Skaters of NZ roller derby photography exhibition opens
16 October 2019
Skateface - Skaters of NZ roller derby photography exhibition opens in Auckland
Following on from Philippa O’Brien’s 2018 book, Skateface, her art photography exhibition has opened at Grey Gallery. Compelled by the vibrant visual culture, intense full-contact sport and a cult underground following O’Brien photographed and interviewed skaters from around the country for five years. She “loved the inclusiveness, the we-don’t-give-a-toss-what-you-think-of-how-we-look attitude and the way the audience brought both children and elderly to it”.
Lady Trample, an international derby superstar, originally from Auckland now residing in Denver, Colorado credits derby with being “the most accepting sport I know of, welcoming males, females, transgender, queer - however you identify, there’s a place for you. It’s probably the most relevant sport, in terms of the way the world is moving forward, because of the way it allows you to express yourself”. Accordingly, Skateface weighs in on representation and challenges societal perceptions of gender behaviour.
O’Brien has over two decades of costume experience, working in television and on big budget films. In 2013 she also obtained a Diploma in Photography with Distinction from Massey University Fine Arts School in Wellington. Skateface and her previous photographic works are infused with her long fascination with costume and textiles and are underpinned by her academic writing which has examined the effect of clothing on impression formation.
As in her ongoing series on Rodeo, the subjects in Skateface have removed themselves from the norm and accorded themselves a moment in time where they can control their destiny. “They dress up, armour up, and redefine themselves, yet in that same space peel back their emotional shielding and reveal more of themselves through play, physical exertion, putting their bodies on the line and through drama” says O’Brien. “Skateface provides a portal into lives that have been reshaped and enhanced by derby. Roller derby is a place where people thrive” she says and many players have credited it with helping them to deal with common issues, such as body-identity and depression.
The exhibition is part of the Artweek Auckland Festival and has been timed to coincide with the Rugby World Cup. O’Brien aligns the series with the worldwide push for women to receive the recognition they deserve in sport. Despite the difficulty of self-publishing the book, she was driven to bring attention to this lesser known sport believing “too many are overlooked in rugby dominated New Zealand”. Skanda Lass, from Richter City Roller Derby in Wellington says O’Brien’s work is “special because it shows we are athletes, playing the fastest growing women’s sport in the world. It pays tribute to the people who established roller derby as a sport, both in Aotearoa and throughout the world. It shows New Zealand’s huge contribution to the sport internationally”. Skateface has captured a critical time in the evolution of roller derby in New Zealand. As O’Brien documented between 2011 and 2016, she was privy to the transition of roller derby from its theatrical roots to a legitimate sport. New Zealand was the first country outside the USA to pick up roller derby.
The photographs reflect the diversity of the skaters who play this counter-culture sport and rather than representing roller derby as aggressive and combative, as is typical, O’Brien captures the skaters in quiet, reflective moments. The result is an introspective look behind the colourful uniforms, helmets and warpaint, at what really makes this sport tick. Skateface is a street photography series not an in situ documentary project. O’Brien scoured the country for locations appropriate to stage her portraits and shot on a medium-format Hasselblad film camera. Professor Ann Noble, one of New Zealand’s most renowned and esteemed contemporary photographers encouraged O’ Brien to complete this project, saying that “for a cliched subject matter, I’d managed to shoot it in a unique way – that there was something really powerful about the women’s legs”. Princess Slayer, founding member of Richter City Roller Derby, Wellington says O’Brien’s work is “something to celebrate: people being comfortable with their bodies, being able to achieve things with their bodies; people with different body types; people supporting each other and pushing out of their comfort zone to achieve things they never thought was possible”.
Hi-res imagery and photo credits available here: Dropbox