Metiria Turei at Blue Oyster Art Project Space. Image: Rory Sweeney

Metiria Turei: Beyond politics

In one of her first interviews since she walked away from politics, Metiria Turei talks to Waveney Russ about her new life as an artist studying at the Dunedin School of Art.  

Metiria Turei and I sit across the table from one another in front of her most recent piece of art at Blue Oyster Art Project Space. This work is a beautiful tāniko weaving, one of five pieces produced by emerging practitioners based in the South Island of Aotearoa, where the exhibit wā o mua is acting as a celebration of women’s achievements across time and cultures. Each artist has used items from the Hocken Archives to present a dialogue that bridges the history of the archive and present-day narratives. The exhibit acts as a response to Sisters Communing, a show running parallel at the archives to mark 125 years of Women’s Suffrage in New Zealand.

Turei’s name may not be the first you associate with the contemporary art world, and rightly so. Delving into this new realm of communication has been a learning experience that began from scratch, and she currently studies as a full-time student at the Dunedin School of Art. Turei took a rare moment to speak with me on her art form, and what this practice means to her going forward. She speaks of the first female Māori MPs who acted as spearheads for Māori representation in parliament, self-determination, space travel and the elusive Astronesian. Most of the talk focused on this not-so-distant future, where she has situated herself as she moves forward into a new world of creative communication.

Metiria Turei in conversation with the author. Image: Rory Sweeney

Many people are familiar with you from your two decades in the realms of law and politics, what has triggered this change over to the art world?

Before I went into politics, I had been doing a lot of creative work such as performance art with a group called the Random Trollops in the ‘90s. When law and politics are happening they are very time-consuming and it’s hard to spend time on creative pursuits. It’s really nice to have the chance to go back to that, so I’m studying a Graduate Diploma in Textiles at the Dunedin School of Art, which has been enormous amounts of fun.

Why textiles in particular?

I’ve been making costumes for many years. I’ve been knitting, crocheting, cross-stitching and all of those things, so it seemed like a good chance to turn it from making babies booties and hats, which are very useful, to making art and seeing if that was a thing that I could do.

Your work, currently showing at Blue Oyster, has a tāniko pattern twined into the fabric. Where does the inspiration for this piece lie?

I’ve been doing tāniko for about 25 years. This was a chance to use tāniko in a fabric text, so Grace and Māia [curators of wā o mua] gave me a photograph of Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan when she was here in Dunedin, and she was wearing this beautiful dress that she had designed. She was famous for designing dresses as a politician. She’s wearing this very beautiful dress that has tāniko patterns on it, so my piece is a response both to her dress and the patterns, but also to her position as a Māori woman in New Zealand politics.

My piece is called whakaniwha, which means to be at the spearhead or to be resilient and brave. It shows a story of all of the 30 Māori women who became MPs between the time we were allowed to stand for election and the 2017 election. It also shows them in time. One of the important stories that this tells us how long it took for Māori women to be elected, and for reasonably large numbers of them to be elected. So, inside it are other stories as well, stories about MMP and the effect that that has had on Māori women’s representation. There are stories in there about a number of women who were elected for the first time on their own, there are still not huge numbers of people. As a textile text, it has lots of different little stories in it if you know how to read it.

Metiria Turei, Whakaniwha, cotton, 2018. Image: Rory Sweeney

Does it act as a whakapapa of Māori women MPs?

Yes, I’ve called it a tāniko whakapapa of Māori women MPs, because it shows them and when they were represented in time. Each of them will have their own stories. Iriaka Rātana was the first Māori woman to be elected, but it was about 40 years after Māori women first has the right to stand, which was still a decade or so after they got the right to vote. There are 18 years between her and Whetu, and there are another 27 years between Whetu and Sandra [Lee-Vercoe]. The third Māori woman being elected into parliament took a very long time, and I’ve tried to show that in this piece. The timescale and the lack of representation are shown there as much as the representation is.

How do you feel the message that you are trying to communicate changes when bringing a traditional art form into a contemporary art space?

Whakapapa goes forwards, and it goes backwards. This show is a lineage backwards in time, but whakapapa also goes forwards. Putting traditional works or traditional styles of works in contemporary galleries is really important. The art form is not a snapshot in time. The art form is persistent. Just today, I was reading an article on contemporary jewellery and the women who are using traditional jewellery forms and traditional materials to make contemporary work. It’s the making of it in the time that they’re in, and it’s finding new ways of showing traditional techniques and forms in modern stories. This work is a modern story about Suffrage 125 and what that actually looks like for Māori women. It’s not the good news story that other suffrage stories might tell. By showing it in a traditional Māori form of weaving, it makes that point stronger.

How does using an artistic platform to communicate differ from using a political platform?

