Keep, sees Michael Shepherd taking a new direction with medium in his use of sand, inert polymers, acrylic and an orbital sander. In relation to subject matter however, the show continues with Shepherd’s interest in New Zealand history while also engaging with a current political controversy: the two binding referendums on the future of the country’s flag.
The pending flag referendum has been heralded by some political commentators as a “rebranding exercise,” which raises questions around exactly what it is that we are trying to rebrand. Many more have lambasted the flag as a “colonial relic,” but it is worth reflecting on the point that this is perhaps something to be embraced since New Zealand is, in many ways, just that – a “colonial relic.” Indeed, the country is legally, ethically, philosophically and morally connected to the loose power block of the Commonwealth, which is an historic alliance, that has typically served us well. Furthermore, our national image and rhetoric is redolent with vestiges of colonialism that are yet to undergo a rebranding. For example, our National Anthem honours the British Monarchy, as does our currency, we follow Westminster Law, and vast swathes of the population proudly guard their genealogical ties to the United Kingdom.
It is these questions, opinions and debates that have given risen to Shepherd’s latest exhibition. Delving into the murky depths of New Zealand’s military, maritime, and colonial past, Shepherd has investigated the origins, emblems, and uses of the national flag. As a form readily associated with flags and the beach of childhood memories, the universal sandcastle is well served as the vehicle upon which to showcase some of the historic transmutations and future possibilities of the New Zealand flag. The compositional centrality of the sandcastles is reflected in the title of the show, and each of the 14 works in the exhibition is branded with the word “keep,” harking back to one of the more historic uses of the word as a noun designating “the innermost and strongest structure or central tower of a medieval castle.” It also extends to the medium of the works, for each of them is constructed using a mixture of white and iron sand that people sent Shepherd from all over New Zealand. After a significant period of experimentation, the artist has arrived at a unique process whereby the sand dictates the rise and fall of the castes with the flags being meticulously added at a later date.
Throughout the suite of paintings, Shepherd details many of the flags that have come and gone throughout New Zealand’s history. In OHMS (Naval Gaze), for instance, five different naval flags that were flown throughout the nineteenth century are seen fluttering across the composition. Indeed, New Zealand’s present flag has a slightly shadowy history, being first drawn in 1833 by the Englishman Henry Williams during his time with the Church Missionary Society in Northland. By 1869 it was being used as a naval ensign, and, with only slight adjustments being made in 1902,
 “keep, n.” Oxford English Dictionary Online, December 2015.