He wāhine, he whenua,
ka ngaro te tangata
(Without women and without land, humanity is lost)
Mata Aho Collective: Aho is the Māori word for “weft,” while mata has multiple meanings. It can describe a prophetic song, one used during ceremony that has the power to call on the supernatural. It is also the name for a particular type of harakeke, a copper-colored bush with crimson-veined leaves. The plant’s coarse fiber is good for weaving: whāriki (mats), kete (hand-carried baskets), pīkau (baskets carried on your back), and pōtae (hats). For the collective, formed in 2012 by New Zealand–based artists Erena Baker, Sarah Hudson, Bridget Reweti, and Terri Te Tau, all born in the 1980s, tuitui (sewing) is a methodology, and weaving is an aesthetic. Their sewn textiles take a practice primarily realized by women at a domestic scale (the scale of the body) and render it large. For them, sewing is a form of wānanga (a conference or forum) that is integral to customary knowledge, be it genealogy, history, or philosophy; the completed textiles become the forum in which this knowledge is passed down.
Te Whare Pora (2013), their first major work, is a massive, rich, blue-black textile, displayed suspended from the ceiling, running down the wall to pool on the floor. The work’s material source is important: reconstructed “faux mink” blankets now commonly gifted at gatherings. The artists note that these fake minks have come to stand in for the intricate handmade blankets and feather cloaks of old, most of which are no longer in the hands of the communities who made them but in the drawers of museums. Not simply objects, these taonga have spirit. Many have individual names. Mata Aho’s use of fake mink does not necessarily criticize how these new blankets have come to replace the old, but it does offer critical thinking for how in the face of colonialism, certain customs like gifting hold fast and strong; it is only the materials that change.
Their latest work, Kiko Moana (2017) draws upon mana wāhine. Different from—and so not to be confused or conflated with—feminism, mana wāhine embodies the concept of Māori women’s empowerment. For this project, the collective chose to learn alongside Maureen Lander, an elder and respected artist and weaver. Their material of choice: blue tarpaulin, evocative of the color of water. In the collective’s work, humble materials are transformed into taonga through such creative processes.