Shannon Te Ao wins 2016 Walters Prize

An award-winning video by Walters Prize-winner Shannon Te Ao, two shoots that stretch far out exhibited at Wellington’s City Gallery last year. The artist, a lecturer at Massey University's School of Art at the College of Creative Arts, is shown reciting to Chester the donkey.

A lecturer from Massey University’s College of Creative Arts has won the 2016 Walters Prize, New Zealand’s biggest art award, with an innovative video and an art installation Okea Ururoatia (Never Say Die).

Sydney-born, Wellington-based Shannon Te Ao (Ngāti Tuwharetoa) receives $50,000 for the Walters Prize, which is awarded for an outstanding work of contemporary New Zealand art.

In his video, two shoots that stretch far out, Mr Te Ao recites a spoken rendition of a 19th Century waiata He waiata mō te moe punarua (A Song of Two Wives), to a variety of animals to explore ideas of flawed relationships. The words from the Ngāti Porou lament, written by a wife who feels spurned when her husband takes a second wife, fall on deaf ears. Chester the donkey turns his back to the wall when Mr Te Ao recites: “… and enter unannounced the abode of indifference.”

Mr Te Ao says the work is not explicitly politically charged but by presenting language in a different way, two shoots is making a point about the way people try to communicate but can often end up talking past each other.

“People talk about the absurdity of talking to the animals. It’s kind of funny but the work is much more melancholy and charged. I am trying to remind people that the humour and whimsy are points of access for people to respond to the more complex aspects of the work, which are the problems of communication in intimate interactions and the difficulties of translation across language and culture.

Okea Ururoatia (Never Say Die) is a later addition to the artwork and features nearly 200 pot plants providing a different way of understanding two shoots, in that disparate materials are grouped together to propose a kind of collectivity and connectivity.

This year’s Walters Prize judge, Doryun Chong says he was intrigued, touched and moved by Mr Te Ao’s art. “I would like to thank him for helping me remember that a powerful work of art is sometimes created by an elegant formula of a simple gesture and repetitions,” he said when announcing the award last week.

“I imagined him citing those lines [of the waiata] to the end of time, with the rabbits, ducks and chickens, wallaby, swan and donkey by his side, while the plants wither and die, and come back to life again, and then again,” says Mr Chong, who is chief curator at M+ museum of visual culture in Hong Kong.

Entering and winning the Walters Prize has been a challenging and rich experience for Mr Te Ao who says it has given him the opportunity to show the work on one of the biggest platforms in the country. “It has been a conduit for so much positive response to the project and my work. I don’t think my work is better than any of the other Walters Prize finalists but it just resonated with Doryun. It’s been a total privilege to have Doryun engage at such a level,” Mr Te Ao says.

two shoots was first presented at the 2014 Biennale of Sydney and since then has been well received in ten countries including Germany, Italy, U.S.A. and Taiwan.

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