By Catherine Healy
East & Bays Courier
Friday 24 August 2012
At the back of Sofia Minson's Glen Innes studio there's a 3-metre-high oil painting of a descendant of Hone Heke.
There must be countless layers of paint on that canvas - she's been working on it for at least a year.
She tried it in black and white, but thought it made him a bit too fearsome.
"It's important to get the effect right. I don't want it to be completely overwhelming," she says.
She's reworked the portrait in softer sepia tones. While he looks like an ancient warrior, Travis Rapana is very much a modern day figure and a friend of the artist. In his portrait he wears a feather cloak, holds a pounamu war club above his head and could be mistaken for a historical chief if it weren't for the lion tattooed on his chest.
It's one of a dozen new works Ms Minson will exhibit at Parnell Gallery from September 4 to 18. She's spending 12 to 14 hours a day in her studio applying the finishing touches and will do "a few all-nighters" before the exhibition opens.
Ms Minson is of Maori, Irish and Swedish descent and began exploring her Maori heritage through her paintings as a teenager at Macleans College.
After trying a science degree and then studying spatial design, Ms Minson says she couldn't ignore her calling any longer.
"I denied it for years because of all the bad press about artists being poor. But I've been making a living out of this for eight years now. Of course it has its ups and downs, but I think I'm quite business savvy and also lucky."
Her first solo show in 2004 was a sell-out and the 27-year-old has been exhibiting and selling ever since.
In 2011 the economist Brian Easton was given the task of curating a portrait exhibition of well-known New Zealanders at the National Portrait Gallery. He struggled to find good paintings of Maori figures such as Sir Apirana Ngata.
"There is no tradition of Maori portraiture since Lindauer and Goldie," he told Radio New Zealand at the time. In that interview Mr Easton mentioned Sofia Minson as an example of the young generation of Maori artists who are trying to change that.
"I think there's a story in their faces that needs to be shown," she says.
Having spent her childhood in Samoa, Sri Lanka and China, it wasn't until her family returned to New Zealand that the young artist had the chance to learn about her Maori heritage.
"The Maori side of my ancestry became important to me because I was separated from it while growing up. As a teenager I started by painting Maori myths, learning the creation stories.
"This is a journey to get to know the New Zealand landscape and keep it in my own psyche - both the mythological side and the historical side," she says.
The gallery is open seven days at 263 Parnell Rd, phone 377 3133.
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