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Mata Aho Collective

2012 –

This essay written by the Mata Aho Collective was published online in Women together: a history of women's organisations in New Zealand in 2019.

Mata Aho Collective was established in 2012 by Erena Baker (Te Atiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toarangatira), Sarah Hudson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe), Bridget Reweti (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) and Terri Te Tau (Rangitāne rāua ko Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa).

In 2011 a Te Atinga Rangatahi Hui and an Art in Activism Hui were both held at Poupatate Marae, Halcombe. As the four artists were graduates of Toioho ki Āpiti and CoCA Massey University, these hui provided an important space for them to meet and connect over shared art practices within a kaupapa Māori based environment.

In early 2012 Claudia Arozqueta indicated through conversation with some of the artists that she would like to have Māori women participate in the Enjoy Public Art Gallery Summer residency, which was to culminate in an exhibition. During development for the residency, the four artists decided to make a single work together, naming themselves Mata Aho Collective.

Their first work, Te Whare Pora, was inspired by customary weaving spaces as sites of wānanga for sharing and learning reigned over by the atua wahine Hineteiwaiwa. They treated the residency like a contemporary whare pora, proposing to eat, sleep and create the work all within the gallery. The contemporary kaupapa of the work was extended by the nature of the materials the collective worked with. During the month of the Enjoy Summer Residency, twenty black faux mink blankets were deconstructed and reconfigured to create a 5 x 10 m installation that covered the gallery floor space and stood up against the back wall at 90 degrees. Mata Aho employed the faux mink as an instantly recognisable modern Māori material. Mink blankets are readily accessible and warm, commonly used on marae, and often gifted at significant birthdays.

Mata Aho Collective’s second project work, Kaokao, focused on one tukutuku design, a chevron shape of the same name. This shape can be recognised as a military insignia; for Māori, it customarily signifies a warrior’s stance. Because this symbol is often used in an army context, the collective wanted to create an artwork that highlighted the alternative customary understanding of this chevron form, which is that kaokao represents female strength through depicting a birthing stance. They interpreted this not only as a reference to literal birth, but also as an analogy for the capacity for strength and endurance women possess and apply to their own goals and endeavours. This work was produced during the First World War centenary commemorations, a time in which rhetoric was oversaturated with male-centric stories. 

For Kaokao, Mata Aho continued the methodology they used with Te Whare Pora, working with materials relevant to and prevalent in contemporary lived Māori experience. The specific material inspiration was drawn from the roading construction industry, with its large male workforce wearing hi-vis tape outlined neon orange vests as they update the roading systems all over Aotearoa. This reflective material was also relevant and recognisable to many building, labouring and manufacturing industries that employ Māori on a wide scale.

The final sculptural piece used negative and positive space as a contemplative tool to intertwine histories of women. Like Te Whare Pora, Kaokao travels 10 m along the floor, then swoops to a 2-m height. This work is shaped like a soft thin cenotaph; the reflective tape not only shines a bright white, but at certain angles, rainbows appear on the surface of the material. For all its material quality, one of the outstanding features of Kaokao are the layers of chevron shadows that are cast through the negative space and onto the gallery floor and wall.

Later in 2014, Mata Aho proposed a work for the Māori Art Market called Stop Collaborate and Listen. At that time, members within Mata Aho were experiencing loss within their own families, so chose to centre the work around pare kawakawa, the leafy green garlands worn by mourners grieving for those who have passed. This embroidery project provided a space to share a weight carried, as participants learnt or taught sewing techniques while contributing to the work. The work commenced at the 2014 Māori Art Market and was most recently present at the D.A.N.C.E Art Club Noho and subsequent exhibition at the Whau Art Centre, Avondale, Auckland, in July 2016.

In September 2016, Mata Aho Collective were invited by curators Hendrick Folkerts and Candice Hopkins to make a work for documenta14 in Kassel, Germany. It was the first time New Zealand artists had been invited to participate in this exhibition, which began in the 1950s and takes place every five years. The work of Nathan Pohio and the late Ralph Hotere was also included in the exhibition.

Mata Aho Collective

Video compiled by the Royal Academy with information about Kiko Moana.

The material Mata Aho chose to explore was tarpaulin, selected for its diverse utility and accessibility. Sixty tarpaulins were folded and stitched together to create a large scale installation measuring 11 x 5 m. Mata Aho wanted the texture of the work to allude to both the rippling surface water and to taniwha, who are known to reside out of sight just under the surface. Taniwha are often attributed with the qualities of protection, travel and communication. Mata Aho felt that these attributes were important for Kiko Moana, given that the work and the collective would be travelling across the world to Germany. Another important component of the work was to collect taniwha narratives from friends and whānau, which would convey a multiplicity of ideas and experiences around taniwha. These stories were later acquired by Te Papa with Kiko Moana, along with a snapshot of the Instagram account documenting the collective’s field research and development of the work.      

Mata Aho Collective made Tauira to exhibit at the Dowse Gallery, Lower Hutt, in August 2018. A motivation for this work was to create an opposite installation to the big black presence of Te Whare Pora, and so Tauira was conceived as a sister work. With that as a starting point, they started researching and theorising about Te Ao Marama, the world of light. In early 2018, the collective spent time in Ōmāpere with their mentor, Dr Maureen Lander. Over this time Maureen taught the collective how to harvest and prepare muka for taniko, which became a foundation for the construction of Tauira. The material chosen for this work was 2000 m of 12-mm thick marine-grade rope, which was woven together through whatu – single and double paired finger twining.  

Māori creation narratives talk about the separation of the earth and the sky by their children. In some iterations, this idea was first planted through a glimpse of light that occurred through a gap in a parent’s armpit. Following on from this narrative, Mata Aho decided to slice through the gallery wall to reveal some of the internal infrastructure. The 17-m long Tauira swept along the floor and through the wall into a window display area on the other side, where the woven rope became unraveled, forming a cascading waterfall.

A practice developed alongside Mata Aho’s methodology is the importance of drawing on the experiences of tuakana and teina as a foundation for their work. This enables the work to be sewn into the community, rather than being separate or isolated from it. The collective saw this as particularly essential with works conceptualised for an exhibition outside New Zealand.

Mata Aho Collective

Further sources

Mata Aho Collective website: 

Baker, Kirsty, ‘Before Words Get In Between,’ Pantograph Punch, 2018:

Corballis, Tim, ‘Mata Aho: Mana wāhine in contemporary art: Tim Corballis interviews the Mata Aho Collective’, Counterfutures Five, 2018:

Low, Angela, ‘Empowering Minorities and Rewriting Narratives: Why Art Matters,’ Rice Media, 2018:

O’Neill, Rachel, ‘A Pathway to the Guts: Mata Aho Collective at documenta14’, Art New Zealand Summer Issue, 2017/2018