Tony Whincup, photographer, 1944–2015

Tony Whincup, 'Dance rehearsal', Betio, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999. Chromogenic print, O.033021, Te Papa.

Tony Whincup, ‘Dance rehearsal’, Betio, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999. Chromogenic print, O.033021, Te Papa.

We learnt with sorrow and regret that photographer and educator Tony Whincup passed away recently. Tony photographed periodically in the remote islands of the Pacific nation of Kiribati over four decades, creating an extensive photographic documentation of its people and their culture. Te Papa purchased 47 of Tony’s photographs on Kiribati dance in 2005, and at the time of his death was making a much larger selection from Tony’s life’s work on Kiribati for the collection. The following tribute was written by Teresia Teaiwa, lecturer in the Pacific Studies programme at Victoria University of Wellington. She is of Kiribati and Banaban heritage and came to know Tony through their shared research interests and family connections to Kiribati.

It was with great sadness that I received the news that retired Massey University Professor Tony Whincup had passed away on 2 April 2015. I met Tony Whincup for the first time in 2004, but I had known of his work for much longer. I encountered his stunning photographic representations of the independent island republic of Kiribati for the first time in his book Nareau’s Nation: A Portrait of the Gilbert Islands (1979) when I visited my ancestral homeland in 1990. That book has been a prized item in my family’s library ever since; not only because it reflects images of a cultural heritage of which we are proud, but because it is an insightful portrait of a nation at a historical crossroads. Whincup always managed to capture both the enduring and the changing facets of Kiribati life in his photography. Stored in national archives, disseminated through magazines, tourist promotional material, and his many other books, Whincup’s photographic work has played a crucial role in reflecting a national culture and identity in which I-Kiribati can take pride.

Tony Whincup, 'Beating a box for dance accompaniment', Bairiki village, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1978. Gelatin silver print, O.033043, Te Papa.

Tony Whincup, ‘Beating a box for dance accompaniment’, Bairiki village, South Tarawa, Kiribati, 1978. Gelatin silver print, O.033043, Te Papa.

Based on an almost four decade-long relationship with Kiribati, the images that are now Whincup’s legacy emerged from an enviably informed position. Whincup and his wife and research partner Joan were both born in the United Kingdom and had lived previously in Uganda. They arrived in the British colony of the Gilbert and Ellice Islands (now Kiribati and Tuvalu) in 1976 where Tony headed the art department at King George V School. It was there at ‘KGV’ that Whincup came to mentor one of Kiribati’s few contemporary photographers and artists, Teweiariki Teaero, whose work later came to prominence through the University of the South Pacific, under the aegis of the late Epeli Hau‘ofa’s Oceania Centre for Arts and Culture. In 1984 the Whincups relocated to New Zealand where Tony was soon appointed as Head of Photography at the then Wellington Polytechnic. The Polytechnic later become Massey University, and he contributed significantly to the university’s reputation in Wellington as a creative and innovative hub, especially through his establishment of and leadership in the School of Visual and Material Culture. He also played an active role in supporting the Pasifika network of staff at Massey, as well as keeping a keen eye on Pasifika student welfare at Massey’s Wellington campus. Such a combination of professional drive and community-building is all too rare among academics, but was simply an extension of Whincup’s modus operandi as a researcher.

Akekeia! Traditional Dance in Kiribati

Akekeia! Traditional Dance in Kiribati

With their Montana Book Award-winning Akekeia! Traditional Dance in Kiribati (2001) the Whincups accomplished what anthropologists might describe as ‘thick description’. The photographs gave both a sense of the context and the detail of dance culture, and were further enhanced by a selection of insightful quotes sourced from the extensive research the Whincups have done in I-Kiribati communities, to provide a richly layered portrayal. I know of very few others working in the Pacific who are using the critical methodology that the Whincups have developed combining anthropology, art and documentary photography. This methodology was also evident in Tony’s exhibition at Pataka, Porirua in 2004 titled ‘Te Wa’. In an article on this exhibition which I co-wrote for the New York-based periodical Art Asia Pacific we noted:

Tony Whincup had designed the exhibition in the hope that viewers would form their first impressions with the still photographs, visit the moving images to get a better sense of the social and cultural context, and then revisit the stills with a deeper appreciation. But there was not a clear dichotomy between the still and moving images: it was not that the moving images had more information than the stills; or that the moving images spoke while the stills were silent. Mirroring and echoing the technique he used in his lush portrayal of Kiribati dance in Akekeia! …‘Te Wa’ was conscientiously multi-vocal.

