In the Bag: Raukura Turei

Words by Yu Mei
Photography by Holly Burgess

Raukura Turei in her studio

Time is precious to Raukura Turei. As a multi-disciplinary artist, architect and mother, she spins a lot of plates. “You can imagine that the time to wax your legs barely exists in my rhythm,” she laughs down the line from her studio in Tāmaki Makaurau, a space run by Te Tuhi at the Parnell Train Station which she is in temporarily, before she moves into a more permanent space at Corban Estate. We caught up with her just after Matariki, during the precious one-day-a-week she’s carved out for her painting, and she’s busy maximising the time by gessoing up a stretched linen as we speak.

It’s one of many layers to her work, both physically and figuratively. The process Raukura is currently working with often starts with an under layer based on the form of a woman's body, her own, cropped and abstracted in a way that denies any form of objectification. “It's part of a large expanse, so that it cannot be seen through the gaze that creates objectification about female bodies,” she explains. “I often make these, and then love them so much that I don't want to do the top surface,” she continues, holding up a work ( pictured on easel ) that depicts the gentle curves of a clavicle, arresting enough to exist as a finished piece already. Yet the layers continue, with Raukura building up the canvases with materials connected to her whenua, before using an oil stick to carve out her unique form mark-making. The result is a hypnotic formation of swirls, colour and depth to get lost in.

Below, Raukura further explains the processes and meanings she explores through her art practice, the research it allows her to engage with, and the space it allows her to create for herself.

On her art’s relationship with the body

I've stepped further and further away from when I used to be quite explicit with my work being drawn from a body. I still have that as part of the process of how I draw my forms and curves, but I now extract it to a point where it's not directly evident anymore. And that's what I'm really excited about. It’s starting to feel more like patterns that have been drawn out of the natural world, and less by my own hand. The body is still there, but without being explicit. So it creates the space for a viewer to have their own interpretation, to connect with it however they want to. But I know for me where it comes from, and that's kind of enough.

It's not objectified. It's part of a large expanse, so that it cannot be seen through the gaze that creates objectification about female bodies. Where I reconnected with painting was around the time I had just separated from a long term partner who was no longer connecting with me on a sexual or emotional level. And it was about being 28, and re-learning myself as an independent, single woman, and trying to rediscover what my needs were, and what my body wanted. I was overseas, so I could be as destructive and empowered as I wanted to be. Which was great. I needed to shed all of the criticism and tension and rejection I felt in my own body, and I needed to know what it was I wanted, and how I innately want my body to be for myself, to connect to others, what languages it has.

But I had drilled in this huge sense of rejection in my own body, so the painting started to become about body sovereignty for myself and other women. And there's such a spectrum in that. One narrative in the background was that I was learning more and more about the horrors for indigenous women in Canada where I was living, and how their bodies have no longer become a site of sovereignty for them through a history of abuse from the white man. In the depth of my own grief I was starting to feel in a more visceral way the trauma that indigenous women's bodies have been subjected to in history. I think because I was at my most vulnerable. So it was like, okay, well, this is my little, quiet calling to indigenous women, about the sovereignty we have of our own bodies, and shifting how they can be viewed and respected. And not that we should focus on the outer gaze, but that we can take control of the way we are viewed, and start to reframe the narrative to empower our wāhine and our relationship to our bodies.

That's when I started to shift the focus from myself, and started to think about incorporating my research and connection to atua wāhine into my mahi. Re-igniting my connection and my relationship to our atua wāhine became an act of loving and respecting my own body, which I do through things like swimming in the ocean, and connecting with materials from the whenua.

These processes opened up learning more about the whakapapa of the whenua, of Hinetūākirikiri, and Hineukurangi, and acknowledging that they all come from our shared tipuna Papatūānuku. There's a feminine source in all our traditional pūrākau, despite largely being taught the ones about atua tāne growing up. This is just another colonial suppression of our history, and why I honour atua wāhine in my painting. The paintings are more about projecting not so much their power, but their importance. And the scale expands so much further than just the human body as a site — they become an expansive place that you can get lost in. Not one to objectify. So I think that's where the journey of the body has gone.

