In 1975 and 1976, The Active Eye—a survey show of New Zealand photography—was touring the country. Two black-and-white photographs by Elam-trained photographer Fiona Clark struck a nerve. They showed transvestites—friends of the artist—strutting their stuff at a Pride Week dance party at the University of Auckland café in 1974. Breaking the fourth wall, the images were provocatively inscribed in ballpoint by one of Clark’s subjects. One read: ‘We are real people, & can fuck everything & anyone, enjoying life & having a ball! Aren’t you furious, you hung up closet queens?’
The two photographs were dropped from the show at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth—Clark’s home patch. And, as the show was due to open at Auckland City Art Gallery, the police threatened prosecution if the images were displayed. The Gallery canned the whole show, rather than extract her works. Then the two photographs mysteriously disappeared, and weren’t available for the final venue, Lower Hutt’s Dowse Art Museum. The storm around these works was a measure of New Zealand’s homophobia—homosexual law reform wouldn’t come until the 1980s—but also of Clark’s audacity.
Despite the 1977 car accident that left her partially blind, Clark went on to develop provocative projects collaborating with Taranaki iwi in fighting environmental degradation, documenting the burgeoning local bodybuilding scene, and witnessing life with HIV and AIDS. For her show Go Girl at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in 2002, she revisited her drag-queen subjects from the 1970s.
Directed by Lula Cucchiara, the movie Fiona Clark: Unafraid shows how Clark overcame not only homophobia and sexism, but also physical injury, to become one of our most daring visual-activist photographers. Unafraid premiered at the New Zealand Film Festival last year, and is now screening throughout the country.