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‘I am nourished by the landscapes around the East Cape and Bay of Plenty.’

Gems in this


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Gems in
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Feature by Exceptional ALIEN in partnership with Tourism New Zealand

The powerful creative expression of New Zealand artist Sofia Minson is born from her connection to the ancestors that walked before her and the land that lay in front of her. For Sofia, Aotearoa is alive with inspiration.

Drawing on her Māori, Swedish, Irish and English heritage, Sofia’s work pulls in historical context to paint the contemporary cultural zeitgeist of Aotearoa. In particular, Sofia’s time spent connecting with her Ngāti Porou ancestry in the East Cape and Bay of Plenty is what inspires her striking portraiture work and prolific landscape scenes. This connection to land and hunger for culture, paired with Sofia’s global upbringing across Samoa and Sri Lanka, are poured into her distinctive pieces. For the Aotearoa Country Special, we chat with Sofia about creative travel, and her East Cape and Bay of Plenty Travel Playbook.


On where you grew up

I was born in Auckland and when I was 12 weeks old, my parents, my two older sisters and I jumped on a plane and went to Samoa for a couple of years. Even though I was so young, Samoa became part of our family legend — I've always felt connected with the story of us being there. Then we came back and I went to school in East Auckland. When I was 11, we moved to Sri Lanka — my dad was a civil engineer. I spent three very formative years in Sri Lanka. As a teenager, this opened my eyes to different cultures, religions, and even different ways of schooling. I loved the multiculturalism of being in an international school. Moving back to New Zealand when I was 14 was a culture shock. I struggled to figure out what my own identity was. I hadn't been raised with my Māori culture or ethnic heritage, I was yearning to find my roots. That's when the art came in.

On how creativity connected you to your culture

I'd always painted and been creative, but when I was 14 and moved back, art became like medicine. It was my way to understand my place in the world and start forming those relationships with my ancestors. My relationship with the land happened through the paintings and learning about the myths and the legends of Aotearoa. It was also how I learnt about my Swedish, Irish and English heritage and how it all weaves together. It was my journey of discovery.

On where you go for creative inspiration

I spent a lot of time in the Bay of Plenty region. My grandparents lived there so our summers and long weekends were always spent at our family house in Ōhope Beach. In my early 20s, I started connecting with my Māori heritage through art and I wanted to take it to the next level. I did more road trips around the East Cape. My grandmother was from Waipiro Bay and Te Puia Springs, near Gisborne. I took myself on these road trips and reconnected with the sacred maunga [mountain] and awa [river]. Hikurangi near Gisborne is famous for being one of the first places in the world to see the sunrise, and being there at sunrise was special. I got so much inspiration from that first road trip. When I came back to Auckland, I just started painting — about voyaging histories and the mountain. I was being nourished by that landscape.

The signs, symbols and synchronicities of Sofia Minson's portraiture and landscapes aim to elevate the voices and culture of Māori people. Handing herself over to the process and allowing ideas to flow in the moment, it’s only after she finishes a piece that Sofia unpicks the root of her inspiration, like the tales of exploration of Polynesian demigod Māui and his potential link to Egypt. All artworks by Sofia Minson in order of appearance: ‘The Hero’s Journey’, ‘Sophia’, ‘Horus’, ‘Dimensions of Ina’, ‘Krishna Aoraki’, ‘Heavenly Bodies’.

On storytelling through portraiture

I used to do portraits with very plain backgrounds, and it was all about the person and their face. It really drew you in. Then at some point, patterning became hugely powerful to bring in a culturally diverse element — like the Victorian wallpaper. I wanted to bring in the sensual, highly detailed feel like in ‘The Hero's Journey’ and the ‘Sophia’ piece — those two sister pieces with the Victorian wallpapers. There's something so ornate about having that in the background. It's really powerful for the eye, but there's one singular subject as well, so you’re still drawn in.

On your creative process

I usually paint based on the right-brain intuitive inspiration, not really thinking too much about it. And then, I'll step back from the artwork and bring in the left-brain analysis of the story or a narrative. I write a background story and realize how many synchronicities are in the painting itself and what it means. It's like someone really thought about it, but I didn't really think about it. It's that intuitive kind of creative experience that brings it all together. It also helps other people relate to the work because it's almost a guidebook of signs and symbols, synchronicities, and some history that appears in the work. But of course, an artwork can mean a million things to a million different people.

‘I took myself on these road trips and reconnected with the sacred ‘maunga’ and ‘awa’. I was being nourished by that landscape.’

On the representation of Māori culture

There's a natural upwelling in me that has a lot of curiosity about the intrinsic wisdom in indigenous cultures. They've been around for so long and have held onto — despite colonization — a lot of the practices and the cosmologies that are so important for us to learn from. We need to remember who we are as human beings, including our ancestors and the stories of the past. There's an enchantment that's happening with the world right now. Even in Western culture, people are constantly seeking from the East, from indigenous cultures — you can tell that something is lacking in the way we're relating, so there's a lot of wisdom to be gained. That's why it's so freakin’ important to raise the voice of the indigenous cultures, particularly for me, because of my ancestral connection.

On respecting your diverse ancestry

Sometimes my ancestries are diametrically opposed to each other — there's a fraught history with English and Māori heritage, for example. When you have ancestors on both sides, it's about staying with both the trouble and the gifts that history brings. All of us have a diverse ancestry, and ultimately, we have some shared ancestry, when you go back many generations. That's another reason why I love painting about enrichment from a multicultural past, because we are all connected and we're all human beings.

On what ‘manaakitanga’ means to you

I have had relationships with healers who are into manaaki, which for me is well-being. It's about being taken care of, protecting, and helping to heal somebody so that they can express their greatest potential for well-being and happiness. So manaakitanga as hospitality would be about relationships and how we care for each other, and strengthen ourselves and thrive together. That's what it'd mean to me.

