Wellington artist Shannon Te Ao has won this year's Walters Prize, taking home a $50,000 cheque.

Te Ao , who was born in Sydney but now lives and works in Wellington, was selected for Two shoots that stretch far out 2013 - 14, a video work in a setting featuring plants, furniture and lights.

The video features Te Ao, barefoot and wearing a black T-shirt and jeans, reciting a poem. In different scenes he speaks to geese, chickens, a swan, a rabbit, a wallaby and a donkey. The words are taken from a 19th century waiata and Te Ao translates from te reo to English, using song and speech.

The work was first presented at the 2014 Biennale of Sydney, but Okea ururoatia (never say die) was new.


Earlier this year, Te Ao, of Ngati Tuwharetoa descent, told the Herald he wanted to highlight how we try to communicate with one another, but often end up talking past one another; the title references the whakatauki (proverb) E kimi ana i ng kwai i toro ki tawhiti, which describes a desire to find one's roots or trace relationships.

"I've always been interested in things which aren't black and white, the spaces in between, so I want to think about how we really communicate with one another," he said. "What I hope the work does, regardless of those who are sitting across from us, is to reinforce the requirement to respect and be respected and think about how we might calibrate the language we use."

The announcement was made by Doryun Chong, the Walters Prize 2016 international judge, at a dinner at Auckland Art Gallery. Chong says he was intrigued, touched and moved by Te Ao's art.

"As I left the space of his art, I felt as if I had not only been teleported but also had been transformed.

"I imagined him citing those lines [of an historic Maori song] to the end of time, with the rabbits, ducks and chickens, wallaby, swan and donkey by his side, while the plants wither and die, and come back to life again, and then again.

"I would like to thank Shannon for helping me remember that a powerful work of art is sometimes created by an elegant formula of a simple gesture and repetitions."

But he says all the artworks shown for the Walters Prize 2016 gave him the impression he was travelling to unfamiliar places. Chong noted that while the four finalists - Joyce Campbell, Nathan Pohio, Lisa Reihana and Te Ao - were exploring issues of international interest and importance, they brought unique touches to their work and he was impressed with its intensity.

Former Walters Prize winners contemporary New Zealand artists include Luke Willis Thompson (2014), Kate Newby (2012) and Dan Arps (2010). The Walters Prize is awarded for an outstanding work of contemporary New Zealand art produced and exhibited in the past two years, and 2016 marks the eighth iteration of the biennial award at Auckland Art Gallery.

The award was initiated to help create a greater understanding of contemporary art in New Zealand and to make it a more widely recognised, debated and prominent feature of the country's cultural life.