up this blog post with a ‘good strength to your paint brushes’ – as Fomison once wrote (Gilber Marriot Gallery, 2019). Or maybe, in this case, your trowels, for there is art in archaeology and an art to it all.
ArchSite, 2020. New Zealand Archaeological Association, Dunedin.
Archaeopedia New Zealand, 2015. Fomison Tony. [online] Available at: <http://archaeopedia.com/wiki/index.php?title=Fomison_Tony> [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].
Archaeopedia New Zealand, 2019. Schoon Theo. [online] Available at: <http://archaeopedia.com/wiki/index.php?title=Schoon_Theo> [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].
Byrt, A., 2019. Book of the Week: That total asshole Theo Schoon. [online] The Spinoff. Available at: <https://thespinoff.co.nz/books/28-02-2019/book-of-the-week-that-total-asshole-theo-schoon/> [Accessed 16 Oct. 2020].
Christchurch City Council, n.d. Heritage Statements of Significance – Christchurch.
Davis, H., 2018. The Outsider Art of Tony Fomison. [online] Scoop Independent News. Available at: <https://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/CU1809/S00176/the-outsider-art-of-tony-fomison.htm> [Accessed 16 Oct. 2020].
Fomison, T., 1994. Fomison: What shall we tell them. City Gallery Wellington.
“good strength to your paint brushes” part of Tony Fomison’s correspondence to artist Richard Lomas (http://gilberdmarriottgallery.weebly.com/gmg-blog/richard-lomas-coque-tails-exhibition-10-august-7-september-2019)
Grombrich, E.H., 2006. The Story of Art, Pocket Edition. Phaidon.
Hocken Snapshop (15th Apr 2020). Forsyth, Lake – Outlet 1958 Eeling Season “At the end of the day’s work”. In Website Hocken Snapshop. Retrieved 15th Oct 2020 14:04, from https://hocken.recollect.co.nz/nodes/view/11439
Kete Christchurch, 2009. 300 Hereford Street. [online] Kete Christchurch: Places and Streets. Available at: <http://ketechristchurch.peoplesnetworknz.info/en/places_and_streets/images/show/919-300-hereford-street?view_size=large> [Accessed 16 Oct. 2020].
McAloon, W., 2009. New Zealand Art at Te Papa. [online] Te Papa Press. Aslo see at: <https://collections.tepapa.govt.nz/object/967769>.
Skinner, D., 2000. Schoon, Theodorus Johannes. [online] Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2000. Available at: <https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/5s4/schoon-theodorus-johannes> [Accessed 16 Oct. 2020].
Te Wheke, 2020. Tony Fomison, Hill top watcher. [online] Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū. Available at: <https://christchurchartgallery.org.nz/collection/2010-003/tony-fomison/hill-top-watcher> [Accessed 15 Oct. 2020].
Wong, G., 2000. Obituary: Allen Maddox. New Zealand Herald. [online] 25 Aug. Available at: <https://www.nzherald.co.nz/nz/iobituaryi-allen-maddox/XXRWLVA7SGVRCAILBLHIBZL3JA/>.
New Zealand Artists featured
Paulo Sulu’ape II