Matariki Williams on Wellington's Thriving Art Scene

We speak to the Matauranga Maori curator at Te Papa about the opening of new gallery Toi Art and the Wellington's art industry

Matauranga Maori curator at Te Papa, Mataraki Williams. Picture / Rebecca Zephyr Thomas

As Matauranga Maori curator at Te Papa, Mataraki Williams has been closely involved in the opening of its new gallery Toi Art — an important moment for the museum and for Wellington’s art scene.

Having been in the role for 18 months, Matariki worked with Rebecca Rice to co-curate the portrait gallery, Nga Tai Whakarongorua | Encounters — the striking display that greets visitors as they enter the Turangawaewae: Art and New Zealand exhibition.

“One major takeaway is that different audiences read the room differently, but it is important to forefront the room with Maori understandings,” explains Matariki of their approach.

“The room begins with a taonga Maori, the putatara (conch-shell trumpet) Te Umukohukohu, that has a known history back to the 1600s. The opposite wall features a powerful portrait of an unknown woman. We want visitors to know that the mana of these people and taonga endures, including those whose history we don’t know.”

Matariki, who now lives with her family in Island Bay, grew up in Tauranga, and recalls that her first time walking into a gallery was at Te Papa as an 18-year-old.

ARTIST TO WATCH: Hugo Koha Lindsay

For her, the best thing about Toi Art is the diversity of Maori art on display, “showing the full breadth of paths that Maori artists have in front of them, and that they reflect the diverse realities that make up contemporary Maori society”.

It’s a huge privilege to be in this role and be surrounded by extraordinary thinkers and beautiful taonga. Most of my wider whanau lives up in the Bay of Plenty and I’ve always said that the collection storerooms are the only places that give me a similar feeling to sitting at my Nan and Koro’s table, listening to them talk.

I cried multiple times when I walked through the Pacific Sisters: Fashion Activists exhibition in Toi Art. It shows Maori and Pacific art in such a raw and empowering way. I’ve been privy to aspects of the exhibition from the inimitable Curator Pacific Art, Nina Tonga, who revealed that much of the research for this exhibition was first-hand.

This indicates how little our arts are studied, researched and written about, and it is so empowering to see a public display of this artistic history. My kids also love the exhibition and danced through most of it.

I’m taken aback by how much work is undertaken by local artist-run spaces like Enjoy, Meanwhile and Playstation. They’re also precarious due to sector-wide financial instability. As a curator at a major institution, I’d say we have a duty to remain connected to these spaces. There’s also a lot of arts writing coming out of these galleries, and from Salient [Victoria University’s student newspaper]. Writing is an integral aspect of arts ecology. I’d say that emerging writers are producing a huge part of it.

This city is compact, and connected. It is so easy to get to people, great food, and our harshly beautiful surroundings. I love how this city continues to surprise me with all that it can contain and produce, and that I never know what I will encounter when I open my curtains every morning.

READ: Where to Eat, Drink & be Merry in Wellington


1. I love Kowtow and I’m stoked to see they have opened their flagship store on Tory St. I try to buy ethically so Kowtow is perfect. It’s also a long-running joke that Kowtow is the uniform of museum/gallery staff in Aotearoa.

2. My favourite place for coffee and a cheeky sandwich is Milk Crate. My friend Morgan is one of the owner/operators so it also means I have a high chance of bumping into friends. It also means I get to touch all the pretty things in Precinct 35 next door.

3. Our most memorable dinners out have been at Charley Noble and Ortega Fish Shack. We don’t get much opportunity to get fancy but when we do, we make the most of it! At the cheaper end of scale, we also love Indian Sweets and Snacks, Rams and Little Penang.

4. A friend put me onto Add + Vintage on Marion St, and I left the shop after taking about 10 photos of beautiful furniture that would look amazing in our bonkers house.

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