When Pati Solomona Tyrell told his parents he was gay, his mother advised him to make a name for himself and show the world he would be a success.

This week, Aotea reminded her young artist son of her words when he called his parents to say he'd been nominated for the Walters Prize.

At 25, recent art school graduate Tyrell is one of the youngest artists to be nominated for New Zealand's most prestigious contemporary art award. He joins Ruth Buchanan, Jacqueline Fraser and Jess Johnson (with Simon Ward) as the four contenders for the biennial prize. They'll show work at the Walters Prize Exhibition at Auckland Art Gallery from August to January and, in November, one will be named as the overall winner of the $50,000 prize.

Tyrell told the Herald that while he was informed about the nomination three weeks ago — and had to keep the news quiet — it still feels overwhelming.


However, the 2017 Manukau Institute of Technology graduate kept the news to himself because he was busy appearing in the theatre show Fa'aafa in Wellington then travelling to Dunedin to open Fagogo, the exhibition which earned Tyrell the Walters Prize nomination.

Pati Solomona Tyrell, Fagogo 2016
Pati Solomona Tyrell, Fagogo 2016

Born and raised in Hamilton, he says his parents, Aotea and Solomona, have always supported him and his work. With his partner Tanu Gago, Tyrell cofounded the FAFSWAG collective for queer Pacific artists to get together, collaborate and support each other's art.

Last year, FAFSWAG were the artists-in-residence at the Basement Theatre and have quickly become recognised as exciting new contributors to the country's contemporary art scene.Tyrell says he hopes for the day when being a young, gay and Pacific artist is celebrated.

Choosing the four nominees, the Walters Prize jury — all experienced curators — Stephen Cleland, Allan Smith, Lara Strongman and Megan Tamati-Quennell looked at more than 30 projects by NZ artists here and overseas.

They say the four they choose represent outstanding contributions to contemporary art: "Our selection includes work that expands ideas of sex, gender and ritual, installations exploring the legacies of feminism and an immersive work that embraces and pushes technologies of moving image and animation."

Based in New York, Johnson says she feels "incredibly special" to be acknowledged in NZ with the nomination.

"I've been living and exhibiting overseas for many years but have always identified strongly as a New Zealander," she says. "Living so far away in New York has amplified these feelings even more. All of the people involved in making our collaborative work are New Zealanders - just scattered over different countries.

"Getting the opportunity to show this work back where our family and friends are means the world to us and I'm so excited about getting to return home for the exhibition."


Jacqueline Fraser praised Auckland Art Gallery for its role in her nomination.

"It's a great thrill to be nominated for the Walters Prize," she says. "I accepted so I could work with the excellent Auckland Art gallery staff who helped me realise The Making of Mississippi Grind 2017.

"It was a new work involving downloads from the internet, a false ceiling, strange bathroom light fittings; they followed my instructions perfectly and the gallery found me extra funding from daring sponsors."

Fraser says she'll make a new but similar work, The Making of in the Heat of the Night 2018, for the Walters Prize exhibition because seeing the same thing again would be boring for the public.

"The Walters Prize patrons and the Auckland Art Gallery enable new work to be respected and vindicates artists who never repeat or look back."

Ruth Buchanan, who lives and works in Berlin, says Bad Visual Systems was several years in the making and pushed her in ways she hadnn't experienced before.

"As a project and a position it is something I am very proud of," she says. "It feels very meaningful to me to be part of this group of artists who are all addressing the way in which we, as individuals and groups, shape society and the way in which visual culture, in all its forms, can deform or shift things in some ways.

"Over the years the prize has presented many very inspiring projects so it feels very special to be part of that exhibition history and I'm looking forward to developing a new bad visual system for the Auckland Art Gallery. "

While artists are nominated for specific projects, done any time in the preceding two years, they can make new work for the Walters Prize Exhibition. Tyrell says he's still thinking about this.

Ruth Buchanan, BAD VISUAL SYSTEMS, 2016
Ruth Buchanan, BAD VISUAL SYSTEMS, 2016

Ruth Buchanan: Bad Visual Systems

, a solo exhibition that included work by Judith Hopf and Marianne Wex, at Adam Art Gallery in Wellington in 2016. The jury described

Bad Visual Systems

as a complex exhibition that blurred the roles of artist, designer and curator while furthering Buchanan's interest in feminist thinking and practice by including work from other artists.

Jacqueline Fraser, The Making of Mississippi Grind 2017, 2017
Jacqueline Fraser, The Making of Mississippi Grind 2017, 2017

Jacqueline Fraser: The Making of Mississippi Grind 2017

, mixed-media installation, at Auckland Art Gallery last year. As well as large-scale, site-specific installations and a rap music soundtrack, this included thousands of individual collages. Three significant examples, which referenced films from Hollywood movies to cult classics, featured in the exhibition where film content was used to explore the production of image culture. The jury said

The Making of…

operated as a sponge for an array of popular cultural references, casting a "seductive" gaze towards celebrity, rap culture and high-fashion.

Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Whol Why Wurld, 2017
Jess Johnson and Simon Ward, Whol Why Wurld, 2017

Jess Johnson (with Simon Ward): Whol Why Wurld, 2017

, mixed-media installation, at Carriageworks, Sydney in 2017. The jury said the five-channel video installation, made with Ward, saw Johnson expanding her drawing into digital and architectural realms. Describing it as "optically complex and unsettling"

Whol Why Wurld

created a collision between Johnson's manually produced paintings and cutting-edge moving image technology.

Pati Solomona Tyrell: Fagogo, 2016, single-channel HD video at St Paul St Gallery in 2017. Fagogo is a traditional practice that involves theatrical and performance-based storytelling, which take place at night before sleep. The video work explored this border between sleeping and waking in a way described by the jury as powerful and rhythmic that sustained as sense of bodies undergoing transformation in time and in tune with a natural world which shunned the singular or, to quote, Tyrell, "I am not an individual". Performances, research and events associated with the collective FAFSWAG, of which Tyrell is a founding member and principal photographer, also featured.

Held every two years, the Walters Prize was started in 2002 to create a better understanding of contemporary art in NZ.