Mata Aho Collective and Dr Maureen Lander have won the 2021 Walters Prize for their presentation of Atapō, 2020.
The two part work was commissioned for the Auckland Art Gallery exhibition Toi Tū Toi Ora. The works, which spanned two floors of the gallery, were a response to the story of Hinenuitepō.
The artists talked to Matariki Williams.
“This is the space that we’re going to hold. If people want to engage with the work, then they have to cross the paepae.”
This was said to me by Dr Maureen Lander (Ngāpuhi, Te Hikutu, Pākehā) during a call with her and Mata Aho Collective – Erena Baker (Te Ātiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toa Rangātira), Sarah Hudson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe), Bridget Reweti (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi), Dr Terri Te Tau (Rangitāne ki Wairarapa). We were talking about their recent collaboration for Auckland Art Gallery’s exhibition Toi Tū Toi Ora, the installation Atapō. The commission from then-curator Nigel Borrell (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Ranginui, Te Whakatōhea) originally asked that the artists make a work related to the atua wahine, Hinenuitepō. The result is arguably much more ambitious than expected: a two-part work spanning two floors of the gallery. Atapō is also dual in that it embodies two stories. Rather than focus solely on Hinenuitepō, the goddess of death, night and the underworld, the artists chose to also include Hinetītama, an entity that personifies dawn.
The narrative around these wāhine entities is as follows: Tāne Mahuta sculpted Hineahuone from clay, becoming the progenitor of ira wāhine, the essence of women, and the maker of the first woman. He mated with her, and together they begat Hinetītama. Hinetītama then procreated with Tāne who was, unbeknownst her, her father. Upon realising this, she fled in shame to the underworld and became Hinenuitepō.
At least, that’s the popular version of events.
If there’s one thing I know about the practice of both Mata Aho and Maureen, it is that they question inherited knowledge. Rather than presenting Hinenuitepō as a wronged woman who fled in shame, as in the accepted narrative, through Atapō they have chosen to change this perspective and instead acknowledge her agency. She chose to leave, and she chose to be the refuge and shelter for the dead who enter into her realm. This is another place where the artists have provided a more intricate interpretation of these korero: rather than simply suggesting that Hinetītama transitioned to become Hinenuitepō, they insist that these two entities co-exist; at all times, she is both.
There is a nice parallel here with the relationship between Maureen and Mata Aho, who have been working with each other since 2014 in what could be called a tuakana teina relationship: Maureen teaching Mata Aho various raranga techniques which they have since employed in their own work (Tauira which was commissioned by The Dowse and AKA which was commissioned as part of Abadakone at the National Gallery of Canada come to mind here). With Atapō, this relationship evolved further as they became collaborators on a single work. Maureen and Mata Aho sharing their esteem for one another was really beautiful to hear, and more so once I understood how this is reflected in Atapō. Though it is a single work, the two entities were worked on separately, Maureen’s component focusing on Hinetītama, and Mata Aho’s focusing on Hinenuitepō. When the work is viewed, Hinetītama is behind Hinenuitepō, as Maureen wanted to be behind Mata Aho: “I’m someone who stands behind them.” Thus the realisation of Atapō is more profound than I’d imagined or initially understood in that it is not just about these pūrākau Māori, but it is also a reflection of a making relationship.
Elsewhere, the attainment of their months of work was apparent. An example of this is the material rendering of Hinenuitepō’s nihoniho, teeth. When viewed from the side, Hinenuitepō is V-shaped, a detail I felt really clever for noticing, though I didn’t expect it to represent a specific aspect of these narratives. This V shape represents Hinenuitepō’s own vagina dentata the teeth of which are made of obsidian. In their research, Mata Aho talked with Dr Ngahuia Murphy (Ngāti Manawa, Ngāti Ruapani ki Waikaremoana, Tūhoe, Ngāti Kahungunu) who has re-surfaced kōrero tuku iho of wāhine-related practices including menstruation. Dr Murphy explained that the vagina dentata is a kōrero in many cultures throughout the world, and often the teeth are violently broken out as an allegory of the domination of wāhine. Hinenuitepō is one of the few such kōrero where the teeth remain intact.
