It started with grief. Raukura Turei is candid when she talks about the origins of her art practice. Initially is was repetitive movement which found her drawing. Finding solace in repetitious action, becoming entranced. These were days spent alone in a friend's apartment, during winter in a foreign city on the other side of the world. The ego and corporeal intertwined - so to not have to actively dwell on the turbulent events of her present; and perhaps, to avoid giving thought about what might lay ahead. A woman finding herself at the end of a long-term relationship, now largely alone and far from home, recalibrating; rebuilding a life and an understanding of one's self.
When I meet Turei last month at her Freeman's Bay home on a bright Auckland spring day, she couldn't be further, physically or mentally, from the place where her work was first conceived. 'I'm probably in the best space I've ever been in', Turei tells me. She welcomes me into her living room, which also doubles as her studio. The space is light-filled and filled with books, art and houseplants. We sit on the floor and share kai and a kaputī.
A work in progress, Te poho o Hine Ruhi (2019), runs the length of this relatively small room; quite literally filling the space. The canvas, alive with iridescent colours, has an appearance akin to an oil slick. Turei tells me that this is a base layer and is now close to finish. She is waiting for the paint to dry before the final coat can be applied. It takes me a few minutes of close looking to locate a human form amongst the swirls of colour on this expansive colour field. The heavy daubs of aumoana (uku kahurangi or blue clay), which characterise the works of this series, will be applied with her fingers over the top of this. Turei gestures to another work on the adjacent wall to indicate what one can expect to see with the end result.
The Grief Series (2017) was Turei's artistic debut and featured abstract forms created in pastel on paper. This quickly evolved into further drawing studies, this time tracing the lines of the female form (her own), in a series entitled SELF, later that year. This body of work would then further evolve in the work we see presently; wherein the bodies have become less obvious, and more indistinguishable from forms which one might equally read as landforms, skies or water.
The introduction of uku (clay) and the use of hybrid polymers occurred last year when Turei was commissioned by the Adam Art Gallery Te Pātaka Toi, Wellington to produce a large-scale work; occupying the space originally designed for Colin McCahon's monumental Gate III (1970), within their Ian Athfield-designed building of vertiginous proportions. The hybrid clay polymer was devised by Turei as a solution to a problem which presented itself with this massive shift in scale. The use of uku was doubly important as it also enabled Turei to better convey some of the key ideas present within her work, through a literal use of whenua within it.
One of the things which sets Turei apart from many of her peers is that, whilst she is a trained and practising architect, she does not possess any formal training in the field of fine arts. Turei tells me that she considers this to be an advantage; that she feels a sense of freedom in her making, and that her ability to freely experiment with both technique and medium are a result of her being largely self-taught.
I ask her whether her art practice has influenced her architectural work, or vice versa. Perhaps this is too obvious a question. She pauses, then responds thoughtfully, 'Not directly, no - but I do feel a kind of freedom when I paint that isn't available to me in my architectural work.' Exploring her art practice offers her respite, the kind of creative work that frees her up to return to their more rigidly constrained profession of architecture. 'The constraints,' she tells me, 'are very different. In my visual work, I'm really only constrained by what the medium can and cannot do'.
Turei's work has been strongly directed from a technical perspective, through these aforementioned experiments with medium and technique. I'm curious to know whether she might begin to utilise kokowai and other Indigenous pigments too? When I ask, she's not eager to pre-empt future explorations and experimentation. She's aware of other artists who are occupying this space through either a traditional or experimental lens, and she's not eager to replicate, and besides - she is yet to exhaust the possibilities of the aumoana clay medium she is current working with.
The blue colour of the aumoana clay paint evokes that interstitial time, just before dawn. This time which has always had significance for us as Māori. Moving between the layers on the canvas evoke the wiriwiri, the flickering, moving between spaces, states. It's easy to get lost in the canvas, in a sea of thoughts and associations. I think about those long karakia that occur just before the dawn, before the sky breaks, I think about my own whenua and its silty clay soils, the shimmering blue of the harbour at dusk. As I gaze at the canvas, I think about my tūpuna whaea, the women from whom I descend.
We speak about our connections to whānau, whakapapa, whenua, and the diversity of experiences that connect us as wāhine Māori. Themes Turei has long been exploring in her creative work, irrespective of medium. This work (and those in the current series) are all based on images Turei takes of her own body, reproduced faithfully, although sufficiently abstracted through the making process so that within the final work this isn't immediately apparent. The process of making, Turei tells me, takes her outside of her own body, outside of herself. In the abstraction these portraits take on a sort of universal quality, and the soft shimmering forms suggest landscapes, bodies. Ngā wāhine, ngā whenua.
- Jade Kake, October 2019