Studying at Toihoukura, EIT’s Māori Visual Art and Design School in Tairāwhiti has reconnected Renee McDonald to her whakapapa and will allow her unborn daughter to be brought up in an environment unlike what she had.
The 24-year-old (Ngati Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu), who was born and raised in Australia to Māori parents, moved to Tairāwhiti at the beginning of last year specifically to study at EIT.
“Because I never grew up knowing my culture and it wasn’t encouraged, especially living in Australia, I’ve always wanted to know more about being Māori. And now that I’m having a baby, I want her to be raised here and, in this environment, knowing her whakapapa and everything.”
While she had always wanted to study Māori arts, losing her job with Virgin Australia early on in the COVID-19 pandemic created the opportunity for her to follow her dreams.
“I’ve always been into art since I was little, but I just didn’t know you could go to school for it.
“My mother is actually from Gisborne so when I lost my job in Australia and wasn’t doing much, my brother was like ‘oh, you should go to Toihou’.”
She completed the NZ Certificate in Ngā Toi [Level 4] (Ka Tipu te Whaihanga [Kaupae 4]) last year and is now in her first year of the Bachelor of Māori Visual Arts (Te Toi o Ngā Rangi).
“For me, the certificate was more an introduction into Toihoukura because I didn’t know much about this place, and I wasn’t sure if I wanted to stay here and commit to three years to do the degree. But once I realised that I did love it here, I made the commitment to start the degree.”
Being able to live with her nan and having whānau including two brothers nearby made the move easier. “We would come here every summer, so it was an easy move in regard to moving countries.”
She says it was an easy transition from certificate to degree.
“I do feel I have been able to connect with my culture, especially at Toihou because everything from karakia in the morning, waiata mōteatea. I never got that growing up and now I’m fully immersed in it at Toihoukura. And what better way to do it than through our toi. So, I’m learning about my whakapapa, my culture and everything all through art.”
Renee says her tutors have been very accommodating during her pregnancy and have ensured that she doesn’t fall behind.
“With my tutors, we’ve come up with a plan so that I’m ready to go and can do all my mahi before.”
Tracey Tangihaere, the Executive Director of EIT’s Tairāwhiti Campus, says: “Toihoukura helps students to connect and engage with their own culture and whakapapa, its very important for our students like Renee to feel part of a big whānau.”
“Renee has managed to find out more about her taha Māori and her own essence, she will be able to help and grow her own whānau knowledge. Her personal experiences also contribute to other students learning, so lots of cross- pollination occurs. It’s awesome to watch people grow,” says Tracey.
Renee has travelled back to Australia to give birth this month alongside her twin sister Kaaren, who is due to give birth to a baby boy six weeks later. She will then return at the start of next year for the second year of her degree.
Being hapū has given her more motivation to keep going.
“I would like for Toi Māori to help me travel the world because I believe it can. And for my baby, I feel like it’ll be good for her. It will be a very different childhood to what I was given.”