A collective of four wāhine Māori artists, Mata Aho Collective transforms human-scale Māori weaving practices into atua-scale contemporary artworks that recently earned them a nomination for the 2020 Walters Art Prize. For writer Cassandra Barnett, their work provides some much-needed solace during a painful time.
Today, I am a grieving and angry mother. As I write it is the eighth day of protests against the killing of George Floyd by US police. I have spent the morning reading the testimonies of Black mothers grieving for their murdered sons. I am not a Black mother but I have a Black son. The atmosphere is what it is and cannot be siloed off from my other mahi – an essay on the wāhine Māori art collective Mata Aho. Thankfully, as I zigzag between their website and the racism of the world, the universe hands me something I need. A Mata Aho work called ‘Mahuika’, exhibited at the Honolulu Biennale in 2019.
The work is named for the Māori godmother of fire, and in it Mahuika’s ten flaming fingernails reach out of ten archway windows on the second floor of the classical, white-and-cream Hawai’i State Art Museum. These sharp-pointed red-and-gold fingernails are enormous, reaching from the second storey windows nearly down to the ground. I imagine Mahuika – who like Pele the Hawaiian fire goddess is connected with volcanoes – really is this size. Even larger in her full raging glory. Like lava she flows out windows. Like a grandmother, she exceeds whatever you think you know about her.
The flaming fingernails are not realistic. They’re shaped like vertical pennants. They call upon a whakapapa of Māori self-determination that goes back to Te Kooti’s pennant ‘Te Wēpu’, and beyond. They’re the colour of fire and of the US-occupied Kingdom of Hawai’i’s insignia. They wave, with kuīni glam, at the State Capitol and the Iolani Palace grounds. We’re here, they wave. Just you try and hold us back. Mahuika is the strength I need today.
I turn now to ‘Aka’, the huge aqua woven 14-metre-high glowing pillar that has earned Mata Aho a nomination for the 2020 Walters Prize – about-time acknowledgment of the achievements of this collective comprising Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, Bridget Reweti and Terri Te Tau. This soaring, majestic work showed at major international indigenous art exhibition Àbadakone | Continuous Fire (2019), where it reached for the ceiling of the National Gallery of Canada in Vancouver. It is expected to be installed in Auckland in May 2021 for the Walters Prize exhibition.
‘Aka’ is inspired by Whaitiri, the female atua of thunder, a knowledge keeper and guardian of the aka, or vine. In many iwi tellings, Whaitiri taught Tāwhaki to climb the aka matua to the twelfth heaven, Te toi o ngā rangi, where he retrieved the three baskets of knowledge for our Māori people. Mata Aho’s enormous cylindrical aka was handwoven of marine rope using whatu, a finger weaving technique. The work magnifies the whakapapa threads linking us back to our atua, via both DNA and material knowledges passed down hand to hand. ‘Aka’ also celebrates the place of wāhine at the centre of mātauranga Māori and its ongoing preservation. The iridescent column rises, teleporting us between earth and sky. More than anything I want to step inside the blue-green vine and bathe in its soothing light. It feels safe there, warm in the embrace of an unbroken line of potent, knowing, weaving wāhine.
All Mata Aho’s artworks are grounded in their first 2012 installation, ‘Te Whare Pora’, named for the traditional house of weaving and women’s arts. As the artists explain on their website, “We understand Te Whare Pora to be a state of being as opposed to a physical location”. This early work was a vast softly gleaming black faux-mink blanket, painstakingly woven and sewn by the collective from many standard-sized minkies.
‘Te Whare Pora’ invokes Hineteiwaiwa, the atua of weaving, female arts and childbirth. As a mother in midlife, I feel I am just beginning to grasp the full meaning of these connections: how mothering (whoever’s doing it) requires creative acts not only in conception, birth and child-rearing, but all through our children’s lives. How the greatest creativity of all is needed when mothering becomes entwined with fear and rage and grief. The world threatens our children; our ability to protect them (and ourselves) is repeatedly devastated; and through all the trauma we must dig deeper – and reach out to each other – inventing new ways to stay strong for them. This blanket acknowledges Te Kore. I feel it giving me permission to lie down wrapped up in the darkness and wait until I can move again.
For Mata Aho, ‘Te Whare Pora’ set an agenda they have slowly expanded but not strayed from, of working collectively to transform human-scale Māori weaving practices into atua-scale contemporary artworks. Works that hold fast to tikanga and mana wahine, but also articulate something in global institutional spaces.
I wonder what their work says to non-Māori audiences, many of whom will have little to no grasp of the significance of Mahuika, Whaitiri, Hineteiwaiwa or Te Whare Pora. I cast back, past this seasoned old me who feels, daily, the burn of decolonisation, racism and transcultural parenting in a white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. Back to the young, kūare, colonised kid who went to Europe and fell in love with contemporary art.
Young Europhile me never gave much thought to raranga. Weaving seemed enigmatic and femme, at a time when I was – tbh – pursuing a harder-edged intellectualism. I didn’t need ‘Te Whare Pora’, not yet. The patterns in Mata Aho’s work wouldn’t have opened themselves to me – the eponymous ‘Kaokao’ (a tukutuku pattern associated with birthing); the pātikitiki in ‘And Only Sea’ (another tukutuku pattern linked with women’s fishing and whāngai practices); the māwhitiwhiti in ‘Tauira’. Like gnostic texts these forms hold their secrets close, wrapped up in story. Waiting for those who need them.
