Am I Scared
Colin McCahon


Colin McCahon
Am I Scared
Production date:
Accession No:
730 x 1105mm
Acrylic on steinbach paper

Collection Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth. Purchased from Monica Brewster Bequest with the assistance of the Queen Elizabeth II Arts Council of New Zealand in 1977.

Am I Scared is one of Colin McCahon’s signature paintings. Deceptively simple in appearance, it was painted in response to a photograph that McCahon saw of two young Māori men apprehensively entering the unfamiliar environment of an art gallery. In light of this fact, the text “Am I Scared Boy (EH)” can be read as a comment about the alienation of young urban Māori in the 1970s, and the difficulties faced by a generation largely dislocated from their own cultural heritage, yet also marginalised by Pākehā culture. However, in McCahon’s hands the words also take on a broader meaning. Urgent and painfully direct, they become an expression of existential anxiety spoken in a modern, urban vernacular.

Reversing the assertive “I Am” of McCahon’s famous 1970 painting Victory over Death 2 with the tremulous “Am I?”, Am I Scared expresses the doubt which is the dark twin of faith. Emerging from the intense blackness of the painting’s background, the white letters become fainter, less certain, as the words scroll across the surface. The darkness appears to be overwhelming them, and is only punctuated by the bravado of the final emphatic “EH”.

McCahon’s radical reduction of his paintings to the visual representation of words was met with animosity by many New Zealand art critics from the 1950s onwards. For McCahon, the attempt to communicate through painting became an act of faith. Perhaps the statement “Am I Scared Boy” can equally be applied to McCahon himself, his vulnerability, and to the courage required to pursue his goals as an artist in the face of public hostility.