Silent witness: the outsider art of Susan Te Kahurangi King

By Paula Cocozza

She stopped speaking aged four, and has since communicated only through her acutely detailed drawings. As her first UK exhibition opens, her sister and curator reveal an extraordinary life – and talent

Upstairs at the Marlborough Contemporary, a woman bows over a pad of headed notepaper. She doesn't look up when the door opens. She picks a fluorescent highlighter from a heap in her lap and with the broad side of the nib blocks out a quad of blue or green – close, companionable colours. Then she picks up another pen and moves on to a new quad. She fills the page methodically, a thin white rim around each swatch. She doesn't look up, and she doesn't stop until the paper is complete.

Susan Te Kahurangi King is 66 and she has been drawing since she was a young child. For decades the marks that streamed out of her pen have been her prime means of expression, because at around the age of four, King stopped speaking. By the age of nine she had stripped her verbal communication down to an occasional word. At 10, her grandparents were discussing a funeral they had been to, and Susan broke her silence to say: “Dead. Dead. Dead.” It is the last thing anyone remembers her saying.

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