There are those who say that art and politics don’t mix, but Tamatha Paul isn’t one of those people.
The 26-year-old, who could become one of New Zealand’s youngest-ever MPs if she wins the Wellington Central electorate for the Green Party next month, has found a way to combine her twin loves.
The talented artist has sold a number of her original artworks and prints to fund her campaign for the upcoming general election. It’s not the first time her art, which incorporates native birds and plants, has supported her political ambitions – last year, it funded Tamatha’s successful bid for a second term on the Wellington City Council.
“I don’t have spare money to throw at political campaigns, but I have skills and creative talent, so I used those to produce art that also has a political message,” says Tamatha, who is of Ngāti Awa and Waikato Tainui descent.
Growing up, a big inspiration was Māori activist, artist and Celebrity Treasure Island contestant Tāme Iti.
“The way Tāme uses art and symbolism in his work to convey political messages inspired me, and showed me politics does have a place in art.”
The youngest of seven kids, Tamatha was raised in Tokoroa with a grandfather who introduced her to art. “We didn’t have money for toys, but my grandfather turned the garage into a studio where he taught me to draw and paint with whatever we had. Art became a way to express myself.”
Speaking from the rented Wellington house she shares with four female flatmates, Tamatha might well have pursued a career in art, fashion or music if a degree in politics hadn’t come calling.
“My history teacher at high school suggested I study politics at Victoria University becauseI was good at arguing with him! But no one in my family had ever been to university and I didn’t know you could even study politics!”
It wasn’t long before Tamatha got involved in campus campaigns for ending sexual violence against women, which eventually led to her becoming the first wahine Māori president of the Victoria University of Wellington Students’ Association.
From there, it was a short step to local body politics. When she was only 22, Tamatha stood for the Wellington City Council as an independent candidate, campaigning on issues such as affordable rents and reducing the capital’s carbon emissions.
“My politics were shaped by the way I was brought up, so it was a natural step for me to officially join the Green Party last year. I had worked on campaigns with amazing women, such as Marama Davidson and Chlöe Swarbrick, who were fully supportive of me. In July, when Grant Robertson stepped down, I decided to run for Wellington Central.”
Having had a taste of the brutal cut and thrust of politics over the past four years has helped prime Tamatha to step into the Beehive if she wins the electorate next month.
“I’m not intimidated by becoming an MP because I know a bit about how it all works now,” she tells. “But also because I’m committed to representing the needs and dreams of constituents, and working towards a better community, city and country.”
When Woman’s Day speaks with Tamatha, she’s juggling a full schedule as a Wellington City Councillor, with her evenings and weekends campaigning for the Greens. It means there isn’t much time for either romance or her four-year-old English bulldog Biggie.
“Life’s been a bit crazy since I decided to run for Parliament because being a city councillor isn’t a nine-to-five job,” she explains.
“There can be early starts for dawn ceremonies or building blessings, for example, and then community events to attend in the evening. But I’m pacing myself because it’s important that I do both my day job and the campaigning well.”
Tamatha does, however, have those 3am moments when she reflects on how different her life is to many of her peers.
“Lots of my friends are going travelling, getting married or having babies, while I’m giving my twenties to politics! But I know that the sacrifices are worth it because the issues I’m advocating for, such as affordable housing and climate change, are urgent. I also acknowledge that I’m enormously privileged to be able to do what I do.”
When she does manage to get some downtime, Tamatha will head to her bedroom to paint and draw.
“I like any medium, but my favourite is painting with acrylics. I like to work on canvases but will also decorate anything I can find, such as the skateboard I recently painted. Art is my release and my bedroom is my safe space where I can create in peace.”