Anne Noble's Wanganui

SHERIDAN KEITH

In The Wanganui Anne Noble has discovered her spiritual source. Introducing her Wanganui River Panoramas she writes:
In the morning the mist rises off the river, and from a hilltop above the valley I see a long snake of mist floating in the river's path, that stretches as far as the eye can see.
The Wanganui; a healing river of sacred springs and potent secrets.
I came out of the Place as the Spring from its Source.
I made a journey to claim this river.
I feel its currents curling around my bones.

Noble's journey to claim this river has provided the material for a series of images of immense spirituality, serenity and intensity of feeling.

ANNE NOBLE Hiruharama (Jerusalem) 1981
black-and-white photograph

Anne Noble was born in Wanganui in 1954 and lived there, with the river at the bottom of her parent's land, until she went to board at the Roman Catholic Girls' College, Erskine College, in Island Bay, Wellington in 1965. She returned for a final year at Wanganui Girls College in 1970, then left Wanganui for Auckland and the School of Fine Arts.

Over the last two years she has been back again and again to the Wanganui to document and make her own discoveries in a landscape as potent as any in New Zealand.

Black-and-white photographs have proved the perfect medium for this essay in the spirituality of place. Black-and-white photographs are black and white metaphors of reality: black the extreme absence of light evoking the darkness of suspicion, doubt, despair . . . white the overwhelming presence of light, announcing revelation, exaltation, bliss. Noble herself speaks of black 'shaping' the image, with white providing the 'spiritual' value. Certainly Noble uses white to extraordinary effect; white gates with black chain fastening, a white horse, white gravestones, white swirling mists, and in From Gentle Annie, 1980 the river itself is white, like a white-hot larva flow. She uses light to create halo effects too, in the portrait of Jimmy Titi. Taumarunui 1981, and around the punga in Hiruharama (Jerusalem) 1982. Mists glow like holy emanations. A group of dazzling white field lilies preach an open air sermon of purity in Sheep and Lilies. Jerusalem, Wanganui River. 1982.

ANNE NOBLE Arimetea 1981
black-and-white photograph

Christian symbolism abounds: sheep, lillies, gates, the river itself. Often the subject matter is directly religious. There are photographs of nuns, priests, a church, church processions, graves and graveside ceremonies - along with relics of more ancient Maori worship.

Another theme is that of abandoned communication, the failure and breakdown of what were formerly vital links. The Old Timau Bridge 1981 shows a single remaining concrete column standing resolute against swirling eddies of the ever-flowing river. In The Mouth 1982, telegraph poles, devoid of lines, stand, Tau-crosses, alongside a railway line which stretches to eternity: but without rails. On one side is the debris brought down by the river, a resting place for the skeletons of old trees, stumps and branches. On the other side the sea goes about its old routine, wave upon wave, and in the distance the dark coastline is gloomy against a threatening sky. This powerful image speaks of isolation, spiritual despair. There is the feeling of space without respite, an image for Good Friday. Another image of failed communication is The Bridge to Nowhere, Mangapurua Valley. 1982. Here a bridge crosses a beautiful fern-encrusted gorge to end abruptly in the dense growth of the hillside-an image echoed in Baxter's poem Winter in Jerusalem.

We have to climb. I do not hope to gather
Pears in winter, or halt the flow of the river
That buries in sludge the souls that begin to waken
And know themselves. Our peace can't patch again
The canoe that is broken, yet all men value peace.
Peace is the language of the pungas on the hill
Not growing for any gain. These images I gather
As eels awaken in the darkness of the river.

In the image Hiruharama (Jerusalem) 1982 we see Jerusalem, shrouded in river mist, while a punga of ethereal beauty, surely here a symbol of peace, is enshrined in a holy light.

ANNE NOBLE Wanganui River 1980
black-and-white photograph

Noble sees the river itself as a surface reflecting light, creator and plaything of shadows and mists, always mysterious, both sustainer and scavenger of life. At times the river appears as nature's artefact - a sheet of metal beaten to wafer thinness and burnished to glimmering delight (Wanganui River 1980). In Upper Reaches 1980 large-grained emulsion aids the portrayal of the river as soft and flakey, a pastel water-mass flowing between pointillist river-banks, poplars just perceptible through river mist. And in Paparoa Rapid, Pipiriki 1981 the river is seen as a spiritual font, a redeeming light between gloomy banks of shadowy vegetation.

These are images to be fingered with the eye images created by a sensitive woman seeking reassurance and succour from the spirits of the landscape where she was brought up. It was Peter Peryer who said, 'I think art sanctifies the place we live in...' In Noble's images of The Wanganui a place of deep spirituality is revealed and sanctified again, thickening the cultural tissue of this place for us all.

New Zealand contemporary photographers, unlike the painters, have not been much interested in landscape. Robin Morrison's extensive essay The South Island was more interested in the relationship between man's creations: his houses, civic structures, sheds and shacks, set in a landscape. Clive Stone's photographic study The Hibiscus Coast showed the inhabitants and their material lifestyle with hardly a whiff of coastline. Noble's work is in the tradition of McCahon: and like McCahon she is a maker of icons.

ANNE NOBLE The South Mole. Wanganui River 1981
black-and-white photograph

Photographs in themselves are judgements; the closest approach to seeing as someone else sees; a fast track into an artist's sensibilities, ascertaining the image maker's concerns, commitments, values. If the touch of the artist's hand is not so obvious in this medium, then the touch of his or her eye is perhaps the keener for that.

The black-and-white photograph with its ability to strip away distraction of colour and texture, reveals a gaunt and pure vision. And yet it could be said of these images, as of the Lilies of the Field, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 27 Winter 1983