Alexis Hunter—Passionate Instincts
Written by Alyson Hunter, Alexis' twin sister. Originally published in The Jackdaw Magazine no 162 March/ April 2022.
The Alexis Hunter Trust will be exhibiting Alexis Hunter’s paintings at the Margate School, from the 4th to the 24th of April 2022. The Margate School is located in the old Woolworth's building: 31-33 High Street Margate, CT9 1DX.
Alyson and Alexis Hunter in Alexis' back yard in Roupell Street Waterloo 1972
There is already a lot of academic writing on the net about Alexis’s artwork, so I am writing a memoir of my twin, which will show the influences throughout her life.
Alexis and I were born in 1948, in Parnell, Auckland, New Zealand. I was born first, then Alexis turned up three minutes later.
The house in Parnell had a lawn with a sundial in the centre, with an expanse of the Waitemata Harbour reaching out to lazy ships on the horizon, waiting to unload at the Port of Auckland. The cruise ship Oriana would berth, ready for the trip via Suez, on route to the American West Coast to come back via the Panama Canal. We would stand on the wharf with the crowds singing ‘Smoke Gets in Your Eyes’ as they swayed with the realisation they may never see loved ones again. For us it was so exciting, the Oriana was a portal through which to escape to far off lands, and Alexis went on to travel extensively.
Our parents were born in Australia, they were avid bush walkers and we owe our love of landscape to them. We learnt a lot about the native bush, whether the bush was first growth or second because of logging and the importance of only having native species in the country. Father worked at James Steadman Henderson in Sydney, Australia, and he was given the job of setting up ’Sweetacres’ in Auckland, and so they emigrated with our big sister, Linley. I asked him how many sweets he sold to Woolworths, and he replied ‘ten tons a week’.
Our first show was at the Titirangi Coffee House when we were twelve years old.
On Saturdays, we went to art classes at the Auckland Art Gallery, as Dad had to open the factory in town. We spent the break climbing the trees in the park. But the collections of art we saw were important to our future. Rita Angus ’Head of a Maori Boy’ 1938 influenced Alexis in her early painting and for me, it was ‘For such is the Kingdom of Heaven,’ 1881, by Bramley, from the Newlyn School of painting, and I ended up living in Newlyn for a time.
We were interns at the Auckland City Museum during the school holidays, and we learned a lot about conservation so we have always used the right materials and supports. We were asked to help with a large dead tortoise that had to be stuffed. They said it was the pet of Captain James Cook and had just died…. how had she survived?
In fact she had been born in 1777, in Madagascar and Cook had gifted it to the Royal Family of Tonga. She had died in 1965, and was 188 years old. Her name was Tu’i Malila.
Father at one stage was a Communist and he met his comrades in a local picture theatre on a film club night, so we saw anti-Fascist films made in Europe, and from then film was always a passion for us. This influenced our photography, Alexis made many filmic series of photographs, and small films, such as the ‘Diary of a Friendship’ and collaborated with Brian Eno on another.
We were at Elam Art School when we were seventeen. We studied a whole unit of History of Art, and that influence you can see in our work, or at least an attempt to carve our way as women to find a way of subverting it. We did always appreciate our time there and devoured the library that was full of books on art.
I flew to London in 1969. Alexis came to London in 1972, on a cargo ship.
Alexis joined the Woman’s Group of the Artists Union and met the other Feminist artists at the time and they showed together. Joe Spence, Mary Kelly, Suzanne Hillier, Tina Keane, Rose Fin-Kelsy, Margaret Harrison and Helen Chadwick.
Some of the women were allowed to show in the I978 Haywood Annual, after a lot of activism to have female representation in the exhibition.
For a young Feminist, there were magazines from the US, ‘Heresies -Women Organised, Divided’, a journal of women’s art and letters from Kansas City, and ‘Camera Obscurer‘, a journal of Feminism and Film Theory from the University of California. Also ‘The British Feminist Review’ and catalogues from shows like ‘Issue’ Social Strategies by Women Artists, at the ICA, selected by Lucy R. Lippard.
In the seventies Alexis made sequences of her photographs such as ‘Sexual Warfare’ 1975. the ‘Sexual Rapport Series Yes, No, Maybe’ 72-76. ‘The Object Series 1974-5‘. ‘Approach to Fear’ 1976, ‘Domestic Warfare‘,1979. ‘Dialogue of a Rapist’ 1978. The Tate Gallery has just acquired ‘Approach to Fear:XV111:Masculation of Society-Exorcise‘.(1977) to go with their earlier acquisition ‘Approach to Fear X111 Pain-Destruction of Cause’ (1977).
In 1983 she returned to painting full time, as her interest was that Feminism did not just start in the 1970s and was all through history, and she had to delve back into myths and legends to find the female voice which had not been silenced. She used chimeras, half-human animals, and birds to portray the passionate search for those voices, and the inward turmoil of searching her own psyche and a revision of the society.
Stylistically her paintings were neo-expressionism - to try and emote through the paint her search for a different standpoint, a painting style in that she can express humour, sexuality, fear, emotion. Bird-like devils threaten cities, rich chimeras gloat over spoils of gold and cities burn, dogs of war cry out through flames, and lizards curl in pain, their cubs clenching perilously on her back. Nude women search for a male muse, unsure if it will be the killing of them, instead of finding the dreams of creativity.
The two chimeras fight, their strange limbs entwining, showing the muse and artist in an eternal battle. These paintings were shown in exhibitions at her dealer in Auckland, Whitespace. ‘Passionate instincts no 8’ 1984 is in the Collection of the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.
She married Baxter Mitchell who was a great supporter of her career, in 1986. He owned the ‘Camden Falcon’ and Alexis had a first-floor studio there.
Alexis died in 2014 and left an important legacy of Feminist art.
Now her work is in Margate as she wished, the seaweed in the harbour smells like Tu’i Malila when the tide is out, and the Turner Gallery has the cool white rooms of Auckland Art Gallery. The ships wait on the horizon just as they did in Parnell, ready for the Port of London.
Alexis’s archive will be not a part of the long white cloud of Aotearoa, but on an infinity cloud we could not have imagined, and her first show in the UK of this work is in an Independent Liberal Art School, their key partners the French art school ESADHaR. Which is a connection to Alexis’s painting studio in Beaurainville in the Hauts-de-France area, where she did a lot of her paintings.
The Margate school run by Uwe Derksen, is in a cadaverous Woolworths building, with its palatial staircase empty of pounding shoppers, just the patter of artists and muses, no sweet smell of sweets, the change that comes about, that we can never envisage.
Does art have more flexibility as it tries to change society into an inclusive and kind fabrication of ideas?
Alexis’s work is so relevant today, as the old forces undermine laws for women agreed in the 1970s, and the destruction of delicate landscapes are the product of even more powerful greed.
This piece was written by Alyson Hunter and originally published in The Jackdaw Magazine no 162 March/ April 2022
Richard Saltoun Gallery in Dover Street, London, represents Alexis’s work.