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Interview with Warwick Freeman

Author: Mackenzie Grace Paton, Editor, Friends of The Dowse Newsletter

In 1995, Warwick Freeman’s Owners show toured the country, featuring Patrick Reynold’s images of owners wearing their beloved Freeman jewellery pieces. Twenty years on, this exhibition has been restaged as The Family Jewels. During install, I made my way to The Dowse to talk with Warwick about the revival of this seminal exhibition.

Installation view, The Family Jewels, at The Dowse. Photographer John Lake

Installation view, The Family Jewels, at The Dowse. Photographer John Lake

Instantly recognisable pieces of shaped shell, polished Auckland scoria and hammered silver were being set on the walls, each in a purpose-made display box, and flanked by the original black and white photographs. Flicking through Owner’s Manual, the original exhibition catalogue, Freeman fondly recalled old nicknames for each image ‘grumpy man smiling building, Herne Bay babe....’A call from photographer Patrick Reynolds sparked the restaging of Owners as The Family Jewels. Reynolds no longer had the storage space for the original photographs, and asked Warwick if he would like them back. In need of a little repair, Warwick cleaned up the photographs and was reluctant to file them away. ‘It seemed silly to clean the mould off and put them back in storage’ It happened to be the twenty year anniversary of the original show. Further to that, Wunderruma: New Zealand Jewellery, curated by Freeman and Karl Fritsch, was touring. The time was right for another look at Owners, but what had changed in this time?

In the original exhibition, Freeman had to make replicas of each work because the owners were reluctant to part with their special pieces while the show toured. Since then, these have graced the walls of his family home. As he explains, ‘they’re not mine any more, they belong to the family and will be passed on to them eventually’, which is why they are referred to as the ‘family jewels.’ If Owners highlighted the relationship between the wearers and their objects, then this latest restaging touches upon how themes of ownership and identity can shift across this time.

We move on to the subject of materiality. Warwick says, ‘I have a funny relationship with the materials I use. They have these amazing qualities, but they weren’t meant to be jewellery. I mean, this shell was just a house for an oyster. I don’t necessarily trust my materials.’ He describes making heart shapes from slices of Auckland scoria. A piece may have one huge bubble, and if he keeps cutting the piece, it may get too thin and become unusable. ‘And if I tried to replicate them now I would be doing it in the manner of a forgery. For the silver, I would have to work out which hammer I used and how to hit it to get the marks I did then.’ If anything, this hits home how much Owners/The Family Jewels speaks of a moment in time. It is unable to be read or recreated in quite the same way. Twenty years ago contemporary jewellery was its own subculture, wound up in a growing Pacific consciousness and speaking of a new New Zealand identity - one greatly informed by its time. Owners and makers were of a generation that protested against nuclear testing and influenced by the ideas of a new Pacific nationhood being promoted by the then Labour government.

Time changes and ownership shifts, and sometimes we get a chance to look at what has changed and what has not. ‘The family jewels’ left ghost impressions on the wall of the Freeman home, where they lived for twenty years. Now that they are on tour again, his family grumbles whenever they walk past the empty space. These pieces, now on display at The Dowse, will make their way back to their rightful owners in time. Until then, Warwick has covered the offending wall with a tapa cloth.

Warwick Freeman: The Family Jewels is on at The Dowse until 12 June 2016

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