Career retrospective: Elizabeth Rankin

25 July 2016
Elizabeth Rankin with postgraduate students in Museums and Cultural Heritage
Elizabeth's farewell gift from her postgraduate students in Museums and Cultural Heritage included the one thing that she didn't have: a picture of herself.

Elizabeth Rankin is retiring this month, after 18 years as Professor of Art History at the University of Auckland.

She took up her professorship here in 1998, and was the Head of Art History for three three-year terms, chaired the first exhibitions committee for the newly-established Gus Fisher Gallery, and was the inaugural coordinator of our postgraduate programme in Museums and Cultural Heritage.

Elizabeth has especially enjoyed her time teaching.

“There is no satisfaction quite like that of watching students fulfil their potential. I shall miss it sorely.”

“Art History is such a great subject to teach.”

She is quick to point out the irony in the difficulties that she had finding an image of herself to accompany this article: “images fill my life, but never of myself”.

Elizabeth has been teaching Art History since 1963, and explains that the discipline has benefited hugely from interdisciplinary interactions and been enriched by new theoretical approaches over the decades.

“The interdisciplinary turn has made Art History a richer discipline.”

She always wanted to teach, and explains that she was attracted to the combination of historical detective work and interpretation that Art History offered as a discipline.

“Art History provides a very good basis for critical thinking, and it also develops visual literacy — a neglected skill.”

“It’s ironic that we’re surrounded by images, but most people don’t have the ability to deconstruct them. The skilful deployment of imagery in advertising and politics slides under the radar for a lot of people.”

Elizabeth began her career as a Graduate Assistant and part-time Lecturer in the Department of Fine Arts at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg in 1963, and became the first Professor of Art History at the University in 1982, after it established a Department of Art History.

She was also the first woman Dean in the Faculty of Arts at Witwatersrand, during the final years of apartheid — a challenging time of transition.

Elizabeth describes Witwatersrand as a very liberal university, which enrolled many black students. She says that it was “challenging learning to teach in such an unequal environment”.

She explains that the inequalities in New Zealand tertiary education aren’t as pronounced as in South Africa, but they still keep her on her toes.

“There is a real satisfaction helping students whose potential hasn’t yet been realised.”

Elizabeth will continue to supervise doctoral students during her retirement, and is still busy with two projects that she plans to continue. One is an investigation into the Voortrekker Monument in Pretoria, and its historical frieze that visualised the story of the nineteenth-century 'Great Trek' to the hinterland of South Africa, and how it came to embody the foundation myths and ideology of Afrikanerdom, working with Professor Rolf Schneider of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München. The second looks at the paintings of Michael Shepherd that explore and depict New Zealand history.

She has also been asked to act as a mentor for 12 early-career academics in South Africa looking to get into publishing their work.

Elizabeth has relished learning about New Zealand art through her work, and has done much writing on Marian Maguire, who creates lithographs and etchings that combine imagery from Greek vase painting with New Zealand colonial history.

She was part of the team that took Marian to Munich last year to display her work amongst ancient Greek vases at the Staatliche Antikensammlungen.

Her overriding interest during her research career has been trying to document things that have been neglected: writing histories of black artists in South Africa, that weren’t yet recorded, and engaging with sculpture and print making.

“Everybody’s concept of art is painting.”

She has also done a lot of work on political art that tells or retells history or carries some sort of political message, such as New Zealand artist Fiona Pardington’s photographs of more than fifty casts of Māori, Pacific and European heads from the eighteenth century, including casts of her Ngāi Tahu ancestors, held in the Musée de l’Homme (Musée Naturelle), Paris.

Alongside her love for teaching, Elizabeth has enjoyed being able to continue to learn throughout her academic career.

“I plan to go on being a student forever.”

Find out more about Professor Elizabeth Rankin