Make a big difference to The Big Idea.  Help us tell the most creative stories.

Home  /  Stories  / 

NZ Artists Selected for Venice Biennale Revealed

01 Feb 2024

A couple of icons, several laureates, whānau connections, teacher-student links and a deceased artist - the details and reactions from the creatives invited to show their work at the most famous art show in the world.

Some of the most celebrated names in Aotearoa art have been given another huge accolade to add to their glittering list of achievements - they will take part in the biggest art show on the planet.

Sandy Adsett (Ngāti Pahauwera), Brett Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui); Fred Graham (Ngāti Koroki Kahukura, Tainui); Mataaho Collective - comprising of wāhine Māori Erena Baker Arapere (Te Atiawa ki Whakarongotai, Ngāti Toa Rangātira), Sarah Hudson (Ngāti Awa, Ngāi Tūhoe, Ngāti Pūkeko), Bridget Reweti (Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi) and Terri Te Tau (Rangitāne ki Wairarapa) - as well as Selwyn Wilson (Ngāti Manu, Ngāti Hine) have been selected will be presenting work at the 60th international exhibition at the Venice Biennale later this year.

NZ at Venice - Mataaho Collective (Photo: Tepapa).png
Mataaho Collective. Photo: Te Papa.

They have been invited to be part of Stranieri Ovunque, Foreigners Everywhere - curated by Adriano Pedrosa, who visited New Zealand in March last year to research his decision.

It's been a tough secret to keep since finding out about six months ago - the Mataaho Collective told The Big Idea it's been a surreal experience. 

"We're all pinching ourselves. In every meeting we had with them last year, we thought 'Oh, this is the one where they say we've been culled.' It's been a really exciting time for us.

"It's a really prestigious art event - lots of people (outside of the art world) have heard of the Venice Biennale as the oldest biennale in the world. It means a lot for us personally and for our careers."

Adsett - for all his success including being named an Arts Foundation Icon for his hugely influential career as a painter, carver, and weaver - shared a similar reaction to his selection.

"When l was first informed of the possibility of participation in the Venice Biennale from a couple of art colleagues, it was fairly casual," he told The Big Idea. 

"I just thought 'yeah, right'. Hika! Now it's all go."

NZ at Venice - Fred Graham (Photo: Supplied).png
Fred Graham. Photo: Supplied.

Fellow Arts Icon Fred Graham, who turns 96 this year, explained to The Big Idea that his selection is more than just personally fulfilling to him. 

"Obviously it's an honour and I'm very grateful - hopefully it encourages other artists to carry on their work.

"It's a pretty hard row to hoe as artists in New Zealand - whether you're involved in music, art, opera, you name it. It's always the major question when you tell people you're an artist, they say 'what do you do for a living?'" Fred laughs. 

"When people like myself receive these types of recognition, it can help inspire people to stay on their path."

NZ at Venice - Brett Graham (Photo: Chris Traill).png
 Brett Graham. Photo: Chris Traill.

Making his selection all the sweeter is doing so alongside his incredibly talented son Brett - who has accrued a remarkable reputation for his large-scale installations, including reaching Arts Laureate status.

Fred states "I'm very proud of being able to share this with him - to be quite honest I'm very happy to be known as Brett Graham's father." 

Brett told The Big Idea "It means a lot to our whānau," adding "As far as I know, there’s only been two New Zealanders in this (curated) section before."

On the process of selection, Brett reveals "I was excited when Natasha Conland invited me to meet Adriano Pedrosa, the curator. I liked him and we got on well."

Amanda Hereaka, Creative New Zealand’s Co-Manager Practice and Pathways offers “It was an incredible opportunity having Adriano Pedrosa here. Within a tight timeframe, he saw a wide variety of both contemporary and historic works; we visited exhibitions in different centres and ensured he saw as much work as possible.

"Adriano has a connection to New Zealand art and artists through his work last year with Nigel Borrell and Indigenous Histories at MASP (Museu de Arte de São Paulo), and as the judge for the Walters Prize in 2018, so he’s familiar with our ways of making. After seeing New Zealand artists’ work first-hand, he’s selected eight to represent us in Venice.”

NZ at Venice - Selwyn Wilson (Photo: Tauranga City Libraries, Copyright NZME).png
Selwyn Te Ngareatua Wilson. Photo: Tauranga City Libraries, copyright NZME, 

That ability to see historic works in person presented the opportunity to have Wilson's influential work included in this year's exhibition, despite passing away 22 years ago. 

Wilson has always been a groundbreaking figure in Aotearoa - the first Māori graduate from a NZ art school when he studied at Elam in 1945 and the first contemporary Māori artist to have work acquired by a public gallery on these shores (by Auckland Art Gallery in 1948).

He shares a trait of giving back to the arts community through teaching with Adsett and both generations of the Grahams. 

In fact, the Aotearoa selections for the international exhibition also contain a teacher-pupil connection.

Mataaho Collective explain "These are some big names who have meant a lot to us throughout our careers. It's really heartening to know that Brett is coming along - he's someone we really look up to. 

"He taught some of us at Toioho ki Āpiti (Massey's Māori Visual Arts and Fine Arts programme) and that was a really challenging and inspiring semester. So it's a real honour to be there alongside Brett and the whakapapa with his father as well."

Graham replies of his former students - who have gone on to win the Walters Prize and become Arts Laureates - "They have had a stellar rise on the international stage. I’m looking forward to seeing them in Venice."

Caren Rangi, Chair of the Arts Council notes “This is so exciting that for the first time New Zealand has so many artists exhibiting in the international exhibition – it’s a reflection of the ideas they are testing and the esteem that their work is held in. 

"To have eight Ngā toi Māori artists invited and representing Aotearoa New Zealand at the 60th Venice Biennale will raise their profiles internationally and New Zealand’s at the most vibrant art event in the world.”

That sense of pride in seeing ngā toi Māori represented on the biggest world stage possible hits home with the selected creatives.

Brett Graham declares "Most of the best art in this country is made by Māori." 

NZ at Venice - Sandy Adsett (Photo: Supplied).png
Sandy Adsett. Photo: Supplied.

Adsett believes that Pedrosa's theme of Indigenous histories "connects to our sensitive waring history as a colonised people."

He adds “I've lived my life with Māori art. Our culture has been challenged, questioned and ignored. Being colonised we lost much. I made a commitment years ago to be tūturu and enjoy the art I respect and belong to.

"I know all our artists will be there fully presenting the mana of Arts in Aotearoa today."

Mataaho details "It feels comforting that a crew of rōpū Māori will be there.

We're really proud to be Māori during this time - coming up to Waitangi weekend and all the spicy things happening with the government in regard to the Treaty. 

"It feels really good that Māori art is heading to the world stage in a couple of months."

Last year CNZ announced there would be no stand-alone New Zealand pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale for the first time since 2007.

The international exhibition that will house the work of the selected Aotearoa artists takes place within the Arsenale - with details of the actual artwork under wraps until April. 

Mataaho and Brett Graham will be attending Venice and will travel to Italy in March to install their works. 

Mataaho recall first visiting the Venice Biennale together in 2017 and were left in awe. "It was a really energetic feeling to be there - to now be invited all these years later is huge."

The Venice Biennale opens on 17 April and runs through till 24 November 2024.