Joan Gragg: Underneath the Mango Tree

24 March - 23 April 2021 Bergman Gallery, Rarotonga

Opening Speakers:

Teina MacKenzie, Keynote
Joan Gragg, Artist


Mango trees, like their famous palm tree counterparts in Pacific folklore, are a quixotic icon of Island fantasy, their imposing physical stature and delicious, fragrant fruit have few equals. It was the song 'Underneath the Mango Tree' that drifted through that celebrated beach scene as the world's most famous fictional spy debuted on screen in 1963. Prior to that, the mythology of the Pacific and its exotic contents were the experience of rebellious painters, blue water adventurers, explorers and writers, who relayed their marvellous tales' home to be devoured like a delectable fruit by a ravenous national audience.

In the southern group of the Cook Islands, the centre of the Polynesian triangle, magnificent, tall, Mango trees were the centre of villages and gardens. They were places of congregation, conversation and refuge from the fierce tropical sun. Their sturdy branches were made to be climbed and often were, by village children in search of their seasonal offering. Mango trees were familiar and comforting. They were omnipresent.  For artist Joan Gragg, they are central to some of her earliest childhood memories, a powerful symbol and connection to her parents, sisters and her upbringing in the village of Tutakimoa on Rarotonga.

Joan has many stories to tell on the subject of Mango trees, and she does, with great affection, remembering the many instances her father had, defending his Mango tree from daily raids by the village kids.  'He would pick up all the small stones he could find, to prevent children throwing them at the Mangoes hoping to dislodge them, not because he didn't want them to have the Mangoes, but because the stones proved problematic when he eventually came to mow the lawn! Not to be deterred, the village kids were pretty good at getting up at 5am, to beat the chickens (and owners) to any Mangoes that had fallen to the ground.'

Intense colour radiates from Gragg's new collection of paintings, vibrant oranges, blues and greens dominate the compositions. The usual icons are present, motorbikes, people and animals, all in a state of perpetual motion. But it is the colour and structure of these works that are most poignant.  This is a lifetime of experience being played out, a symphony of memory, emotion and fulfilment. It is also a statement of a time past. Today, many of the Mango trees have gone. They have been removed for construction or pared back for ease of maintenance, a mere reflection of their former majesty.  A life experience has vanished, replaced by technology. Today, the next generation of village kids are more comfortable on their iphones than in the branches of a Mango tree.  Times change. If you want a big juicy mango, easier to buy it at the supermarket now.

In keeping with her long-acknowledged conceptual premise, the artist captures fleeting everyday moments, moments that are not necessarily momentous, but moments none the less that form part of our everyday existence, that perhaps we should recognize and could appreciate a little bit more. Every one of Joan's paintings sets a scene, and a play unfolds underneath the Mango tree. You could be on that motorbike, zooming over to the next village, raking leaves, hanging out the clothes, having a conversation with a group of friends, working out or eating at the village feast.  This is Joan's story, and it is one told with warmth and passion.

There is a sublime ease within this work, as the various scenes progress, it is almost as if you can hear the laughter of the children in the branches, the sound of the departing motor bike, the chatter of the group, the incessant crow of that noisy Rooster.  It is the artists absolute luxury to narrate this sentiment, and she does just that, with the authority of a lifetime of experience, underneath the Mango tree.