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Are Aotearoa women artists getting what they deserve?

Tāmaki Makaurau – The secondary NZ art market is showing signs of correcting the prejudices of yesteryear, giving artists such as A. Lois White, a female artist whose decorative art fell out of fashion in the 1950s, their rightful place in the art world.

White’s 1949 painting Bathers (pictured) is coming up for auction at Webb’s in Auckland on Monday (November 27) and is expected to fetch up to $100,000.

The painting has been held in a private collection since it was purchased in the 1970s. Mostly side-lined by the art fraternity during her lifetime, White was given her first solo exhibition in 1977, only a few years before her death at the age of 81.

The sale is part of a larger trend of increased investor interest in New Zealand women modernists such as Rita Angus, Louise Henderson, Louise Henderso and Doris Lusk.

The work is set to bring Bathers, never- auctioned before to market in a move that reflects the growing interest for an artist previously dismissed by her peers due to the decorative nature of her figurative artworks. Kiwi women of the modernist era will continue to be ones to watch.

White’s Bathers painting is an exquisite example of the varnished watercolours of the mid-century period. She produced a technique that was due to the scarcity of materials after the war, but which she fully embraced and made part of her personal style.

Bathers is also significant for its depiction of White’s re-occurring themes: the female form and explorations of its sexuality, as well as flora and fauna, New Zealand’s coastal environments, all wrapped in a joyful sense of celebration.

All the symbols were often expressed through a vocabulary of art deco and garment design within imagined, almost theatrical settings. Modern discourse has also come to White as a role model of queer celebration, due to the fact that she forged very close friendships with women and a particularly strong bond with her life-long companion, the artist Ida Eise.

Bathers, like many of her works, depicts the joyful gathering of women in a certain world without men while hinting at a sexuality that was not commonly spoken about in her era.

White, born on November 2, 1903, in Auckland, navigated a complex duality throughout her life, juggling the roles of a dutiful daughter and a creative artist.

Her formative years at Epsom Girls’ Grammar School and later at Elam School of Art here she worked as a tutor were marked by academic excellence, artistic prowess and a somewhat reserved demeanour.

The term ‘decorative’ was and continues to be often used as a negative label. White’s refined style, combined with art deco motifs and distinct subject matter focusing on female subjects really set her apart from her contemporaries which was initially detrimental to her career.

However, people are now re-discovering her work, which means her investment level has been rising exponentially over the past few years.

White has helped re-define what is thought of as decorative and feminine within New Zealand art and is finally being seen as a serious artist within a formerly male-dominated context.

The significance of White’s work, reached its height in 2021, when Webb’s completely eclipsed the all-time price record for a work by White, selling her sumptuous and divinely feminine Design for $226,486, a result that far outstripped the previous record of $90,000.