The nihoniho relate to the other kōrero that are often associated with Hinenuitepō, that of Māui. In his bid to bring mortality to humans, Māui attempted to enter Hinenuitepō through her vagina, pass through her body, and out through her mouth again. However, the tīrairaka laughed at Māui during his struggle to enter her vagina, and its chirping awoke the goddess who bit him in half. As it currently hangs, Atapō is in its own alcove, distinguished by a pale pink colour. When entering the alcove, a soundscape is triggered that plays sounds of the tīrairaka which were recorded by Te Kahureremoa Taumata (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Tūwharetoa), an artist, musician and educator who the collective have worked with in the past.
This was a decision informed by Maureen, who implored Mata Aho to ensure that whatever shape the commission took, it should own the space it is given, visually and aurally. This is what is meant by crossing the paepae; engaging with this work comes with an implicit understanding that you’re entering a realm wholly defined by the artists and the ātua wāhine. As Professor Bob Jahnke (Ngāi Taharora, Te Whānau a Iritekura, Te Whānau a Rakairo ō Ngāti Porou) has put it, crossing the paepae can be understood as “A process of cultural engagement that involves ascension and transition substantiated in cosmo-genealogical narratives of transition between the material and spiritual realms, and historical records of elevation of precious cultural materials.”
This dynamic came into play when part of another artist’s work made it into Atapō’s pink alcove and, because of its particular hanging needs, could not be moved out again. The figure, which riffs off the green soldiers of a child’s toy box, was there to stay. I’d assumed that Maureen and Mata Aho would be annoyed that the space was transgressed, but Maureen mentioned that its placement ended up affirming Atapō’s own kōrero because it looked like it was trying to escape. Perhaps the figure, unlike Māui, didn’t want to cross the paepae of Hinenuitepō’s vagina?
Just as these artists reinterpret kōrero to give our ātua wāhine more agency, they also look at taonga and practices that have either fallen out of use or were taken away from us. Each of these artists spends a lot of time researching in museum collections, where they find taonga that represent these lesser-known practices. The pattern used in the Hinenuitepō component of Atapō, which is known as papakingaro, or the fly swat pattern. Diamond-shaped, a papakingaro would have been woven with harakeke but for Hinenuitepō it is rendered in floor-to-ceiling diamond-shaped cut-outs, receding, getting smaller and smaller.
There are examples of similar taonga to the papakingaro in countries throughout the wider Moananui-a-Kiwa. In Sāmoa for instance, orators use fue in ceremonial settings. Mata Aho are known for deploying utilitarian materials in their work, specifically those found in Māori homes or environments (mink blankets, tarpaulin, marine rope). Atapō is made with fly mesh, the fine netting pulled across windows and doors to keep out flies. The papakingaro pattern is one that Maureen has used before, more recently with her work for Auckland Museum’s war memorial exhibition Pou Kanohi. Her work, Pō atarau – Now is the hour, involved 70 papakingaro-shaped crosses to represent Te Hokowhitu a Tū, the Māori soldiers who went away to war.
Maureen and Mata Aho are artists who teach you without you even being conscious that you’re learning. Every detail in Atapō was so resolved that it was difficult to ask something of them that they hadn’t specifically designed, and really, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Mata Aho and their wānanga approach to making ensures that whatever they decide to make has survived multiple iterations; they know what they are creating and how. Mata Aho referred to Maureen as a "detective", and her practice is a constant exercise in experimentation, trying out each option until she reaches a zenith of making that resolves all that trying.
The result, Atapō, brings me back to its name, the conjunction of the two entities that constitute it: dawn and night. Atapō can also be read as the resolution of a relationship between makers: elegant, considered, minimal yet all-encompassing. After my futile guess-work, I want to end with Maureen’s response to my remark about how hard Atapō is to capture on camera. This too is the result of their ruminating on a viewer’s experience: “That is about being there and experiencing it in person. It is a solid presence but it is ethereal too. When all of your senses are engaged, it is about the viewer and the maker. Your presence completes the circle by engaging with it.”
The Walters Prize 2021
Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki
Until 5 September 2021
First published Art Zone #86
This story has also been published in te reo Māori, here.