NZ artists win prestigious Venice Biennale award

Mataaho Collective underneath Takapau 2022. Photo: All rights Reserved / Te Papa
Mataaho Collective underneath Takapau 2022. Photo: All rights Reserved / Te Papa
By Mark Amery 

Aotearoa New Zealand has won one of the world’s most prestigious art prizes. 

Mataaho collective have been awarded the Golden Lion by a jury at the 60th Venice Biennale for their large scale work in the main curated exhibition. 

Held every two years, the Biennale is dubbed the Olympics of the art world and Mataaho collective’s achievement, as Creative New Zealand’s Amanda Hereaka describes, is "the equivalent of winning a gold medal."

The Mataaho collective comprises four Māori women - Bridget Reweti, Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, and Terri Te Tau. Their large-scale work Takapau is an installation made of woven and latticed polyester hi-vis tie-downs and was recently shown at Te Papa. 

It opens the Arsenale section of the Biennale and serves as waharoa or gateway to the rest of the show. The group exhibition Stranieri Ovunque, Foreigners Everywhere, has been curated by the Biennale’s artistic director Brazilian Adriano Pedrosa, and features 331 artists. Eight Māori artists with feature alongside Mataaho, Sandy Adsett, Brett Graham, Fred Graham, and the late Selwyn Te Ngareatua Wilson.

"Referring to matrilinear traditions of textiles with its womb-like cradle, the installation is both a cosmology and a shelter," the jury said in their citation for the prize, which was read by the jury president Julia Bryan-Wilson. "Its impressive scale is a feat of engineering that was only made possibly by the collective strength and creativity of the group,"

Mataaho Collective's Takapau in Stranieri Ovunque, Foreigners Everywhere at the 30th Venice...
Mataaho Collective's Takapau in Stranieri Ovunque, Foreigners Everywhere at the 30th Venice Biennale. Photo: Ben Stewart via RNZ
"It’s just immense, I’m almost speechless," says Māori curator Matariki Williams speaking to Culture 101 not long after the award announcement. 

"You can imagine the huge mix of emotions people are feeling, lots of pride. Incredible excitement."

But it’s not just Aotearoa New Zealand celebrating. It’s a significant weekend for art in Oceania and Indigenous artists worldwide. The other major award at Venice, The Golden Lion for National Pavilion has been awarded to Australia’s representative at the Biennale, Archie Moore. It is the first time Australia has won this award.  

Archie Moore’s work traces his family history,  inscribing on the walls in chalk 1000s of names. In the centre of the installation are piles of coronial reports with names redacted from the official inquests into hundreds of Indigenous deaths in Australian state care.

This year New Zealand has elected not to have a national pavilion but instead support the artists appearing in the main curated exhibition.  

The 60th Venice Biennale, which is on until November, has a strong focus this year on indigenous artists, and with 88 national pavilions, there has been plenty of interesting geopolitics.  

Leading international arts news this week, the artists and curators of the Israeli national pavilion announced that they wouldn’t open until "a ceasefire and hostage release agreement is reached" in the conflict in Gaza. Israel has been widely criticised this year for its national presence 

Artistic Director and curator Pedrosa’s theme of ‘Foreigners Everywhere’ has seen him focus on queer, Indigenous, and outsider art, with an additional strong focus on the Global South. Hence the strong showing from Aotearoa.

Indigenous artists feature strongly both in this exhibition and in this year’s pavilions. A collective of painters from the Brazilian Amazon, MAHKU (Movimento dos Artistas Huni Kuin), have covered the facade of the central exhibition hall, which contains New Zealand’s contributions, with an intricate mural, while the Brazilian Pavilion nearby has been renamed the Hãhãwpuá Pavilion, referring to the name the Pataxó people used for Brazil.

Denmark is represented by an Inuit Greenlandic artist for the first time and Asia's newest nation Timor-Leste (East Timor) makes its Venice Biennale debut. Ethiopia has a pavilion for the first time, invited by Italy, a state that occupied Ethiopia but never managed to colonise it.

While Venice itself has historically been a place in Europe that has long welcomed foreigners (both merchants and refugees) artistic director Pedrosa speaks of the Indigenous artist as ''frequently treated as a foreigner in his or her own land.'' His celebration of foreigners comes with a more rightwing leaning Italian government who is cracking down on welcoming migrants.

Aotearoa curator Matariki Williams was selected along with Israel Randall as part of  a Delegates Programme run by Creative Australia, focused on building international connections. It’s the first time New Zealand has participated in the programme which, with Archie Moore’s win has seen the joined up work by Creative Australia and Creative New Zealand turn out incredibly timely. 

Matariki Williams has previously been Senior Historian, Mātauranga Māori at Manatū Taonga and Curator Mātauranga Māori at Te Papa Tongarewa. She co-authored Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of Resistance, Persistence and Defiance and co-founded ATE Journal of Māori Art. 

The 60th Venice Art Biennale runs until November.