Remembering New Zealand artist Guy Ngan (1926-2017)

Athol McCredie, Curator of Photography, pays tribute to artist Guy Ngan, whose works adorn buildings and public spaces around the country.

We note with regret that New Zealand artist Guy Ngan passed away at age 91 on Monday 26 June.

Ngan is an artist whose work you probably know, even though if you are not familiar with his name, especially if you were around between the 1960s and 1980s. His sculptures and murals have adorned many public spaces. They include Geometric growth, installed in front of the civic administration building in Wellington in 1974. It was removed and put into storage when the present Civic Square was developed, but Ngan was pleased when it was later refurbished and placed in its current location in Wakefield St opposite the Amora Hotel in 2006.

Outdoor sculpture of cubes and poles

Guy Ngan. Geometric growth, 1974, Wakefield St. Photograph by Athol McCredie. Te Papa

Another work in Wellington is the mural on the side of the Government Print building (now Archives New Zealand) visible from Thorndon Quay.

Mural of geometric shapes on the side of a building

Guy Ngan. Government Print mural, 1957, Thorndon Quay. Photograph by Athol McCredie. Te Papa

And there is the 1972 bronze sculpture on a wall outside the Reserve Bank on The Terrace. Including a stylised Māori taiaha top and bottom, it was intended to represent the ‘solidity and strength of New Zealand’s central bank’.

Mural at Reserve Bank

Guy Ngan. Reserve Bank mural, 1972, The Terrace. Photograph by Athol McCredie. Te Papa

No longer visible in its original location, but still preserved, is Ngan’s 1976 Forest in the sun work made with Joan Calvert for the opening of ‘The Beehive’ at Parliament Buildings. Comprising six woven panels, it suggests a view looking up from the forest floor towards the light, with rays of sunlight filtering down from the forest canopy. Circular gaps exposed the Carrara marble of the wall behind. The weaving was taken down when the building was refurbished, and gifted by the government to Te Papa in 2003.

In Auckland, one of Ngan’s most notable sculptures was installed in the public space within the Newton Post Office in Karangahape Rd in 1973. This is another that has fallen victim to modernisation and reuse but which is also now cared for in a public collection – that of the Auckland Art Gallery, Toi o Tāmaki. Aucklanders may also be familiar with the 1956 frieze that still sits atop the Bledisloe State Building near Aotea Square. It bears a family resemblance to the Government Print façade pictured above.

Guy Ngan was born in Wellington in 1926 to Chinese parents and lived in China from age two to twelve. He attended night classes at Wellington Technical College School of Design, and then went to London in 1951 to study at Goldsmiths College followed by the Royal College of Art. He returned to New Zealand to work in the Architectural Division of the Ministry of Works from 1956 to 1960, and then in the architectural practice of Stephenson and Turner to 1970, in each case employed to include sculptural work within new buildings, both his own and that of other artists. With his reputation and contacts he established himself as the ‘go-to man’ for commissions for both public and commercial buildings through to the 1980s. Following his resignation from Stephenson and Turner, Ngan began making work for himself – creating paintings, prints and small sculptures.

Two of the other works in Te Papa’s collection date from this period: Waoku no. 2 from 1973 that was inspired by the forest of Egmont National Park, where he took his family on holidays and which bears some resemblance to Forest in the sun; and Kahikatea carving no.5.

Guy Ngan. Waoku No.2, 1973. Oil on board. Te Papa (2004-0001-1).

Guy Ngan. Waoku No.2, 1973. Oil on board. Te Papa (2004-0001-1).

Guy Ngan. Kahikatea carving no.5, 1976. Wood on wood base. Te Papa (1976-0030-2)

Guy Ngan. Kahikatea carving no.5, 1976. Wood on wood base. Te Papa (1976-0030-2)

Ngan made many contributions to the arts as an administrator. From 1976 to 1986 he was director of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. He was on the council of the New Zealand Industrial Design Council, and the National Art Gallery (to later be merged into Te Papa), and vice president of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts. He was awarded an OBE in 1983 and inducted into the Massey University College of Creative Arts Toi Rauwharangi Hall of Fame.

Black and white photograph of Guy Ngan working on a sculpture

Brian Brake. Guy Ngan, c. 1980. 35mm negative. Te Papa (E.005782)

Guy Ngan’s work was often inspired by the history of early settlement in the Pacific, and explored his own place and identity in this part of the world. He described himself as Pacific Chinese, reflecting the theory that Polynesians, including Maori, originally came from Asia, particularly Taiwan. His work featured the three fingered ‘tiki hand’, as he called it, that suggested to him the claws of sea birds that the early migrations followed. The large anchor stones with holes for a rope that Maori used were another motif that inspired a body of work. And some of his cubic bronze sculptures suggest his Chinese ancestry in their resemblance to the faces of Chinese ‘chops’ used for stamping a signature.

Ngan was still making work into his 80s. He had created the well-known sculpture on the round-about that marks the entrance to his home suburb of Stokes Valley in the 1976, and in 2011 he was commissioned to produce another for the shopping mall there too.

Round-about featuring a sign saying Stokes Valley and a white sculpture of shapes

Guy Ngan sculpture, 1976, entrance to Stokes Valley, Hutt City. Wikimedia Commons

For more about Guy Ngan see:

  • Galbraith, Heather. Guy Ngan: Journey. Wellington: City Gallery Wellington, 2006.
  • Cape, Peter. Please touch: A survey of the three-dimensional arts in New Zealand. Auckland: Collins, 1980.
  • Blumhardt, Doreen and Brian Brake. Craft New Zealand: The art of the craftsman. Wellington: AH and AW Reed, 1981.
  • Ngan, Guy. Guy Ngan: Scrapbook number one. Auckland: Ron Sang, 2010

2 Responses

  1. Helen whiteford

    I spent the first seventeen years of my life living at 19 Raukawa Road, next door to an empty section owned by Guy Ngan. We had great fun building roads and huts on his land,. My father spoke of him fondly but I do not remember ever meeting him. When I discovered he had finally built there and spent fifty years living there I always wanted to go and say hullo and thankyou for providing such a wonderful playground. Sadly I never managed to find the time or transport to do this despite promising myself to do so. Now I learn that he has died and I have missed the opportunity of meeting him. I wonder if any of his family will continue to live there so I can keep my dream of knocking on that door still going, hopefully with my six year old granddaughter. So many times so close and then the nance has gone.

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  2. Mark Stocker

    I met Guy Ngan in the course of my research on Francis Shurrock. A real gentleman, and an excellent craftsman. He was a student of the underrated sculptor Alex Fraser, who had studied at the Royal College of Art as well. It wouldn’t surprise me if Guy visited Fraser’s mentor, the elderly Sir William Goscombe John (1860-1952), sculptor of the Titanic memorial, and a major figure in the Victorian New Sculpture. Guy would have appreciated this historical inheritance, he was never dogmatically modernist, even if he worked very proficiently in that idiom.

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