Skip to main content

Ans Westra: A Life in Photography
by Paul Moon

An account of a photographer who 'lived and worked in the epicentre of a cultural debate'.


Ans Westra became famously notorious upon publication of her 1964 photo book Washday at the Pa: it sparked nationwide controversy by putting images of economically deprived Māori into a publication intended mostly for distribution in schools. In this new biography Paul Moon provides a thoroughly detailed account of her entire corpus, how she made it, and the critical reception it found.

Wash Day at the Pa back cover. Photo: Ans Westra.

Moon has published over forty books, nearly all of which tackle some aspect of Aotearoa colonial history, including biographies on Hobson, Muldoon, Fitzroy, Hone Keke, Busby and more. This is his first contemporary artist biography. On Westra’s life outside of photography, Moon is brief. He makes it clear from the outset that he didn’t have a lot to go on. ‘In some places the narrative is a bit like a patchwork quilt,’ he writes. ‘The end result is a mosaic of her life, largely constructed around her own memories and perceptions.’

Her own account betrays a tendency to avert her gaze from difficult personal events such as the death of her mother. The more fraught the recollection, the more skeletal its retelling.

It appears that Westra wasn’t necessarily the most collaborative biographical subject. The result is that her personal life tends to lurk just out of frame, making brief appearances only at life-defining moments, while Moon’s narrative focuses on her work – practically all of it – and the many polarised reactions to it. Biography must always balance the wider social context of a life with some narrative momentum, and that momentum is inevitably contrived, but this work leaves us joining lots of dots.

For example, Moon covers Westra’s relationship with Barry Crump – with whom she had her first child, Erik – in a few pages. In a scenario that could have been lifted out of one of Crump’s novels, the two make a late-night run to an illegal offie, neck a hipflask of gin on the way and stop off for a quick romantic interlude on the drive back to Ans’ place.

‘I still know the exact spot’, she recounted much later. This roadside location, she confided matter-of-factly, was ‘where I conceived Erik’ … Crump disappeared from Ans’ life shortly after that August party, but would reappear intermittently, in an occasional cameo role, usually unexpected, and not always welcome.

So much for Crump. Or is it? Forty pages and a decade later John van Hulst appears in the narrative, ‘her partner at the time’. It appears to have been an unhappy union, with little in common between them other than the desire to reproduce. We also learn, with some surprise, that part of the problem with Westra and van Hulse is that Westra was still in love with Crump, exploding all previous descriptions of their relationship. The real lost opportunity here is any insight about what Ans herself meant to these people, or many of the other people who populate her life and the book. There are several other instances of this. Moon writes of the people in Westra’s life at a distance, and primarily for their impact on her work.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Westra’s early life appears to be more accessible and more vividly described than her time as an adult. We learn that she grew up as an only child in a dysfunctional family environment exacerbated by the hardships of the Depression followed by the German invasion of Leiden, Westra’s childhood home in the Netherlands. Moon describes the invasion, but not from any close-handed perspective. The army arrived, ‘paratroopers descended from the skies, tanks rumbled through the streets’. What’s more revealing is the four-year-old Westra’s involvement:

Less suspicion was likely to fall on a child than an adult, and so Ans was enlisted by one of the underground groups opposed to the occupation. At the age of eight, she was helping distribute anti-Nazi material around her neighbourhood, a task that could result in execution or being sent to slave labour in German ammunition facilities for any adult caught in the act.

Here one is struck by the child-who-became-a-photographer’s ability to blend in. Invisibility is a recurring theme throughout the book. There is discussion about the way her Rolleiflex camera forced her to look down at the viewfinder rather than straight ahead at her subject. More telling is her knack of connecting with children, who she photographed copiously and also – occasionally – used to gain access to adult subjects. In one project, she describes to Moon the process of befriending a child, patiently waiting for them to get used to her and her camera’s presence, and then following them into their wider social environment.

Her parents went through a messy divorce: part of the agreement involved Westra’s mother Hendrika van Dorn entering into an arranged marriage with a man who turned out to be cruelly abusive. Her father Pieter eventually came to New Zealand and subsequently invited teenage Ans here, but even that involved strange and manipulative deceptions. Moon creates a clear impression of the young adult Ans, alone with little English and a camera in a faraway land. Anyone who’s ever worked as any kind of artist knows the exhaustion and exhilaration of channelling their life experiences into their art practice, and this sense of an alienated child using her camera to navigate through an unknown and sometimes hostile culture is one of the richest threads of the book.

At one point we learn that Westra bought a house in Wellington and that something went wrong because she had some kind of legal dispute with the vendor. But it’s a story inside a story, the outer story being her short time in Wellington Hospital’s psychiatric ward. Was she committed by a judge’s order or referred by a GP? Moon is light on these details, but he does provide a succinctly compelling portrayal of her inner life at this time, in the early 1990s:

The tipping point – for those close to her as well as Ans herself – came the night before she was admitted. During that evening ‘she had undergone a marked change of experiencing her thoughts as accelerated and out of control, receiving messages from things around her merging with others and noticing foreign thoughts in her mind. There were flashes of visual images endowed with revelation-like quality which she, a highly accomplished photographer, experienced with great fascination’.