It gives people a chance to reflect on these stories. It’s a text in textiles, and like any text, it’s going to require a key to the language in order to be able to understand the stories embedded in it. For people who understand tāniko weaving, they’ll be able to see these stories really clearly and read this really clearly. For others, it will raise lots of questions, but those questions are really good. Doing this as part of an artistic communication instead of a political communication gives people time to think about it and reflect on it in a different way. It’s potentially more potent.

How do you see the agency of Māori creative communication evolving and transforming as we move into the future?

It’s continually transforming. I’ve been looking at Lisa Reihana’s work, In Pursuit of Venus and other digital Māori work. I’ve been trying to unpack how she is doing that by transforming stories from the past into new versions. Ngahuia Te Awekotuku is doing the same thing in writing, re-writing the Māori myths [Ruahine: Mythic Women]. There are other Māori women I know who are writing sci-fi about New Zealand and the Pacific. There’s a real movement at the moment of looking to the future, that it’s not just about the past. It’s taking the lessons of the past, taking out stories of survival form the past, and then turning them into these strategies that we would use to create a future in 50 to 100 years for us. A future where Māori and the Pacific exist and we are in control, we have agency and self-determination in all sorts of creative and exciting ways beyond the politics of the day.

Do you think that the events preceding the 2017 election will affect the public’s perception of your artwork?

I have no comment about that.

Where are you hoping to take your artistic career?

[Metiria stands up and picks a piece of lint off her artwork] I haven’t come to see it very often because I know I’ll keep doing that!

I have no idea. I am really enjoying the time I have to be creative. It takes a lot of thinking, much more time than people realise, whether people like the results or not. It is an intense experience to be involved in creative work like this, so I’d like to do more of it, but who knows.

On a personal level, how does your artistic practice serve you?

It’s another way of communicating. Whenever I’ve been in law or politics or whatever I’ve done, it’s always been about communication. I’ve done political communication, I’ve been involved in marketing and politics and all of those things, and this is just another way to communicate ideas, but possibly some ideas in a much deeper way. Potentially even more challenging to others than politics might be, because it’s more intensely personal. It’s quite scary having a piece in an exhibition. Scarier than a speech!

Would this be one of the first times that you’ve been intensely reflective about your personal experiences, instead of being altruistic for the benefit of the public or whoever you happen to be serving?

Yes, absolutely. Political work is primarily service. You are in service to your community one way or another, and everything you do is in service to them. This is almost the opposite, being in service to yourself, because you have to go inwards in order to be able to make the creation. You are making it available for anybody to consume. You have to open yourself up to all of the criticism that might come from that, but that’s also part of the experience. It’s a communication, and you need to be able to communicate those ideas to others. They will take it in, like it or not like it, understand it or not understand it, you can’t control that.

Are you planning on producing any works in the future that function as pieces of activism?

I did a piece for Urban Dream Brokerage late last year called the Activist Handbag, where I crocheted tools an activist might have in their handbag. That was heaps of fun. Now and then, yes, and my work for art school does have a political core to it because it’s about self-determination and agency of Māori to create our own future without any boundaries or constraints. But, I don’t want to use my creative work for political lecturing. It’s really important to me that it’s not that. It would be easy for people to feel that I ought to do that or am likely to because of my background, but people can do all kinds of different things in their lives, and this is a time for me to find a different way to communicate some of my ideas about those things in new forms.

Do you think your experience outside of the art world gives you a unique perspective when approaching these works?

I have a different perspective in terms of political context, in which some of this work is happening. Suffrage 125 is an inherently political subject matter to be dealing with, so I might have a different perspective about that. I consider myself to be learning this from scratch. Learning new things is fantastic and being prepared to make yourself a rank amateur after being an expert in another area is very liberating. You don’t have to know all the answers, and you’ve got every right to go and ask people questions. No one thinks you’re dumb. There’s a real freedom in it.

Are you working on any other artistic projects at the moment?

I’ve been working on my final project for the site exhibition at the Dunedin School of Art on November 23rd. That project is based on a developing theory about Astronesians, which is kind of a Pacific version of Afrofuturism. It’s a creative theoretical discussion about the agency of the black diaspora, and in New Zealand, we can use that same theoretical basis in the creative field to talk about the colonisation and decolonisation process, and what that looks like well into the future. Often, there’s an assumption that Māori art, or art by Māori artists, is always about what happened in the past. It is viewed as being very historically focused, but actually, we’ll only create a decolonised future by first imagining what it is and then talking about what it looks like. There’s really no better way than creative expression, whether that’s in writing, or music or visual arts. To be able to express that kind of imagining, so my work for art school is based on that.

wā o mua, curated by Māia Abraham and Grace Ryder, is showing at Blue Oyster Art Project Space until October 13th. The exhibit includes new works of art from Erin Broughton, Caitlin Clarke, Nina Oberg Humphries, Metiria Turei and Nadai Wilson.

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