Sofia Minson creates maori portraits where once passive gazes upon them are redirected, where strength and autonomy beam out from the inside of the canvas. Mythical landscapes that pay homage to the creation myths and voyage histories of her native New Zealand, like travel mementos from a fever dream, vividly haunting in their details and the objects they include. Sofia works much like an archivist, but one who deals in living matter, these stories and people are not just of the past, they live in every breathing pore of the here and now. They are poetry on the move and they are not bound to a single spot, a single story.
AHC: What first drew you to art? Was there a specific moment in your life or turning point where it became clear to you that you were being called to create?
Sofia: I was always painting, drawing and creating since I can remember, there are drawings my mum has kept from when I was two years old. A lot of kids are like this, the only difference is I never stopped!
AHC: Could you talk some about your overall process, themes & inspirations?
Sofia: I'm inspired by my mixed Ngāti Porou Māori, Swedish, English and Irish heritage as well as the taonga (treasure) that are New Zealand’s people, land, forests and birds.
I spent much of my childhood in Samoa, Sri Lanka and China due to my father’s civil engineering work. Now painting from my Auckland studio, my contemporary portraits, landscapes and images of nature often contain patterns from ancient cultures that celebrate connections between diverse peoples.
My ideas and techniques have evolved over the last 13 years of being an artist professionally. For the first decade I was painting New Zealand landscapes and seascapes with waka and obsessively honing a moody, glowing oil painting technique. For the last couple of years I’ve been playing around with water-based paints and and highly detailed patterns and symbols from Pacific and Asian cultures.
The Warrior and The Lover
AHC: Who are some of your artistic influences? Is there anyone outside of the art world whose work has impacted your own, or who just generally inspire you, writers, filmmakers, musicians etc?
Sofia: When painting Maori portraits I look to historical C.F. Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer portraits and old black and white 20th century photographs of Maori.
My inspiration for ideas largely comes through audiobooks and podcasts that I find fascinating. Often they're about ancient civilizations, human nature, cosmology, or just plain entertaining. The spiritual element in my work is often enhanced by listening to things like the Tao Te Ching, Khalil Gibran's "The Prophet" and Rumi's poetry.
The Other Sister
AHC: In your series of Maori oil portraits, your subjects evoke such strength and dignity, could you talk a little about that series, how and when the idea came to you and what this series means to you?
Sofia: The first Maori portrait I created was in 2006 of my own Ngati Porou great grandmother Matire Te Horowai and the idea has evolved since then.
Like in early 20th century Goldie and Lindauer Maori portraits, I try to re-create that centuries-old romanticism and depth, which is quite nice for a change in this modern, digital, face-paced world.
I'm interested in painting creative and inspiring Maori people who are helping to evolve today's culture through their own art forms or roles in society. The works explore the modern meaning of heritage for an indigenous culture living in a post-colonial country.
Few people realise that there is actually no tradition of Maori portraiture since Lindauer and Goldie. There are no good portrait paintings of most of our most eminent Maori figures. So, I feel like I'm filling an important niche by creating Maori oil portraiture for my generation, using the traditional Western medium to show contemporary Maori as a vibrant and evolving people.
In the early 20th century, Western colonial artists took it upon themselves to record in precise detail, the 'vanishing race' of Maori. This was a belief commonly held at the turn of the century. I intend to use their medium to show Maori as being a very much living, evolving and creative people, inhabiting real and current time and space.
My large-scale, close-up paintings often tower over you in size and hold your attention with detailed, highly realistic eyes. Often the portraits are painted with a grey or sepia palette that alludes to 19th century black and white photographs of Maori who were posed and adorned with status-defining feather cloaks, huia feathers, Ta Moko (face tattoo), pounamu (greenstone) and other taonga (treasures).
My aim is to redirect the ‘gaze’ of indigenous portraiture. Rather than European colonial painters and audiences gazing upon Maori subjects, as a Ngati Porou artist I am depicting fellow contemporary Maori people. The gaze is now between Maori and out of the canvas to the rest of the world.
AHC: What was the most difficult piece for you to create, technically and conceptually? Have you ever had to abandon a piece because the elements just weren't coming together in the right way?
Sofia: I've abandoned many pieces! Sometimes I paint over what my husband thinks are perfectly good paintings. But for me there's something about them that annoys the hell out of me, haha.
I would say one of the most difficult pieces for me to create was the Travis Rapana portrait, purely because of the size - 3 metres high x 2 metres wide. It sat there for 2 years while I worked on it bit by bit while doing other works as well. At one point he was nearly done, he was painted totally with black and white paint, and I decided he needed to be a sepia palette instead. So that new sepia look and brown skin tone took weeks and weeks to complete as another couple of layers of oil paint were needed over the whole 2 x 3m canvas.
AHC: What is the first work of art you encountered that took your breath away?
Sofia: Hmmm this is a hard one because I think my breath gets taken away when I hear a really powerful piece of literature or piece of music that makes me tear up, gives me chills or that feeling of connection. I create visual art but I don't actually view a lot of painters' work at museums and galleries. When I look at pictures of art it's often with a critical eye and I'm thinking about how I could use certain elements in my own style in my own work. As I mentioned in an earlier question, things like the Tao Te Ching, Khalil Gibran's "The Prophet" and Rumi's poetry really get me going.
AHC: Are there times when you become blocked creatively? What do you do to rekindle inspiration?
Sofia: Omg absolutely!! Sometimes my "painter's block" has lasted for months and I've become quite depressed. I'm usually blocked because I'm not working in a way that is authentic to me. But those struggles have taught me how I work best!
I'm happiest when I'm playing in the studio, staying innocent, not worrying about what the world thinks about my art, and listening to fascinating audiobooks, podcasts and music. Also after travelling, whether it be a road trip around NZ or a trip overseas, I'm always fresh and rearing to get painting again with clear ideas. I think it's the perspective you get on your life and what you're passionate about, when you change your environment.
AHC: Do you have any upcoming exhibits or new projects you'd like to tell people about?
Sofia: I'm currently staying as playful as possible and creating work just because it's fun, rather than thinking about how and where it's going to be exhibited. However in the real world, yes I do have a few things booked...
I have an upcoming solo show of a tonne of brand new work in June 2017 at Parnell Gallery in Auckland, New Zealand. Every year in October I paint live, outdoors with Jazz musicians at the Queenstown Jazzfest, which is such a lot of fun so come and join us for some good music and art in the mountains. I also have another solo show in January 2018 at ArtBay Gallery in Queenstown already lined up.
Aroha mai, aroha atu (Maori proverb meaning "love received, love returned.")
For more information, updates and artwork visit www.newzealandartwork.com/
All images © Sofia Minson
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