It’s not entirely clear but evidently Moon is quoting a medical correspondence. He also quotes from the diary she kept while under supervision:

When a doctor described her as having the potential to be ‘a very dangerous patient’, Ans wrote down this comment, followed by Shit!’ Other notes appeared to be random thoughts fired directly from mind to paper, such as ‘There is no madness – only difference’, and ‘his pen flows easier, so I shall use it to defend myself from here on!’

Eventually she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and while we happily learn that she made a recovery, we never get a detailed sense of how that went. Instead, overall, there’s a sense of someone who made a decision to become an artist at a young age, and who stuck to that decision against appalling odds, suffered both infamy and poverty as a result, and ultimately triumphed.

As for her work, which takes up by far the majority of the book, Moon notes:

There had been a prolonged and difficult time when her life’s work was criticised by some as being culturally inappropriate because she was a Pākehā photographing Māori … This biography, an account of Ans Westra’s life through her eyes, is designed to be a corrective to such misrepresentations of her work.

For many, Westra sits in a naughty corner of Pākehā do-gooders benevolently but naively wandering into te ao Māori without quite knowing what they’re about. Michael King and Anne Salmond are just two among many others who have received similar critique.

These cultural workers have wrestled – rightly or wrongly – with a challenge that confronts any progressive New Zealander: how to live in respectful co-existence with Māori without intruding on Māori in the very process, and how to understand anything about te ao Māori without infiltrating it and undermining it. The common thread through this critique is less about the quality of the work by people like King, Salmond and Westra, and more about questioning an unequal access to resources.

Hone Tuwhare. Photo: Ans Westra

Moon traces the practice of cultural appropriation in Aotearoa back to the first impressions made here by a European.

It was another Dutch artist – Isaack Gilsemans – who became the first European to make a visual depiction of Māori. His 1642 sketch A view of the Murderers’ Bay, as you are at anchor here in 15 fathom portrayed Māori in a way that dissolved any boundary between representation and vilification. It was a work of ethnographical caricature that debased the subjects while simultaneously attempting to assert the cultural supremacy of the artist.

While Moon is clearly involved in the debate, it’s clear which way he’s heading: Westra may have been naive, but it’s a stretch to accuse her of vilifying her subject. Debasing though? When I look at the Washday photos, I see a happy group of people, almost all women and children, going about their day in sunshine and laughter. But it appears that the setting – an impoverished rural household – was far more provocative to some viewers in the 1960s. During a Māori Women’s Welfare League’s AGM one delegate asserted that there ‘are very few Māori people living in such conditions anywhere in New Zealand, even in remote areas’, and asked the Education Department to withdraw it from schools. A few months later, the Minister of Education, Arthur Kinsella, did just that.

Many years later, we learn that the Māori Women’s Welfare League not only forgave Westra for any incursions, they also commissioned her to shoot their national conference. But is that enough? Moon seems to think so. ‘It is possible to critique the conceptual and cultural basis of a work of art,’ he writes, ‘and at the same time appreciate its creative value.’

Moon’s coverage of Westra’s professional life and career is detailed and thorough, including the critical reception to her work. It’s extremely valuable having a succinct and pithy end-to-end account of Westra’s career, and it was interesting to discover some of her lesser known work, in particular, her abstract colour photography from the early 2000s onwards. For me, these have a visual richness and semiotic playfulness which make a refreshing departure from documentary photography. Moon disagrees, calling them ‘nowhere close to her best work’, yet still manages to defend them against their critics.

To the Pleasure Garden 2005. Photo: Ans Westra.

Design-wise, the book gives a respectful nod to a previous publication, Handboek: Ans Westra Photographs, edited by Luit Bieringa in 2004. Both book covers feature black-and-white photos, a title in Dutch orange, a sub-title in white and Dutch orange end-sheets. The orange seems fitting, although nowhere is there any evidence that Westra maintained any sense of national pride for her country of origin.

Moon’s biography provides a detailed account of practically all Westra’s work over six decades, punctuated with compelling anecdotes from the life that generated the art. Getting this all into just 300 well-illustrated pages is a major achievement. His subject lived and worked in the epicentre of a cultural debate that in many ways defines the current epoch in Aotearoa art and culture: the question of colonial responsibility in an individual contemporary artist’s practice. Regardless of whether we agree with his ‘corrective’, the book makes a significant contribution to that debate.

Ans Westra: A Life in Photography

by Paul Moon

Massey University Press

ISBN: 9781991016775

Published: May 2024

Format: Soft cover, 328 pages

James Littlewood

James Littlewood is a writer, producer and director. From 2019 to 2023 he was director of Going West, the longest running indy LitFest in Aotearoa. James has produced numerous poetry slams and a dozen short poetry films.