Topics: Arts, Entertainment, Tā moko/Kirituhi

Miss Universe NZ features in giant Māori mural

By Jessica Tyson
  • Auckland
  • North Island: East Coast
  • South Island

Miss Universe New Zealand says it has been a highlight of her reigning year to be featured in a giant mural by artist Erika Pearce.

Harlem-Cruz Atarangi Ihaia, from Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Porou, was 'blown away' when she saw the final product after being asked to feature in it a month earlier.

"I thought it was so beautiful and I couldn't believe that my face was a part of her mural." 

Harlem-Cruz says her favourite part about the piece was the kaupapa behind it.

It has two main symbols with the first focusing on the huia, the extinct species of New Zealand wattlebird, says Pearce.

“It’s a warning, message and lesson to be learned that these beautiful birds have become extinct due to our carelessness and our greed.”

The second symbol represents Harlem-Cruz, who wears pare kawakawa leaves in the mural.  The leaves are often worn in mourning during tangihanga “to represent the sadness and loss for this beautiful bird that’s gone,” says Pearce.

“I really wanted to work with someone who is an awesome role model and [Harlem-Cruz] has a really strong hold on her culture.”

Harlem-Cruz was proud to showcase her ta moko to the world at Miss Universe 2017 in Las Vegas. Source: Instagram

Harlem-Cruz, 19, was the first Miss Universe New Zealand contestant to wear a moko at the major international beauty pageant Miss Universe held in Las Vegas in December.

“I love that she caught a bit of flak for having her moko on show.

“I love that she just rocked it with pride,” says Pearce.

Another interesting part of the mural is a caterpillar that can be seen eating one of the kawakawa plants, making tiny holes in the leaves.

“It’s believed that the ones with the most holes in them are the ones with the highest medical qualities because that’s why the caterpillar chose to eat them,” says Pearce.

Pearce says this represents a metaphor that “things that appear perfect, aren’t perfect”.  

The mural is 30m by 5m in size and was completed over three and a half days using aerosols and acrylic paint. Source: Yoshitaro Yanagita

The mural is 30m by 5m in size and was completed over three and a half days using aerosols and acrylic paint as part of a week-long Christchurch festival, called Street Prints Otautahi, says Pearce.

“One day I did a half day and had to go home because I got sick.  I had to sleep because I couldn’t even breathe in my mask. 

“The wind was blowing away all my paint.  I stubbed my chin on the ledge because I couldn’t move it because it was so heavy.  There were tears.  I was just so exhausted.”

But after overcoming many obstacles, Pearce finished the mural on Christmas Eve with the help of her partner Dominic Fritsche and a YMCA volunteer.

Erika Pearce had the help of her partner Dominic Fritsche and a YMCA volunteer to complete the mural over three days. Source: Yoshitaro Yanagita

Wahine Project by Erika Pearce

Pearce says the mural is part of her Wahine Project, aiming to empower everyday women and connect the past with the present through myths and legends of the land. 

She describes the project as part of her ‘life mission’ to bring forward the strong female characters of the stories.

“Because when we were colonised it was a very male-dominated white man society, and so when the stories were taken down in literal form, a lot of the female stories were either dulled down or not given as much importance.”

The project started with a mural she did in Napier of two wahine, representing the meeting of Tangaroa's wives and people of the land and the sea.

She has since received messages of support from people around the world.

One was from a young girl saying, “sometimes I feel ashamed of my culture because of the negative stereotypes that go around but then I see your beautiful work and it makes me so proud to be a Māori girl.”

“That exactly the message that I want to get across. That pride in our culture,” says Pearce.

This year the artist plans to develop her project by inviting other wahine to talk and share ideas of culture and female empowerment.