Twenty-one women with facial moko opened their doors to photographer Putaanga Waitoa.

She hopes she's repaid the faith they showed in her.

Waitoa opened her "Who am I to wear Moko Kauae" exhibition at Arts Inc Heretaunga, the Hastings Art Gallery, on March 16.

The exhibition features 20 portraits of 21 wāhine from around New Zealand who have Moko Kauae.

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They are framed with recycled weatherboard that once held together Kahungunu state homes.

Each portrait is accompanied by a personal story which the women wrote themselves, Waitoa says.

"It's about creating a space for both Māori and Pākehā to come and learn more about women who wear them [Moko Kauae] and why they wear them and have access to read their stories".

Waitoa found the interested women through her social media and travelled all around Aotearoa last year to meet and photograph them.

"It was quite a big thing for them to welcome me into their house and let me take photos for something so public."

Waitoa refers to Moko Kauae as "an extremely controversial subject".

"Since colonisation our women have been through a lot. They've been through resistance, through violence, through a Pākehā system that has really radically changed us.

"It's put all these terms and conditions on something which is actually our birthright.

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"Even from our own people it's very controversial," she said.

Her work features a collection of portraits of wāhine from around Aotearoa who have Moko Kauae. Photo / Paul Taylor
Her work features a collection of portraits of wāhine from around Aotearoa who have Moko Kauae. Photo / Paul Taylor

Waitoa said some people believe only certain women can have Moko Kauae or women have to be from a certain bloodline, do certain things, be of a certain age, of a certain familial status or speak Māori.

She describes the comments she has received about her work photographing Moko Kauae as "cut-throat".

Waitoa believes the only condition for getting Moko Kauae is that the person has Māori whakapapa.

"It's not what colour you are, not what colour your eyes are, it's not what you speak, it is where your whakapapa is from and I believe it has to be Māori."

As part of the exhibition a discussion panel of five wāhine was held on Tuesday night to answer questions surrounding Moko Kauae and receiving and wearing it.

It was about "creating a space for Māori wāhine to be safe, ask questions, discuss and connect".

The exhibition is also about "decolonising the photography process" so none of the portraits are for sale.

"It is important for me to retain the mana of the women with me and in this space.

"Indigenous people have always been in front of the camera and exploited for monetary gain."

She talks about portraits of ancestors being sold for money throughout the world.

"Pākehā artists would paint our nannies ... now they're in homes of strangers all around the world because they're seen as this exotic artwork and I just never believed that I would do that.

"It was never about making money."

On Sunday the women in the portraits were able to have the first look and the exhibition was blessed by Waitoa's grandfather.

It officially opened the next day Monday, March 16 to a pōwhiri, haka, dancing and singing.

Waitoa plans to continue the project as "there's such a big call for it now".

The exhibition is open at Arts Inc Heretaunga at 106 Russell St South in Hastings until March 29.