Monday, November 15, 2010

Make Do. Get By. Live Life

The Vigneron at the Corban Estate Art Centre Gallery - December 5th 2010.
Writing by Kyla Mackenzie.

In the former living room of the Corban family homestead, built in 1923, the 100 year life of Najib Corban is celebrated in the exhibition The Vigneron. Son of pioneering winemaker Assid Abraham Corban and Najibie Corban, this humble, hard working family-man is remembered through images, words, and wine. Fittingly, the ArtSpeak for this exhibition took place in the estate's cellar, built in 1907 by Najib's father. His son Brian, grandson Ben Corban and Peter Gough from Ngatarawa wine (owned by Brian and Alwyn Corban) spoke before a gathering of largely friends and family.

Born in 1909, Najib was the youngest of four older brothers and sisters, a large family typical to this era in New Zealand. He left school at age 12, a norm in those days, to work at Corban Winery Estate set up by Assid and Najibie, his enterprising and hardworking parents from Lebanon. Large families and their labour resources enabled the “human engineering”, as Brian Corban puts it, required for surviving and building a future. Najib's failing eyesight from the age of 9 was not to prevent him from making a full contribution to the family business.

Najib worked a long, often hard but productive life as vigneron, or vine grower. A man who worked much of his life using the simplest of make-shift tools, he also pioneered other vineyards in Henderson Valley, Whenuapai, Kumeu, Taupaki and Gisborne. In his 90s he was still working hard cultivating his and his family's properties. Principled and persevering, in the words of his son Brian Corban, Najib was “the greatest man that I ever knew”.

As Najib was reaching his 100th year, the decision to recognize his life and philosophy was developed into an understated but compelling tribute by design studio Alt Group. Ben Corban, grandson to Najib and managing director of this award-winning design company, was inspired by the man and grandfather who instilled such a strong work ethic in his children and their children. The quality of the design has won them numerous awards, including Gold and Silver Lions at the Cannes Lion Awards in France and a Pinnacle Award at the AGDA awards in Australia this year.

The book entitled The Vigneron is central to the project. Selected images and text from it are reformulated into an arrangement on and against the walls of the gallery. Beginning with its simple uncoated card packet, the unbound, hand-stitched book, was designed to have a low-key, “hand-made feel” both for his blind grandfather to touch and to reflect a life of simple means. The font on front and back covers is hand-painted, raised, and glossy. Gold surfaces on pages inside also provide textural contrasts.

The exhibition includes contextual historic images of the early site and dwellings. The main gallery showcases images of Najib’s handmade and repaired tools, photographed by Alistair Guthrie. Ben recalls of the worn pitchfork featured in the tribute book, “I spent endless summers on the end of those pitchforks”. The tools, humble items in themselves, vividly illustrate the do-it-yourself, waste-not-want-not values of the times and of the man himself. Some are cobbled together with wire or bound with rags. Others are modified, reshaped and fused with other items to form new uses. Though an historical tribute, isolated on the page, they also become iconic and timeless. They illustrate the pithy maxims towards the end of the book: Make Do and Get By. Live Life is followed by Full Stop, which marks the end of the story and a long and full life.

Diminishing orbs of gold on pages of black suggest the disappearing sight of Najib, who worked on the estate until he was in his 70s. Whilst flicking through the pages from back to front, or viewing them on the wall, however, the gold spheres also suggest the growth cycle of the grape.

We are given particular entry into the personality and philosophy of this man through a selection of his engaging poetry which is sometimes droll and often contemplative. They come from his published collection, Footprints in the Sand, printed in 1983.

The Other Side:

Two sides to an argument,
Two sides to a coin,
Two sides to anything,
That we try to join,
Two sides to a person,
Two sides to reveal,
But often there's one side,
That we like to conceal.
Look in a mirror.
What do we see?
Just the exterior image,
Of you or me.

True Story

I bet on a horse,
He ran in a race,
I lost all my money,
He couldn't make the pace.

His son Brian notes him as being a “humble man”, and a “tough task-maker”. A short, candid poem describing the dark, compressed sensations of depression points to further complexity. A regular church goer of St Michael's Church nearby (and which is now on the estate), Najib's faith in God is revealed through his open wonder at nature and gratitude for life's gifts: family, marriage, and the strength to endure hardship.

The fact that Najib left school at 12 like many children of pioneering families, and had impaired sight, may seem surprising in view of his literacy skills. Ben relates that his grandfather “always had a poem on the boil” and recalls him as loving language and story-telling. His love of poetry also reflects the times. Much more so than now, the writing and reciting of poetry was once a comfort as well as private and social entertainment.

Najib would note his verses in chalk on the blackboard and family members would transcribe them to paper. His grandson recalls the importance of momentum, and upon interruptions by phone, being asked; “Ben, Ben, would you make of note of this for me, please”.

The blackboard and chalk then, was emblazoned on the memory of Ben Corban. It was given meaningful form on 100 special edition magnums of red wine in honour of his grandfather and the 100th year he reached. (Najib died 2 months before his birthday in 2009). The bottles, coated in blackboard paint and editioned in chalk, greet the viewer as they enter the exhibition space. The number 100 provided a governing principle. It is the number of pages in the book,
The Vigneron. ($100 is also its price.)

However, the project also took on timely universal values in the face of recession with its messages of resilience, perseverance and gratitude. The context of the bleak economic environment of 2009, meant this project took on added personal meaning for Alt Group. The man who extolled the virtues of making do, getting by and the pride to be gained through hard work, experienced, as Ben says, “Depressions, recessions, boom-times and bust-times”. The sayings in the book became potent “studio mantras” at work.

The recession continues. The quiet story they present of Najib Corban and his inspiring approach to life, therefore, hits just the right note.

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