Guy Ngan


NameGuy Ngan (he/him)
Also known as顏國鍇
Country of BirthAotearoa
Place of ResidenceKoraunui Stokes Valley, Pōneke Wellington
EthnicitiesChinese (Cantonese)
ArtformVisual arts
Decades Active1950s, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, 2000s, 2010s


Guy Ngan was an artist and gallery director who was among the first Asian artists active in the formal visual arts scene in Aotearoa New Zealand. Steeped in a modernist tradition, he approached all aspects of life as potential avenues for art-making — producing paintings, drawings, screenprints, furniture, sculpture, and architectural designs. He is remembered for his prolific output, which included a large number of artworks created for public spaces around New Zealand. He worked with a variety of materials — wood, bronze, aluminium, stainless steel, paints — producing artworks that ranged from refined modernist forms to almost psychedelic paintings that glowed with energy. Ngan was also the Director of the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts from 1976 to 1986.

Ngan was a second-generation Cantonese New Zealander. His parents were from Guangzhou, and they returned there with Ngan and his brother in 1927, so he spent his early childhood in China before returning to Wellington in 1938 after the Japanese invasion. Ngan’s artistic inclinations were encouraged from a young age, and at the age of 14, he began to work as a woodcarver and furniture maker. By 17, he was attending night school at Wellington Technical College (which would later become the Wellington Polytechnic before becoming part of Massey University). One of his teachers there, woodcarver and sculptor Alexander Fraser, encouraged Ngan in his move to London in 1951, where he studied art at Goldsmiths College and the Royal College of Art.

After graduating in 1954, Ngan spent time in Rome, the UK, Scandinavia and North America. He returned to New Zealand in 1956 to take up a job at the Ministry of Works in the Architectural Division at the invitation of Government Architect Gordon Wilson. He continued to work in architecture and building design for the next 14 years, including a decade at the firm Stephenson and Turner. These experiences, particularly under the leadership of Wilson, entrenched Ngan’s belief that artists had an important contribution to make to public spaces, through commissions and involvement in architectural projects.

In 1970 Ngan began to work full-time on his art and design practice, and he exhibited at galleries around the country over the next decade. He also created over 40 artworks for public sites and corporate buildings, including murals, sculptures, and woodcarvings in New Zealand and overseas. Te Papa curator Athol McCredie writes, “With his reputation and contacts, he established himself as the ‘go-to man’ for commissions for both public and commercial buildings through to the 1980s.” Many of these works can be seen in their original sites today, including a 9m high bronze sculpture on an exterior wall of the Reserve Bank Te Pūtea Matua (1972) and Forest in the sun (1976), a large, vibrant wall-hanging he designed for fibre artist Joan Calvert for the New Zealand Parliament’s Beehive building. His wife, Jean Ngan, and Lady Dorothea Turner, both weavers, collaborated with Calvert to knot the six 2.4m square panels. Designed to evoke the impression of sunlight filtering through a canopy of treetops, the work was reinstalled in its original location in the Beehive’s foyer in 2023.

Guy Ngan described himself as Pacific Chinese. He was interested in migration theories that connected China and the Pacific, and this was reflected in works such as his series of “tiki hands” paintings — which sought to draw out a connection between the three-fingered form found in Māori whakairo (carving) and bird claws, “potentially pointing to the reliance of early navigators on sea birds for wayfaring.” Working in a largely modernist mode, Ngan, like contemporaries such as Gordon Walters, sometimes appropriated and abstracted motifs from Māori culture. His interest lay in the decorative use of design to express cultural ideas and an admiration and understanding of woodcarving techniques for decorative and practical purposes. Writing about these works in 2006, curator Heather Galbraith acknowledged that this sampling for his own purposes “predate[s] the heated debates of the 1980s-90s about cross-cultural appropriation”, while also contextualising these works within Ngan’s desire to “pay homage to the early Pacific people”.

