A Nation in Drawing: An Homage to Footrot Flats
Written by Lana Lopesi
Aotearoa New Zealand – more commonly pronounced as ‘Nieuw Zilland’ – is a very diverse set of islands. The name New Zealand (then Nova Zeelandia) came from Dutch cartographers after Abel Tasman sighted the islands in the 1600s. In 1840, a few waves of ‘discovery’ later, Tangata Whenua and the British Crown signed two treaties; The Treaty of Waitangi and Te Tiriti o Waitangi, arguably forming the bicultural nation we know today.
Like the Treaty, there are multiple versions of our country’s national identity. A form of social identity, a national identity is a shared representation of the characteristics and behaviours that distinguish one nation from another. Depending on where or how we experience this fine nation we could identify with the whanau setting of the Marae (or urban Marae), the very Pacific South Auckland or the r rolling Southland. But perhaps one of our more distinctive national identities especially on an international stage is rural New Zealand, with its plush green farmland, and sheep.
This distinct kiwi identity was perhaps best exemplified by sheep farmer Wallace Wal Footrot and his dog called Dog. Created by Murray Ball, Wal and Dog featured in the 1986 animated film Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale, based on Murray’s comic strip also called Footrot Flats. The film was New Zealand’s first feature length animated film and was directed by Murray Ball, who also wrote it along with Tom Scott. It included the voices of some of New Zealand’s most revered comedians and actors including Peter Rowley, Rawiri Paratene, Billy T. James, and Michael Haigh. The music itself was created by kiwi icon Dave Dobbyn, with the New Zealand anthem ‘Slice of Heaven’ being one of the main songs from the film’s soundtrack.
Footrot Flats: The Dog’s Tale, was one of the first depictions of kiwi life in mainstream media, highlighting the power that artists and designers have in generating the imagery behind national identities. Its popularity was a testament to the country’s desire to see a slice of themselves on the big screen, grossing $2,500,000 on the box office it became one of the country’s most successful films of the 1980s.
I have to admit that being in my twenties, I am a generation shy of Footrot Flats. My closest connection to the kiwi classic is my parent’s wedding. In 1994 they got married at Footrot Flats Leisure Park also known as Footrot Flats Fun Park, I was two. The Footrot Flats themed amusement park which used to be in Te Atatu Peninsula, West Auckland, is another testament to the popularity and influence of Murray’s work.
Murray Ball, the man behind Footrot Flats and other cartoons has recently been farewelled by family and friends in his hometown of Gisborne. We spoke with some our country’s designers about the influence Murray and his work had on them.
“I met Murray on a number of occasions and once interviewed him on national identity topics. The quintessential country life cartoonist ribbing us pseudo-city types, Murray’s ability to capture the wit and wisdom of country life leaves us with a wonderful legacy. His visual anecdotes captured so well that unaffected, honest openness which is so special about New Zealanders. There is a kind of raw sophistication in New Zealand which many international visitors often appreciate more than we do it and it’s a special ingredient of who we are which Murray has helped us cherish.” Commented Brian Richards, the Founding Partner of the creative agency working at the intersection of design and strategy Richard Partners.
Continuing on with this sentiment, Owner and Design Director of Sauvage Design, Dave Sauvage told Design Assembly that: “All I can really say is that Murray’s brilliant cartoons epitomised the kiwi farmer and their communities, and struck a chord with most New Zealanders and Australians. In my opinion the personalities of the Footrot Flats characters are cemented in our minds alongside Fred Dagg, Billy T James and The Top Twins.”
“Footrot Flats was the first New Zealand weekly strip that I recall as a child.” Alan Deare of Area Design recalls, “I was interested in illustration and comics and would always read the strip every Saturday in the local paper and pour over Murray’s line work and graphic economy. I liked his hand lettering too. I collected the soft cover annuals and it was something my Dad and I would both read and have a chuckle over, probably for quite different reasons.
Sometimes the innuendo was over my head but I had a sense that the rural lifestyle was probably more, ‘authentic’ and of the land than the buttoned-up Presbyterian working class household I was growing up in, in suburbia. I knew this more so because my favourite uncle had a sheep farm with dogs and the whole bit near Hunterville, so I could contextualise Footrot Flats quite easily.
One visit to the farm, my Uncle had broken his arm and I drew ‘Dog’ on his cast in permanent marker. My Uncle loved this to pieces and was very effusive (he still talks about it!) and my mechanic father was also demonstrably proud at the great likeness and that his little, shy, arty son had done something for his uncle. I have no doubt it was shown around at the local and the golf club. These were the post war generation of Kiwi males that were pretty non-verbal, just like Wal, so I revelled in my new currency, however brief it was. My first public work brought much joy thanks to Mr Ball!”
Grant Alexander Design Director of Onfire Design summarises it well when he states: “The old-fashioned notion of man & dog having deep insights into each other’s worlds was captured so well. This kiwi farmer spent time alone with much space to contemplate his own thoughts as well as affairs of the world and who better to share them with than your dog. Murray invented a version of kiwi wisdom. A sort of vulnerable honesty that was wiser after a second thought.”
The legacy of Murray Ball is not lost on many members of the design community, including us here at Design Assembly. A testament to Murray’s foresight and ageless illustrations, Footrot Flats as a quintessential depiction of rural New Zealand, has truly stood the test of time.