Mongrel Mob Portraits – Exhibition Review

Mongrel Mob Portraits|Jono Rotman|City Art Gallery Wellington|14 March – 14 June

By Laura Duffy

The exhibition consists of large photographic prints of Mongrel Mob members in frames, occupying three rooms upstairs in the City Art Gallery Wellington.

When entering I received a shock at the intense energy coming from these portraits. As there is a wall separating the entrance and the staircase, I felt a little enclosed which added to the intensity of the photographs. The middle section, where the audience enters, holds massive, slick, and extremely confronting portraits of members of the Mongrel Mob in a traditional portrait style – naturally lighting and naturally posed. The room to the left holds a photograph of a 1970s photograph and a collage, both keeping consistent with the large clear photographic prints. The room to the right holds more large prints with one being a photo of a Mob family, a father and two boys.

Although I have never had any problem encounters with the Mongrel Mob, I come from the east coast where they are quite prominent. Every time had an encounter I’ve automatically avoided eye contact at all costs. It is an interesting, slightly terrifying experience being able to look into and study the face of a gang, which represents awful things. Looking at the tattoos on their faces I can’t help but feel like they’ve received a misguided wrong impression of what mana is.

Thinking that they are warriors, but warriors of what? It forces me to think about why would someone go so far as to permanently ink their skin with the name of a gang that stands for evil. Forcing The Mob to be at the forefront of every interaction in their lives. I found it interesting that the names of the men on the wall text, none of them used their family names, all replaced with “rogue” “notorious” or their city, removing their history. I assume these men have had awful lives to push them into such a drastic lifestyle, that the system has failed them. They are disconnected and outsiders of the community. For this reason I think they’re really interesting to bring into a public art gallery.

The exhibition has received negative attention in the media as one of the men photographed is on trial for murder, the media concentrated on the fact that the victims father thought it was disrespectful to show his photograph.

I’m torn because I don’t want to give these men any personal gratification in the fact that they’re obviously scaring me – in this sense, the entire exhibition pisses me off. I’m happy that the audience for this is Wellington rather than the East Coast because I think it would’ve read differently with more gang affiliations as well as victims of The Mob. In New Zealand we have gang problems, and we can’t look away forever, a discussion around why this is occurring and what can be done to help needs to be had. I think that this exhibition is a interesting starting point to that conversation.


Mongrel Mob Portraits – Jono Rotman

By Kane Laing

Every once in a while an artwork, artist or exhibition pops into the mainstream media’s view, usually because of some controversy or how expensive some piece of art is. The latest to pop up is Jono Rotman’s Mongrel Mob portraits. It is a stunning exhibition in The City Gallery with beautiful large-scale prints and a tight and effective edit, there are less than 15 images in the whole show. The high quality of the photographic portraits coupled with the human-size images is compelling and engaging, as is the photographer’s subject.

The subject of this exhibition is The Mongrel Mob, which is undoubtedly a recognizable part of New Zealand culture, and it is something that is surrounded by fear and hate. It is fascinating to see individuals from an exclusive part of our society presented to the public in this way, especially with the saturation of imagery worn on the clothes and skin of the gang members. But what is this exhibition achieving or trying to achieve? What is the real effect of staging such an exhibition?

A friend of mine who works at the city gallery had a member of the public ask “What do you think of these dropkicks?”, right off the bat the distaste towards these individuals is obvious and clear. In the news, controversy has sprung up around a particular individual who was on trial for murder, saying that it was disrespectful to the victims to glorify the man in such a way. In the exhibition catalogue book Dr Ranginui Walker writes “These portraits challenge us to ask: what are the hidden and untold stories that underlie them?”. In essence this is what the question the exhibition is attempting to evoke. Rotman is trying to photograph a maligned people in a respectful and neutral manner. I believe that the humanity of the subjects is what shines through in these portraits and it does offer an opportunity for reflection on what lies underneath our facades.

However, there is no denying the culture these individuals represent. A culture of crime, murder, teenage prostitution, drugs and violence. A world hidden to most people in New Zealand and a world still hidden in this exhibition. We know the second-hand stories about the Mongrel Mob, the stories we bring into the exhibition to relate to the images we see. Is that dangerous? Is this exhibition a fetishization of our gang culture for middle class white people (aka gallery-goers) to get their fix on? How many people from cultures such as the one in the exhibition’s subject go to art galleries? And is this exhibition inherently glorifying this gang culture? I don’t know.

What is underlying these questions and this exhibition is the fact that all behaviours and cultures are learned and are a product of environment. What is it that produced this culture? Is the violence and gang structure taken from maori tribe culture? Or are the swastikas, imagery, drug culture and violent behaviour learned from the western colonial culture? These questions and debates are really important for our society, and I wonder if this exhibition does enough to support it.

Installation view at Gow Langsford Gallery, Auckland. Photo: Tobias Kraus