This commitment to multi-vocality, or sharing authority with the people he was representing is what sheltered Whincup from the type of confrontation with anti-colonial or nationalist sentiment that scholars and artists alike have faced when working across cultures. I have not yet met an I-Kiribati person who expresses a dislike or resentment of Whincup’s work, which is testament to his integrity and the strong foundation of relationships on which his oeuvre is based.

Tony Whincup, 'Dance - te buki', Abatao village, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999. Gelatin silver print, O.033042, Te Papa.

Tony Whincup, ‘Dance – te buki’, Abatao village, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999. Gelatin silver print, O.033042, Te Papa.

In 2008 Whincup’s singular contribution to recording and representing Kiribati in images was recognized by the government of Kiribati when he was awarded the Kiribati Order of Merit. A year later, the President of Kiribati himself contributed a foreword to Whincup’s most recent book, Bwai ni Kiribati, and the publication was launched in Tarawa by the Vice-President of the country. Many researchers would envy the warmth with which both ordinary I-Kiribati and their national leaders have embraced Whincup. Whincup was certainly not content to exploit or recycle the material he had collected from over 30 years of association with Kiribati, but renewed and refreshed his archive with regular return visits and new fieldwork. His loss will be felt by so many—but none more so than Joan and the family. May they be consoled in the knowledge that Tony’s legacy is treasured. Ko na tekeraoi n am boborau, Ten Tony. Ko bati n rabwa n am bwai n tangira nakoira ni kabane. — Teresia Teaiwa

Tony Whincup, 'Dance: Te bino', Abatao village, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999. Chromogenic print, O.033045, Te Papa.

Tony Whincup, ‘Dance: Te bino’, Abatao village, North Tarawa, Kiribati, 1999. Chromogenic print, O.033045, Te Papa.

8 Responses

  1. Teweiariki Teaero

    I have countless fond memories of Tony. His passing is so sad. Apart from Joan and family, it is a very big loss to my beloved country of which he and Joan had become a part, never apart.

    When we first met in 1979 (I was then in Form 5 and had come from Taborio to sit my O Level Cambridge papers), he gave me the name “Tevi” because my name was too long. He said, “My name is Anthony but I prefer Tony.” I replied that it was fine with me. My abbreviate name that he gave me has stuck to the day so every time frineds and colleagues call me that, I am reminded of Tony.

    As Teresia pointed out in her article, he taught me at KGV/EBS. His immense influence on my thoughts and practice as an educator and artist has remained cemented to this day and will continue indefinitely. As fellow art educators in university, we corresponded on a number of matters of mutual interest and shared our work and ideas freely.

    I have met him a few times – the last time at his favourite place, Tabontekeke. Our photos were taken – this time both of us sporting grey beards and thinning hair. We gathered with our better halves to enjoy moimoto and to share ideas about his then forthcoming maiden professorial lecture.

    And so it came to me as an absolute shock when Joan emailed me of his very sad passing. I immediately wrote an article with Tibwere Bobo (editor of Newstar and former protege of Tony) saluting his work. I also planted a coconut tree in his memory in my place at Temwaiku at the exact spot where he and Joan came to visit me as I was watering my garden. I then took off to a number of outer islands where he had been and took a long contemplative leave from my own work on Tarawa. I tried very hard but did not (and still do not) have the words to express my feelings to Joan. My apologies Joan. Only now do I have some – but inadequate. On return, I decided to salute Tony by volunteering to Te Umwaniubong to conduct and finance an art workshop for unemployed youths. This culminated in an art exhibition during independence celebrations at Bairiki hosted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The works were based on Kiribati artifacts and ideas, things Tony would have loved. This was my personal salute to the master.

    Tony, rest in peace.

    Reply
  2. Teweiariki Teaero

    I have many many many fond memories of Tony. His passing is soooooooooo sad. Apart from Joan and family, it is a very big loss to my beloved country of which he and Joan had become a part, never apart.

