The shape of the world a generation from now will be influenced far more by how we communicate the values of our society to others than by military or diplomatic superiority. William Fulbright, 1964

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


Indonesian influence in Kiwi art © Duncan Graham 2008

In 2001 an ageing wanderer was on his way back to New Zealand. He’d been following a band around Europe and found himself with time to spare in Singapore.

Neville McPherson thought he’d pop across and have a quick look at Indonesia; nothing serious, maybe pick up a souvenir or two, just in and out. Other travelers had spoken warmly about the country, and not just in climatic terms. Like many Kiwis McPherson knew next to nothing about the archipelagic republic hidden on the far side of big, protective Australia. Why not take a peep?

The moment he exited the airbridge at Soekarno-Hatta the reserved teacher from a dusty rural town north of Wellington was tumbled into a totally new and troubling world, quite unlike anything he’d ever experienced.

“I thought Jakarta was a cowboy town, just full on,” he said. “The reckless behavior on the roads, the lack of discipline, the overcrowding and the way people took their lives in their hands was too much.

“I couldn’t cope with the place for more than two days so headed out of the city. It was still overwhelming, but the hill towns were a bit more manageable. I arrived in Bogor and it was there that I fell in love with the country.” Indeed he did, even to the point of becoming a Muslim after long talks with the locals in backpacking hostels.

Back in NZ he hit 60 and decided there were other things to do in life apart from pushing formulae and equations to fidgeting kids. As a young man he’d had yearnings to be an artist and had studied art at teachers’ college. But that was no way to go if he wanted to keep a loaf in the larder and maintain his family. So he buried his ambitions behind the blackboard and bided his time.

He’d done a few big timber sculptures using a chainsaw, including public commissions, but wanted to refine and minimalize his work. The first taste of Indonesia offered inspiration, but how to access the mysteries?

McPherson applied for a job teaching English in Medan, didn’t like the “characterless town” so after six months moved to Pekanbaru, the cleaner 17th century capital of Riau Province.

He stayed for 18 months and took time to tour Bali and other cultural centers, “not to work but to soak it all in”. In Yogya he discovered batik and is currently toying with ideas on incorporating designs popular for printing cloth in the cap batik style that uses metal stamps dipped in waxes.

Now McPherson is back in his homeland and has just held his first exhibition in central Wellington of woodwork and woodcuts where he tries to blend Maori, Western and Islamic images. His newfound faith, which he follows diligently with regular visits to the city’s only mosque, has constrained his artistic expression.

“As a Muslim I can draw abstracts and plants, but I’m not supposed to portray
humans or animals,” he said. “That’s been difficult and I’ve cheated a bit. When
it comes to judgment day maybe I’ll be sent to hell.” This last line was
delivered with a chuckle. His other failing is a reluctance to spread the faith,
as required in Islam.

“I was a bit of a wedding-and-wake Christian before I converted. Like most Kiwis I have a relaxed view of religion. I don’t want to bother others about faith, but maybe I’m making amends through my Islamic ideas and helping people get a better understanding.”

But if he is, the images are subtle indeed. McPherson admits he’s still experimenting with form rather than design, pushing boundaries. He’s planning a bigger work with an inscription from the Koran in Arabic across a hint of NZ’s dramatic landscapes and the curly and curvy symbols found in Maori culture.

McPherson says he has no Maori heritage though he does have Maori cousins.
The traditional designs, also found in Polynesia, include fishhooks, circles, fern fronds and dolphins – causing more problems for an artist following Islam. Some of the patterns share similarities with the calligraphy of Arabic.

Wellington is a city of half a million people with around 3,000 Muslims. McPherson said only five Westerners are regulars at the mosque. There are about 3000 Indonesians in the country with maybe ten per cent in the capital; many are Christian or Buddhist. McPherson hinted at problems with his family accepting his change of beliefs, but no difficulties from others.

In NZ culture, faith is personal and private. It’s considered impolite to ask a person’s religion. There are no identity cards. Although founded as a Christian country and mainly Protestant, recent surveys show the nation is becoming more secular.

Although seen as a curio in Indonesia, McPherson said he was treated with friendship and tolerance. He had problems in only one mosque where a woman lifted the curtain dividing the sexes to gawk at the white-bearded newcomer. She then alerted others that the bule (Westerner) was not praying in the right way, much to his embarrassment. “I didn’t go back to that mosque,” he added dryly.

“Islam is an accepting faith,” McPherson said. “I like the communal life and values. Christianity can be quite judgmental, setting up lots of targets, aspiring to affluence and one-upmanship.”

McPherson says Islam is “gentle” – an opinion quite at odds with much of the Western media where the attitudes and actions of the fundamentalists have hard set the image in a concrete of prejudice. The 61 year old doesn’t see it that way because it hasn’t been his experience.

“I hope that in the future I’ll be able to exhibit in a mosque,” he said. “I like to think that my art will help enlighten people about Islam. I want to return to Indonesia and look again at the tiles and decorations of the mosques for inspiration – and to learn more.”

(First published in The Jakarta Post, 14 May 2008)