Who am I to Wear Moko Kauae

Putaanga Waitoa /
Arts Inc. Heretaunga / 
16-29 March, 2020 /
By Nafanua Kersel

You may recognise Putaanga Waitoa as the young powerhouse behind Twisted Treaty Portraits.  Already established as a photographer specialising in powerful and dignified images of Māori and Pasifika, her exhibition work entitled “Who am I to Wear Moko Kauae” sees her craft taken to a new level of intention and a deeper sense of self determination in her artistic process. 

The sheer scale of the collection transforms both lower and upper levels of the Arts Inc. Heretaunga gallery. Twenty poster-sized portraits of wāhine mau moko – Māori women with moko kauae are adorned with sprigs of kawakawa and mounted within wide frames, repurposed from weather-roughened state house cladding by fellow artist Joe Rowntree. This, according to Waitoa, to honour the homes that have given shelter to Māori women, their children and their stories for the generations since colonisation.

Waitoa flouts the idea that there should be a particular formula or signature style to connect a body of work.  Each portrait’s composition, colour, setting, depth of field and lighting is as individual as the wāhine portrayed within them.  The vision for the work seems to be not so much a unifying style but a unifying subject – moko kauae and mana wāhine. 

As I make my way around the gallery I realise that the photographs are but a means to portray the actual art.  The wāhine as subjects, and their moko kauae in particular, are the art. In this light, Waitoa refers to her role not as artist, or even photographer but as “curator and space creator”.  She also asks questions and challenges the status quo.  Indeed, the kaupapa of the exhibition is set within the titular question of “Who am I to Wear Moko Kauae?”.  This question is one that Waitoa seems to be asking of herself in her own process towards moko kauae, as well as putting it to each of the wāhine, and to everyone who encounters the works.  While considering this, I wonder who the women are, and how they confront this question within their own process of moko kauae. 

Accompanying each portrait are stories that each wāhine has written of her thoughts, her life, identity and how she defines herself as a bearer of moko kauae. The stories address the question, of course, but their purpose seems to be more than that – to add an intimacy, a depth of connection which elevates and stirs the space that has been created so consciously by Waitoa in her self-study of moko kauae and mana wāhine. The generosity of the women, and of Waitoa’s process is overwhelming and tangible.  It becomes clear that as an onlooker, I am in a place of privileged intimacy, one that I have not had to earn. 

Two things settle in me. The first, a question in turn; “who am I to question these wāhine and their moko kauae?”. The second, an uplifting sensation which I recognise as the suspension of judgement. In asking the question “Who am I to Wear Moko Kauae”, Waitoa’s studiousness in her process brings an answer which makes the question defunct.  Because any judgement is confronted, then suspended and all one can do is accept the gift of intimacy and storytelling given by these women, through Waitoa’s skill and thoughtful portraiture. 

Through her mana-wāhine-based process of creating the work, Waitoa already challenges many art world norms including her intention to keep her curatorship over the works so that they might serve their greater purpose: “We are not for sale” she states. The portraits are not to have their value measured in dollars or destined to “hang on the walls of strangers”.  This decision not to engage in the economy of art isn’t simply an act of defiance – but an act of self-determination and decolonisation. In her opening night speech, Waitoa dedicated the works to all the Māori and Pasifika ancestors whose images were taken without consent.  Those whose stories were devalued when images of them were bought and sold to hang in the halls of people who would never suspend their judgement.

It is difficult to describe the level of dignity afforded to the wāhine, their stories and their kauae. Difficult because dignity feels like the natural state of the works. In her creation of space, any void is filled with a strength of vulnerability and connection. All this, in my eagerly growing, but still *limited understanding of Te Ao Māori, seems to be the very definition of mana wāhine.

*I am not a wāhine Māori so there will be gaps in my understanding.  I am however a Pasifika woman and an avid learner of Te Reo Māori and Tīkanga Māori. It is my hope that my experience as a Pasifika woman who bears traditional, cultural tattoo may also go some way towards bridging some gaps. If not, then please forgive me, aroha mai, mō taku hē.

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