    When we first met in 1979 (I was then in Form 5 and had come from Taborio to sit my O Level Cambridge papers), he gave me the name “Tevi” because my name was too long. He said, “My name is Anthony but I prefer Tony.” I replied that it was fine with me. My abbreviate name that he gave me has stuck to the day so every time frineds and colleagues call me that, I am reminded of Tony.

    As Teresia pointed out in her article, he taught me at KGV/EBS. His immense influence on my thoughts and practice as an educator and artist has remained cemented to this day and will continue indefinitely. As fellow art educators in university, we corresponded on a number of matters of mutual interest and shared our work and ideas freely.

    I have met him a few times – the last time at his favourite place, Tabontekeke. Our photos were taken – this time both of us sporting grey beards and thinning hair. We gathered with our better halves to enjoy moimoto and to share ideas about his then forthcoming maiden professorial lecture.

    And so it came to me as an absolute shock when Joan emailed me of his very sad passing. I immediately wrote an article with Tibwere Bobo (editor of Newstar and former protege of Tony) saluting his work. I also planted a coconut tree in his memory in my place at Temwaiku at the exact spot where he and Joan came to visit me as I was watering my garden. I then took off to a number of outer islands where he had been and took a long contemplative leave from my own work on Tarawa. I tried very hard but did not (and still do not) have the words to express my feelings to Joan. My apologies Joan. Only now do I have some – but inadequate. On return, I decided to salute Tony by volunteering to Te Umwaniubong to conduct and finance an art workshop for unemployed youths. This culminated in an art exhibition during independence celebrations at Bairiki hosted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The works were based on Kiribati artifacts and ideas, things Tony would have loved. This was my personal salute to the master.

    Tony, rest in peace.

    Reply
  3. Rob Kaiwai and Miyako

    So sad to hear about Tony, great great guy. You will be missed by Miyako and I.

    Rob Kaiwai

    Former NZ High Commissioner to Kiribati and a mate.

    Reply
  4. Ana Montgomery-Neutze

    This is absolutely devastating news. I accidentally stumbled across this article just now as I Googled Tony to try and find his contact details – I had intended to email him this week. I am in total shock. My thoughts go out to you Joan, and your whānau.

    I am an ex-student of Tony’s (I graduated from the BDes programme at Massey in 2004). Tony is one tutor I have never forgotten – his teaching style and photographic work made a significant impact on me. He was so warm, kind and giving of himself and so passionate about the work he was involved in, documenting the people of Kiribati.

    As a budding documentary photographer, and also as a Māori who is intent on documenting my own people, for my own people (marae, iwi, hapū, kaumātua), I was truly inspired by Tony’s work. I was able to see something of myself in what he was doing. Because of his passion, and his articulation of why the work he was doing was so important for the Kiribati people, I was able to see the value in pursuing the things that I was truly passionate about as a photographer.

    These are some of the things I had intended to write in my email to him this week.

    I am gutted that I wasn’t able to tell him before he passed, and instead find myself writing them on a webpage but I felt I had to do something to honor his memory and acknowledge the impact he had on my life.

    All my love and thoughts are with your family and close friends at this time. You will be sorely missed by all who knew you.

    E kore rawa e mutu ngā mihi aroha ki a koe e te Rangatira. Moe mai i tōu moenga roa.

    Ana Montgomery-Neutze

    Reply
  5. steve iwanski

    I had the pleasure of knowing Toni when I was in Kiribati, from ’79 until Toni left for NZ. He was an accomplished guitarist, and Joan played piano. I played sax and we would play music together occationally.

    He was a gift that will be missed.

    Steve Iwanski
    Connecticut, US

    Reply
    • Joan

      Thank you Steve. It’s nice to know you still remember that and yes, he is missed! He still played guitar, usually at bedtime, but mostly played bass in jazz bands since leaving Kiribati. Joan

  6. Roreti Eritai

    Tony Whincup will always be remembered by I-Kiribati…ko bati n raba Teresia for an eloquently written tribute.

    Reply
    • Joan

      Ao i rangi ni karabwa ngkami I-Kiribati n ami aakoi nakoira. We always felt very privileged to be accepted in the villages and homes we visited all over Kiribati and Tony became more and more passionate over the years about supporting and preserving as best he could the unique culture of Kiribati that he experienced and loved so much. I’m sure his spirit is there. Joan

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