The Aotearoa section of WOW is one of the best sections for designers to enter, according to past Supreme Award winner Natasha English. The section asks designers to create a garment influenced by New Zealand and the Pacific, and in 2013, English entered the section with her sister Tatyanna Meharry. The pair created The Exchange, a complex meditation on colonial and Maori shared cultural influence, which won not just the Aotearoa section but also the Supreme Award that year.

“I think it’s a really great section for WOW; I consider it to be one of their premier sections because it is a New Zealand-grown event and it’s quite important as a Kiwi entrant to have that section to enter,” English says.

It helps with New Zealanders’ classic case of ‘cultural cringe’ or of feeling not quite good enough, she says.

“We’re not very good at it as Kiwis, but it is a national pride thing,” she says. “It helps the greater public have a better overview of New Zealand and the South Pacific.

“We have a really interesting culture so it’s great to see it at an artistic level on an international stage, and that’s what makes it really quite important and exciting to enter. There aren’t many competitions in New Zealand that you can, as a New Zealander, make something that gets seen at such a huge level. You can really embrace that New Zealand and South Pacific design or ideas.”

It’s the perfect slot if you’re a designer with a story to tell or a discussion you want to have, she says. “Or it might not have any conversation to go with it; it might just be totally visual, and that’s great too.”

Before The Exchange, her sister Tatyanna Meharry had already entered the Aotearoa section of WOW in previous years with her garment Kotuku, created with Bronwyn Knutson. She chose the section because of the myriad amazing and beautiful things about New Zealand that she didn’t think designers had explored enough in earlier years.

“The section is sometimes very culturally loaded, and I wanted to be able to do something that was a little bit more magical and didn’t necessarily use those stereotypical materials and shapes – flax, black, red, white,” Meharry says. “I love colour in a crazy way but it’s sometimes quite hard to find that in the Aotearoa section.

“I think it is such an amazing unique country with all sorts of different voices that sometimes the voice in that section is a little bit monotone, and I thought it was a challenge to do something that reflects how I feel about New Zealand; that it is quite a magical special place.”

Kotuku on stage in the 2012 WOW Awards Show

The pair used a similar approach with The Exchange.

“It’s about the Treaty of Waitangi, two cultures meeting – it’s a dialogue that’s very sensitive for a lot of people in both camps and it relates to the continual dialogue that will always be there,” English says. “You could say it relates to New Zealand being a very multicultural country now. And it’s not just the colonials any more; it’s a lot of other countries, beliefs and religion coming together. There will be this continual dialogue about everybody’s place or entitlement within the country as a whole and how we see ourselves.”

As difficult as cultural conversations can be, she says art is a wonderful place to hold them.

“As time goes on we become so multicultural and it’s not so easy to pigeonhole anybody. As the generations go on, our lines become more and more blurred. The Exchange was about that dialogue; nobody should be afraid of having that conversation and as ugly as it can be sometimes, with anything that is a difficult subject, you shouldn’t be afraid to talk about it.”

Meharry agrees.

The Exchange on stage in the 2013 WOW Awards Show

“I think The Exchange is quite shocking. To have a Maori warrior wearing the Queen’s gold and to have the queen or crown’s head represented wearing a cloak; it’s quite a shocking role reversal and not something we normally do.

“I really enjoy that dialogue between culture, between postcolonial and Maori; that’s my bag,” she says. “But I can see that for other designers it could be intimidating; it feels like you should be producing work that might have an original cultural tang to it, and then it feels like appropriation.

“I come from a generation where we’re culturally sensitive with that type of thing, but I think there’s a starkness about it as well. That’s what we wanted to show – all the time we borrow from all cultures, and that makes us a successful society, taking, giving, listening, talking.”

She adds that there’s room for so many more interpretations of “Aotearoa” in the section, and she’d love to see designers be more inclusive of other cultures.

“I’d like people to use it as a way to interpret their New Zealand and to celebrate their story, whether it’s 100 years, 200 years, or 20 or five years old,” she says. “It helps if you’re trying to tell a story in your work, and I think that’s what WOW for me is about; the chance to tell a little story. It’s like being a writer but using your hands. It’s like poetry, short little things put together that make you stop in time a little bit, and make you go ‘Wow’.”

Photos and drawings provided by Natasha English and Tatyanna Meharry