Mata Aho Collective winners of NZ's most prestigious contemporary art award

By Jessica Tyson

The Mata Aho Collective and Maureen Lander have been awarded $50,000 as the winners of the Walters Prize 2021, New Zealand’s most prestigious contemporary art award.

The awards ceremony on Saturday night marked the tenth iteration of the biennial prize, which was established in 2001 and has celebrated a 20-year legacy of artists and artworks.

The Mata Aho Collective is made up of four Māori female artists - Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, Bridget Reweti and Terri te Tau - who produce large-scale fibre-based works, commenting on the complexity of Māori lives.

The artists have their own active independent art practices, yet they joined forces to work together in 2012 to create work with collective authorship.

Mata Aho Collective and senior artist Maureen Lander created Atapō. Photographer: Jos Wheeler

Mata Aho Collective and Maureen Lander were awarded the prize for their presentation of Atapō, 2020.

Atapō runs the full height of the Auckland Art Gallery and is made from insect mesh, wool, muka and cotton. The work was co-created with senior artist Maureen Lander and was originally commissioned for Toi Tū Toi Ora: Contemporary Maori Art exhibition (2020–21).

Atapō (or before dawn) explores the transitional states of female interconnectedness and draws on the stories of Hine-tītama and Hine-nui-te-pō and restages them as almighty and indefinite. 

“We mostly focus our works on atua wahine. We want to expose research that we’ve done and show that they’re not kind of passive helpers but very significant and important protagonists in their own right," says Reweti, of Ngāti Ranginui and Ngāi Te Rangi.

The larger architecturally potent Hine-nui-te-pō sits to the fore as if sheltering the softer Hine-tītama, who in colour and shape reflects the deity of dawn, the first true human who bound day to night.

“Hine-tītama is the personification of the dawn and so we have used pinks in this installation and light to mihi to her. She kind of grew and developed into Hine-nui-te-pō who is the atua, who is there to welcome us when we die. She’s the custodian of all Māori in death and so she’s the black presence in the space," says Reweti.

Atapō, 2020 on display at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki. Source: Auckland Art Gallery

The announcement was made by this year’s Walters Prize international judge, Kate Fowle, Director of New York’s MoMA PS1, at a gala dinner held at Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

"The installations bring nuanced perspectives on social, cultural and political urgencies of our time that each deserve our attention and engagement. As such, it does not feel appropriate to award the prize based on a personal selection of one work over another, particularly when I cannot physically be present with them, says Fowle.

“Instead, I would like to award the prize to Mata Aho Collective and Maureen Lander as a celebration of the inspiration they bring through their sustained collective practices, as well as for the potential futures they offer in their collaborative thinking and generative processes. For me, these qualities, together with the commitment the artists have to creating proximity, signal the work that needs to be done by all of us in the coming years, regardless of the barriers we encounter.”

AKA, 2019 on display. Source: Mata Aho Collective

The Mata Aho Collective was also honoured for their installation, AKA, 2019, a 14m high, hand-woven work made from 25mm-thick marine rope, which was installed in the rotunda of the National Gallery of Canada. 

AKA, from the Māori word vine, is inspired by the narrative of the female deity Whaitiri, the personification of thunder. Combining customary whatu (finger twining) practice and modern materials, this vine provides a space for contemplation and invites viewers’ eyes to journey up to a place of raised consciousness.

The artists hope that by creating big works and taking up a lot of space in gallery institutions they will inspire other Māori artists to do the same and “represent”.

“Colonisation affected Māori women differently from Māori men. The stories and the mana of that we hold as women has not had the same platform as tāne so we make big statements to take up a lot of space because sometimes - and it still happens - Māori women are silenced. It still happens. That’s why we do what we do," says Hudson, of Ngāti Awa, Ngai Tūhoe and Ngāti Pūkeko.

The other finalists of the Walters Prize 2021 were Sonya Lacey, Sriwhana Spong and Fiona Amundsen.

“The eight women that were selected by the jury and the four installations that they have produced reveal incredible sophistication in how to invite us to embrace often fluctuating or contradictory perspectives on a story or a phenomenon that is otherwise somehow out of reach. As different in form and subject as each presentation is, there is a powerful, uniting force in how they each ask us to slow down, listen, be present, think again and be aware of our environment, ourselves, our contexts,” says Fowle.