On her process

I’m currently working on a new direction that I haven't shown before, a series of works under the title Hokinga ki Tīkapa Moana. I've collected aumoana, which is a blue grey clay from the banks of Tīkapa Moana on the East Coast of where I'm from, and also onepū, that black manganite sands from the West Coast of Tāmaki, which is connected to my kuia, where she lived and then passed at Te Henga. These works bring the two coasts together, an act that coincides with my own reconnecting to my turangawaewae and learning who my kuia was as a person. There is a natural resistance there which is also evident in the differences of the two materials. I'm exploring mixing the two, and trying not to have any preconceived outcomes of where it’s going to go.

In terms of the process, I mix the clay with polymer binders so that it doesn't all just crack and flake off. Then I sprinkle onepū over the top and work into the thick surface in a process of erasure. Instead of using my finger, like I have in the past, I like to use neutral oil sticks which give me greater consistency and control. When I work the surface over a long period of time, it starts to affect the joints in my hands, so using tools reduces the cramping.

Every time I start a new work, I build on the experience of prior experiments. ( 1 ) I deviate little bits to see what happens. My problem is that I don't ever keep recipes of my prior mixes—it's like my baking, I just mix intuitively, which works most of the time, but not always. I could be more scientific about it, but I'm not like that with my painting. And I really like that side of it. The architectural practice is very controlled and precise, so it's really nice to have a place that has room for experimentation and error and play. It’s part of a process of letting go and letting the materials guide the outcomes.

On the relationship between her art and architecture practice

What I've just started to realise is that it isn’t so much about the architecture feeding into the art, and the art feeding into the architecture. It’s more that my artwork gives me a space to step away from the pretty rigid and linear path of my architectural education—painting provides a space that I can navigate completely on my own terms.

My painting is the space to actually work on myself, and what's important to me. I use it to research the areas I want to, such as my research into atua wāhine, to connect with other Māori art practitioners and collectives such as Kauae Raro, or to think about the materials that I'm using and where they come from. I use it to connect back to my whakapapa, and it's an incredible source for healing for myself, and as a tool for my own whānau, and finding ways to connect and shed our grief. These are things that have come out in the last few years, but really intensely in the last two, especially with COVID, and with having a child, and really wanting to address the parts of myself I don’t want to pass onto my kōtiro.

In turn, that helps to shake the way that I view my architecture practice, and distil what's important for me in it. It's funny—because the focus of my art practice is kaupapa Māori centric and very connected to who I am, and my own story—that's now manifesting in the kinds of projects I'm doing in my architecture practice at Monk Mackenzie. So in the last few years, and since having had a pēpi, I’ve been working on Papakāinga, and I'm now leading large scale projects for Waikato-Tainui. The crossover between the two practices feels like it’s empowering myself to have more confidence in the type of work I want to do, and the direction I want to go.

I guess once you start to put things out to the universe, they start manifesting, and the types of things that you are calling to do, do actually start coming your way. I would never have known any of that at the beginning, if I was thinking about, 'How does my artwork influence my architectural mahi?' My artwork has actually always been the space where I escape the pressures and rigidity of what is part and parcel with the architectural practice. Don’t get me wrong, my architecture projects are creative and very rewarding, but it’s relentless. Whereas in my painting practice, I can just do whatever I want. So it was always my kind of escapism.

On the benefits of not having a formal art training

I went to architecture school at the same time many of my friends went to art school, and I can sadly count on one hand how many still practice their art as a profession. That's one aspect.

Another is that when I was choosing between going to architecture school, fine art school, or engineering for some mad reason, my fear was that if I had to rely on painting to live, for money, that I'd lose the love for it.And this is a little 17-year-old me, thinking about what painting actually meant to me. There was this blockage saying, ‘No, I don't think I want to do that as a career path.’ And while I was pretty artistic in my architecture degree, I did then lose the practice of painting for many, many years.

