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Lockdown was tough for everyone, but it was made a lot easier for art historian Joanna Osborne as it gave her the time to to explore Dunedin Public Art Gallery’s extensive collection.
"I spent so much time exploring the collection and going down all these research rabbit holes and discovering wonderful things about the collection and treasures they have down there. It was a real dream."
Osborne is the gallery’s Creative New Zealand Toi Aotearoa curatorial intern for 2020, so as well as getting involved and learning about the curatorial process, she also gets to curate her own exhibition.
"This job came out of quite a few years studying at uni. It’s a really nice opportunity."
The position started a week before New Zealand went into Covid-19 lockdown in March.
Able to work from home, she completed some writing for the team and chipped away at her exhibition.
"I spent so much time exploring the collection. It really only came into focus later on."
At the time, the subject of her exhibition was still in its early stages but she knew she wanted to incorporate her two research loves — art and religion.
Osborne completed her PhD last year. Her dissertation examined the art and practices of artists Ralph Hotere (1931-2013) and Joanna Margaret Paul (1945-2003), with a specific focus on their spiritual sensibilities, and in response to the implications involved in interdisciplinary dialogue between religion, theology and art history.
Her interest in religion and art has always been there, she says.
When she finished school, it was her interest in photography that dominated and she studied for a fine arts degree in abstract macro photography.
"When you are young and idealistic, you follow your heart. I found I really enjoyed it."
However, she later had a yearning to delve into faith in an intellectual capacity.
She went back to university, starting out with some 400 level papers "terrified" she would not be able to keep up.
"I didn’t think I had the capacity. I was so terrified I was going to fail ... but I ended up getting As."
From there, she picked up more papers for a master’s and then her PhD.
"It’s been a life journey, a process. It’s just unfolded as doors have opened and I’ve carried on down that track."
She was proud of finishing her PhD, an achievement that at some stages felt like she would never do.
"When you are in the middle of it, you wonder if you’ll ever finish it."
The DPAG internship has allowed her to focus on religious and spiritual art within the collection.
"There are so many artists who are into that field or it comes into it in all sorts of different ways and you have the wealth of historical art with that as a subject matter."
She narrowed it down to New Zealand women artists, highlighting how they approach religion and spirituality. It considers women-centred art practices and realms of the sacred.
"Even within that group there is a lot of diversity, artists’ individual perspectives on things. It’s sort of a diversity of voices, the show."
She wanted to celebrate individual artists as well as be considerate of spiritual traditions outside of what people might think of as traditional Christian art in the collection.
"It has a soft critical aspect to it and is a celebration of the individual artists."
Pulling the exhibition together has been a great experience, she says.
"Getting really immersed in the research process of finding about works is always a joy. It’s been really great."
She is excited and nervous about the show opening, but also proud of it.
"It’s been really cool to put on a show together with such awesome artists."
While she no longer practises photography, her creative outlet these days is experimental music.
"Improvisation gives you so much freedom and has really helped me develop as a musician. It is a natural fit."