Emil McAvoy: The National Basement

Auckland artist Emil McAvoy turns the camera back on the National Publicity Studios (NPS). From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, the NPS was responsible for picturing New Zealand for promotion and publicity purposes. Their New Zealand was forged from government agendas, mediated by artists, and sold to local and international stakeholders. It’s soft propaganda—New Zealand at its cleanest, brightest, most harmonious.

Once ubiquitous, NPS images are now largely invisible. In 2009, Archives New Zealand awarded McAvoy a scholarship providing unprecedented access to their 250,000-image archive. He subsequently made a series of interventions into the portrait of New Zealand it constructs. He pried open the collection, turning NPS stock images, cataloguing systems, and house style against themselves, or into something else.

McAvoy takes us behind the scenes of the NPS’s idealised vision of New Zealand. He has selected, digitally restored, and made public a series of photographs documenting NPS displays that were made as internal records and were never intended to be made public. Where NPS art sought to locate the viewer within the world it created, McAvoy places us behind, slightly to the side, and after the fact. He prompts us all to figure out where we locate ourselves in relation to this once prevalent vision of New Zealand.

The National Basement was a project within the exhibition This is New Zealand, curated with Robert Leonard and Moya Lawson, City Gallery Wellington, 3 March–15 July 2018

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