Putaanga Waitoa (Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Porou, Kuki ‘Arani, Pākehā) is a photographer and Māori activist. 

Since the 2021 lockdown Putaanga has been conceiving, doing the mahi and publishing Wāhine Toi, the title, she says, translates to ‘Knowledge of Women’ and is a book of photographs and text featuring female artists living and working in Hawke’s Bay. 

The book is being launched this week at Ākina gallery in Hastings, which has been given over to the project by gallery owner, Sacha van den Berg. An accompanying photographic exhibition and some of the works of the artists will be on display until 7th August. 

What is the kaupapa for this project? 

The whakapapa of Wāhine Toi lies within a conversation with Clayton Gibson [former curator for Hastings City Art Gallery] who initially pitched the idea to me in a kōrero. It gave me an idea to curate this project and to highlight how non-diverse the creative community tends to be here – with creative spaces centred on whiteness and it’s very loud in Te Matau-a-Māui. So, like most things I do, Wāhine Toi quickly became an act of activism.

Why have you launched at Ākina?

My choice to launch at Ākina happened quite hard and fast. I was low-key in searching for a suitable space to hold this kaupapa and Sacha approached me. In my own experience with exhibitions and gallery spaces, no one can hold space for Māori better than Māori. I feel very protective of any work I release, which means I am very particular about the spaces it is in. Sacha understands this and has allowed [my] vision to flow and the kaupapa to remain tūturu [real]. Ākina is the first indigenous-owned gallery in Te Matau-a-Māui; it’s imperative we support and nurture it. 

What will be exhibited at Ākina?

I decided a couple of weeks ago that it would be fitting to have a ‘mini’ exhibition alongside the launch – this is of the portraits that are not in the book. There were so many beautiful shots that deserve their moment to be seen and celebrated. I’m so excited for all the wāhine to sit together. 

How did you approach the project?

In no time I began scanning gallery lists, art guides, exhibition lists – and I saw the same names over and over, so it felt important to move away from these and find wāhine who are not front and centre, but still extraordinary in their fields. I began with a list and sent out the kaupapa; whoever didn’t respond I simply contacted another. I felt tau [certain] in the fact that someone who was meant to connect with me, would. I wasn’t chasing anyone. 

How many artists are featured?

At first I thought 25 would suffice, then 27, then 30, and that felt good, and that half of the wāhine are indigenous.

What are your goals and dreams for the book?

The vision and dream is for this tāonga to be a conversation starter, a feather ruffler, a chance to celebrate each woman who graces the pages, as well as to amplify the diversity that we have in Te Matau-a-Mauī. The blueprint of this whenua is woven together by the diversity we have here, including the arts. 

I have so much gratitude and awe for each artist that took up the wero [challenge]. It’s not an easy thing allowing yourself to be photographed, share your story and allow that to be immortalised into a physical keepsake. 

Who have you collaborated with in the book’s creation? 

It is not in my nature to share the load of a project [but] this time it felt right. 

I asked Alexandra Dawson if she would take on the design/layout, and Rosheen FitzGerald jumped on and conjured her wordsmith magic – both of these wāhine brought a whole new dimension of Mana to this book that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve alone. This absolutely is a collaboration of Mana Wāhine at its finest. 

Is ‘Wāhine Toi’ self published? 

Yes. To retain sovereignty and (tino rangatiratanga) I decided to self-publish which was the epic advice from fellow self-publisher PJ Shepherd. I didn’t need a third person telling me what to do … I had the vision and executing it was simple. 

Did you receive arts funding for the project?

No. [It is] for the same reason that I decided not to apply for funding. It was important that this happened in my time, with no added pressure from a third party; and as Matariki rose, we went to print. 

Where can it be seen and purchased? 

Wāhine Toi will [at first] be available at Ākina and online. In no time I will have them placed around Hawke’s Bay. 


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