What happens when viewers feel something in an artwork they can’t grasp? Some turn away. Others lean in. It depends. Sensitive folk might hesitate, feeling both the balm and the wero in the work. I wonder if this accounts for the mainstream media silence around Mata Aho’s international successes. You can’t understand their work with your head alone; you need to feel its solace. And it needs to feel safe with you. I’ve grown and learned our stories, I’ve gotten to know my atua. But even now when encountering our mātauranga I hear a warning alongside the summons: Tread with care. Like a mother, I feel both vulnerable and protective.
The flickering of meaning is there in the synthetic materials too. ‘Aka’ is woven from industrial marine rope. ‘Mahuika’ is woven from barrier mesh. ‘Te Whare Pora’ is made of those minkies (mass-produced offshore, but a familiar, cosy sight on many a noho marae). Other works are made of reflective tape or, in the case of Mata Aho’s 2017 Documenta work ‘Kiko Moana’, plastic tarpaulins. Cheap, accessible materials – the kind you can get at The Warehouse. Their non-absorbent, repellent qualities add a bristle to the soft invitation of Mata Aho’s textiles. Some viewers might slow down, pondering environmental impacts. And in that pause… our people ride in, virtually, flooding those synthetic fibres. Our contemporary communities, to whom these materials are as homely as toothbrushes, familiar from labouring work on roads and in gardens, in forests, fisheries and other primary industries.
I’m an urban Māori, academically-trained, raised mostly by my Pākehā whānau. But as a grownup I’ve been visiting my marae off and on for over a decade now (a bittersweet reconnection I’m unspeakably grateful for). When I do, these materials are everywhere: just-shucked-off high-viz vests hanging off plastic chairs, white gumboots at the back door, barrier mesh when buildings need work. Sometimes they spark sadness (a kaumatua we wish could retire; a reno that kept us from our whare tūpuna). But they are also part of my joy at getting there, just as flopping on the old leather lounge suite and faux-fur cushions is part of my happiness at going home to my mum’s.
The materials of industry and labour colour – fluorescently – the papakainga life I still fantasise about. My cousins would rightly laugh at me, but rope and mesh and high-viz are there at the flax roots, and they’re here in my daydreams too. This shapeshifting magic of the material world is the stuff Mata Aho weave with. In their hands, industrial fibres loom large as a hinge – a vine – between cultural worlds.
Mata Aho’s faithfulness to non-precious, working-class, universally legible materials opens their practice to many other localised, blue collar communities too, including other indigenous communities. It also opens their work in intriguing ways to global political discourses beyond the indigenous (environmentalist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist). Their use of this stuff feels like a détournement, a graceful spanner in the works of capitalism and its art systems.
Even baby, Euro me would’ve grasped this. Grownup me hears the atua. See what we do with the stuff you brought us? We keep practising our culture. The table-turning is delicious. We do things you never dreamed of. Unstealable things. They’re very nice about it, Mata Aho and our atua. They aren’t here to whakaiti anyone – they’re all about raising mana. They sit in, occupying, exceeding, and letting be too. They return us to the source. Our cultural strength lies in our relationships, our practices – not what you think we should look like. No harakeke, no feathers here. Taonga are about how we treat things, and what those things do for us – not what they’re made of.
So when I see the immense woven cloaks and blankets and vines of Mata Aho taking up space in the world’s museums, I think they’re communing. Communing from the future with all our taonga, all our tūpuna who went abroad and sometimes got stranded there; cloaking them in renewed aroha. Communing too with the colonial museum habitats: Here is our ocean. You came for us – you took us, took our taonga, tūpuna, cousins. But our wairua, our wai, is limitless and will flow back into all your spaces. We have come for our people. And we bring you back your taonga – the materials you gave us. Here, accept your gift, returned, transformed and with mauri intact.
Communing with those who still don’t get it, opening a charged, provocative, awakening space with a flourish of cloth that whips the air and changes the ions, turning every drop of O2 into a Tardis for trying again. And communing with oppressed peoples everywhere: Fight. If we can escape, exceed all confines – so can you. But stay tau. To fight well – to paraphrase Bruce Lee – you need to stay tau.
That’s where ‘Woven Songs’ comes in – a piece the collective took to Dhaka Art Summit earlier this year. Not an artwork, not a performance, but a necessary moment for their practice and an honest expression of what it takes to hold space as they do. In the photos and videos from Dhaka we see the four wāhine sitting in a close circle, facing each other, gallery/passersby/world zoned out. They are practising their new pātere, composed by Te Kahureremoa Taumata. They’re doing this for themselves. In the process, they weave their collective – and all of us – stronger.
And today, Mata Aho’s art is communing with me. Offering me somewhere to sit when I’m broken. When thinking no longer works. When going home is too hard and flesh-and-blood whanaunga aren’t near. When trying to be tough will crack me. Giving me somewhere to sit safely when I can’t hold the world anymore – for my son or for me. Somewhere to sit in my mind, heart and puku, and draw down the atua I need.
Wherever there’s whakapapa Māori there’s mana wahine, waiting to rise. My ultimate solace in this grievous world is the feeling that my sisters, mothers, grandmothers and atua wāhine of all persuasions have my back – and I theirs. The whole world needs this. Today I’m thankful – from the seat of my liver – that Mata Aho are out there, holding a calm, enlightened space, calling me and all my sisters back to our power.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.