It wasn't until I had moved overseas, with the intention of going to live in Vancouver with my ex-partner, that I started to paint again. After a big separation, and this period of grief, there was almost a primal calling of just wanting to draw and paint. I had very few friends over there, and it was leading into winter. So with the resources that I had, I'd go to art stores and buy paper and select a few colours of oil pastels at a time, and just started this ritual of drawing. It was quite a controlled, almost pointillist style, which allowed a framework for grief to just pour out, without having to think too much about it. It was just meditative and repetitive, but what it did do is it got me back into painting. And it helped me realise that it's a ritual that I need in my everyday life, and I need to be doing it every week. It's not about being in a grief stricken place—but it's a catharsis that allows me to shed what's going on in my head, and process things through my body, without having to put words to it. I also realised that I do really love my own time by myself, and that if I'm by myself, it's the thing I like to do. So it was like, ‘Oh cool, that’s a nice discovery. Thank you ex partner.’ [Laughs]

The other side I've come to realise later is that because I didn't come through art school, I haven’t had to position my practice in the canon of Western painting—I haven’t ever analysed my own practice against the tradition of New Zealand painters, or been pigeonholed into the thinking that you somehow need to fit within the lineage of Māori painters, or Māori female painters. All of that was irrelevant. It was like, ‘No, this process came directly out of myself through an unintentional act of just needing to do this catharsis, not related to any others, and any other kind of movements or art practices or histories.’ But what's really special is that if you fast forward to my painting practice now, it's now actually connecting with other Māori makers, and especially Māori female makers. All who are really close to me personally, and who I'm connecting with through my making, because that's what I find relevant today—feeding into the community of Māori makers, especially with our shared research of using whenua as a medium. ( 2 ) And thinking about where the materials come from that we use, and how important they are in terms of being connected to our own whakapapa, or our own experience of whenua. Sharing that sort of knowledge has been really cool. And we are in a way supporting each other, and feeding off each other, and getting creativity and confidence from each other. And that's way more important for me than having connected it back to criticism from, say, a formal teaching. For better or for worse, that's where it sits for me now.

On her love-hate relationship with social media

It has huge benefits, and there are people who work it well for their art practices, which I admire. Especially if they've got their mental health in check, and they’ve been able to disengage or disconnect how they see themselves as a person with what they put out into the world. But I find that quite a difficult space. My Instagram account is still private, lol. The amount of times my dealer was like, 'Just use it for your painting practice, and don't make it private!', and I'm like, ‘Fuck off! I’ll do what I want to do.’ But it just speaks to something about my nature, and probably my distrust in that space and how goddam addictive it can get. I think it's also from my time when I was acting, and so the types of followers you get are just creeps who have guns and their profile pics. So I was just like, cool, okay, nah. Now that I’m working as an independent with my art though, I’ll probably need to up my game.

I’ve had moments where I’ve been like, 'I'll get really proactive, and I'll just make it all about the painting, take off my personal stuff and just go for it.' And then I'm like, ‘Ugh, I can't even be fucked!’ And I just won't use it for a month. So it's a love/hate little battle. In saying that, the amount of connections and friends I’ve made with Māori artists through Instagram has been amazing, so I'll stop bagging it now.

On Matariki

It's been an amazingly busy time full of wānanga, especially with the acknowledgement of Matariki as a national holiday. Particularly in Tāmaki, with and iwi led Hautapu, events, exhibitions, movie screenings, Kaihaukai, talks and presentations, that are finally getting funding for this important time for Māori. But while it’s been busy and quite exhausting, it's also been incredible to feed off the creative energy at this time, especially of Māori women. Māori women are often the ones doing a lot of work in the background, and never getting acknowledged. So it's been a really amazing time to celebrate the work of a lot of Māori women who are doing amazing things. And being able to feed off each other's creativity has been really restorative, and has fed a lot into helping give new wind for the next half of the year.

I feel really inspired at the moment. It feels like it's never beena better time to be a Māori creative, which is wonderful. Especially for te reo Māori. The M9 event Ria Hall put together at the Civic was a rad celebration of incredible wāhine Māori. I also went to the te reo Lion King opening at the Civic, and I cried! So hard. And not just because of nostalgia. I never got to go to the movies and watch things in te reo Māori as a kid, but now my daughter can, and how fucking cool is that. Kia ora Chelsea Winstanley! It's a time where we're kind of going, ‘What are our wildest dreams?’ And then actually making them happen. And realising the way to do it is to do it ourselves.

[1] Much like Ilkin Kurt is intuitive with her style, Raukura Turei is intuitive with her measurements, whether it be mixing clay or baking—being scientific isn't really who she is.

[2] For Raukura, painting provides a space to work on herself, one she can navigate completely on her own terms. She uses it to research areas such as atua wāhine, to connect with other Māori art practitioners, and to connect back to her whakapapa.

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