Sofia’s work is enriched by her multicultural heritage and nourished by ancestral landscapes and stories dotted across the East Cape, Bay of Plenty and Northland landscapes; the latter is where she is now based. Pictured here is Sofia’s great grandfather John, who was Irish, and great grandmother Matire, who was Māori, as well the ancestral carvings or ‘whakairo’ on Mount Hikurangi. First two images courtesy of Sofia Minson, following five images of Mount Hikurangi by Jacki Key.

On what makes Aotearoa so special

There's a lot we don't know about Aotearoa, therefore what makes it so special is that I'm always discovering new people, new myths, new ancient histories that maybe we're less familiar with. I get to have this relationship where I walk out of my house, put my feet on the land, and look up at the stars. I'm creating webs of relationships here in Aotearoa, and that's what makes it special.

On your favorite spot in New Zealand

The East Cape because you have Mount Hikurangi — my ancestral mountain and river. 


‘There's a lot we don't know about Aotearoa, therefore what makes it so special is that I'm always discovering new people, new myths and new ancient histories.’

On appreciating community

It’s inspiring to see little pockets of communities and how they relate to the land and each other on a small scale. When I moved to Northland, everyone had a very different background and even different beliefs, but they all helped each other out as neighbors, and it was the same in the East Cape. There's this pride in the land, and a different way of relating to what's meaningful in life. Going to a whole area where they just chill, slow down and learn to listen and be in the moment — that’s inspiring.

On your perfect day in the East Cape

You'd stay in Ruatōria — it's a really casual, quiet little town on the coast. Then you'd start with sunrise at Mount Hikurangi. You'd walk up, take it all in and then drive down to Waiapu River, pay your respects to the ancestors of the river. Then you'd have to go for a swim or surf at Wainui Beach and finish with fish and chips at Nūhaka.


Sofia finds inspiration in the little pockets of communities in the North Island. For her, it’s about the way they relate to their land and their ‘manaakitanga’ of how they care for one another. All photos shot by Jacki Key of Mount Maunganui (top two), Waiapu River (middle) and Waikite Springs (bottom two).

On top places to eat and drink

I’d recommend renting an Airbnb on the beach at Tolaga Bay, and either do a little barbecue for dinner or go to the local pub called Te Puka Tavern in Tokomaru Bay. I also love Ōhope Beach in the Bay of Plenty. Ōhope has it all: small cafés, like The Quay Cafe, and restaurants. It's a great surf beach and is where I spend most of my time, so I'd definitely advise people to visit. Be sure to also go to Ohiwa Oyster Farm to get some oysters and a fish burger.


On what's special about Waiapu River

For my tūpuna [ancestors or tribe], the tribal statement of identity is, 'Hikurangi is the mountain, Waiapu is the river, and Ngāti Porou are the people’. It’s about their sacred relationship with that area, the land, and the water. That's why I'd recommend going there to see and pay your respects to the river. It's something that's in the blood of the people, and at different times throughout my art journey, I've received messages from the river in my dreams. I'd meet a whole lot of ancestors, and in these dreams, everyone's crowded in the water. The waters hold people's memories, and the people and the river are one.

‘Caravaning is my new love — it's like having a land yacht, where you can go right to the lake's edge and plonk yourself down. A great place to take the caravan is Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, just out of Rotorua.’

On climbing Mount Hikurangi

You need permission from the local office in Ruatōria, and then you take a four-wheel drive path and walk up to the whakairo (carvings). You can spend the sunrise walking amongst these beautiful ancestral carvings. If you want to hike, maybe ask the ancestors, ‘Is it okay for me to hike further up?' When I tried to summit, it was a sunny day that turned into a deep fog. We weren't meant to go to the top.

On Tūhoe Country

I love Tūhoe Country [Te Urewera]. My ancestors are there. And the Tūhoe people are right next door. They've done an incredible job of keeping their rainforest beautiful and rich, and their Lake Waikaremoana is so beautiful. Everything feels prehistoric — all the natural webs are thriving and intact.


On the best stop on a road trip in New Zealand

Caravaning is my new love — it's like having a land yacht, where you can go right to the lake's edge and plonk yourself down. A great place to take the caravan is Waikite Valley Thermal Pools, just out of Rotorua. It has a great spot for caravans, and you can spend the day lounging around in the natural hot springs — they’re so gorgeous. There's a little café there, too. It's one of my favorite places. 


Since she was a kid, Sofia has been traveling to the East Cape and the Bay of Plenty, but it was only from her early 20s that Sofia took it upon herself to fully explore every corner and find solace in the grounding effects of the region. It was also recently that Sofia warmed to the world of caravaning, and she is now an eager participant in parking her ‘land yacht’, as she’s coined it, right next to the majestic sunrise scenes of Tolaga Bay (pictured first and last), Ohiwa Oyster Farm (images three and four) and Nuhaka Takeaways (image five). All photos by Jacki Key.

On a window or an aisle seat

When traveling by air, I prefer a window seat. There's a sense of freedom and expansiveness that gets your imagination going, just having that perspective where you can see the land so far away.

On a song that represents the Bay of Plenty and East Cape to you

That'd be Trinity Roots, ‘Home, Land and Sea’. It’s about that relationship with the land and what it means to have your roots in the ocean, the rivers. It really describes it beautifully and it's a heart-opening song.

On the Bay of Plenty and East Cape in one word


They ground me and help me to be rooted in the earth. They help my self-care and my relationship with my body and ancestors, so it brings me into that state of feeling grounded.


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‘I am nourished by the landscapes around the East Cape and Bay of Plenty.’