Taaniko and Vienna Nordstrom, two women who run a prison social initiative in New Zealand, have been painted by artist Tania Wursig as her entry into the prestigious Australian art prize.
The Archibald prize is awarded every year to the best painting of a living person who is distinguished in the art, letters, science, or politics.
It began almost 100 years ago in 1921 and these days artists from all over Australia, but also New Zealand and Pacific islands, can enter it and compete for the $100,000 prize money.
Artist Tania Wursig has been a portrait painter for the last 30 years and in 2011 began an artist’s residency in French Polynesia.
“The first year I went I absolutely fell in love with the culture, the people, the massive beauty of the place and I though I need to work out how to keep doing this,” she said.
Last year while back in Sydney she was introduced to sisters in law Taaniko and Vienna Nordstrom, two Maori women who were looking for an art space to work in.
The Nordstrom’s run a photography business called Soldiers Road Portraits in New Zealand.
They dress their customers in traditional Maori, Pasifika, Native American and First Nations outfits to then take vintage inspired portraits.
For Taaniko Nordstrom their work is all about helping indigenous people reclaim their identity.
“We use elements of our culture of our identity in a way that empowers all sorts of people,” she said.
Soldiers Road Portraits started in 2013 and after a few successful years the sisters-in-law decided to give back to their community and started a prison social initiative.
Maori people are over-represented in New Zealand’s criminal justice system and despite making up just 14 per cent of the country’s national population they represent 50 per cent of its prison population.
“Using out photography and using images of us looking like our ancestors for people that really needed the reminder of the mana which in English would be of the essence that each of us has even those that have made mistakes,” said Taaniko.
Prisoners are asked to write a letter to their ancestors and then have their photo taken in traditional outfits, and the photos then displayed in a temporary gallery in the prison.
Three pictures are taken of the prisoners with one to hang in the prisoners cell and one to be sent back to their family in the hopes the perception of the men inside prison can change.
“One of the feedback we got was from a man who had been released and when he got home his kids were sleeping but his portrait was hanging in their room and he just sat on the floor and cried,” Ms Nordstrom said.
It was this powerful impact that made Tania Wursig decide the two women would make for great subjects for painting.
“As a painter they are incredible subjects Vienna has the maternal energy and Taaniko has this feisty warrior element but they’re background story is so rich,” she said.
It’s now a waiting game until the Archibald prize’s finalists are announced, in mid September, but Ms Wursig said regardless of whether her painting places or not it’s the message she hopes people will love.
It’s an important piece not just because of who they are but because of what it represents in terms of not just women taking their power back, indigenous cultures I really feel like we are on this cusp where people are beginning to take notice and learn,” she said.
“I hope it does send that message.”