Ngan lived with his family in Koraunui Stokes Valley, in a house that he designed and built, beginning work on it in 1957 when he became engaged to Jean Wong. He continued to add to the house throughout this life and Sebastian Clarke, writing about the house in 2019, described it as “an ideal space for Ngan to exhibit his philosophies of habitation—a domestic endeavour that would become the most sustained artistic project of his lifetime”.

After several decades of disinterest from public galleries, Ngan began to receive more critical attention later in life, particularly through the exhibition Journey: Aluminium Panel, Tiki Hands, and Anchor Stones at City Gallery Wellington in 2006, which he worked on with curator Heather Galbraith. After Ngan’s death in 2017, an exhibition at The Dowse Art Museum came to fruition with the cooperation of his wife, Jean, and daughter, Liz. The exhibition, Habitation, toured to Dunedin Public Art Gallery, and was complemented by an exhibition curated by Artspace Aotearoa, Guy Ngan: Either possible or necessary. Alongside Heather Galbraith’s essay in the catalogue for Journey (2006), the book published to accompany Habitation awards Ngan’s work serious consideration and, as Dowse Director Karl Chitham wrote, seeks to “rectify in some small way this lack of art historical recognition.”


Key works / presentations

2019 — Guy Ngan: Habitation (touring exhibition and book) and Guy Ngan: Either Possible or Necessary, co-presented by The Dowse Art Museum and Artspace Aotearoa, Te Awakairangi ki Tai and Tāmaki Makaurau

2006 — Guy Ngan Journey: Aluminium Panel, Tiki Hands, and Anchor Stones, City Gallery Wellington, Pōneke

1979 — The Hastings Cultural Centre, Heretaunga

1979 — The Southland Museum and Art Gallery, Waihōpai

1976 — New Vision Gallery, Tāmaki Makaurau

1974 — Antipodes Gallery, Pōneke

1972 — The Dowse Art Museum, Te Awakairangi ki Tai

Key awards

2012 — Inducted into the Massey University Creative Arts Toi Rauwhārangi Hall of Fame

1983 — Officer of the Order of the British Empire, for services to the arts

Related entries

Last updated: 5 March 2024 Suggest an Edit


Painting of a young, dark-haired man in glasses in front of a doorway and carved Classical sculpture

Guy Ngan, Self portrait, 1951

Courtesy of the Ngan family

A smiling couple dressed formally stand arm-in-arm in front of an abstract painting

Guy and Jean Ngan at the National Bank Art Mural Award in front of Habitation, 1968

Courtesy of the Ngan family

Black and white photo taken with a fish-eye lens showing bamboo and a wooden screen in front of a car

The Ngan house with cedar chain, 1970s

Courtesy of the Ngan family

Grey card cover with a cutout in the centre showing a red and black diamond design, above Guy Ngan's name

Guy Ngan, Cover of an an A5 folder for reproduction artworks, which contained a set of paintings and screenprints, which he gifted to visitors or potential clients like a calling card, 1980s

Courtesy of the Ngan family

Collage of phtographs of collected items such as vases and sculputres in Guy Ngan's house

Guy Ngan, Collection of things, collage, 1989

Courtesy of the Ngan family

Coloured drawing of Buddha seated in lotus position in front of kōwhai plants

Guy Ngan, Buddha in Kiwiland, colourised drawing originally made for the Bodhinyanarama Monastery in Stokes Valley and later reproduced in greeting card form, 1994

Courtesy of the Ngan family

Collage of carved scuptures with written text outlining the artist's inspiration

Guy Ngan, woodcarving blurb, 2003

Courtesy of the Ngan family

Sculptures and plants sit underneath an awning at the entrance to a wooden house

Guy Ngan, house entrance, 2012

Courtesy of the Ngan family

Framed pictures hung close together and surrounded by other collected objects

Stairway filled with collected artworks and objects in the Ngan home, 2018

Courtesy of the Ngan family

Blurb about the re-hanging of the tapestry Forest in the Sun at the Beehive, 2023

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