This story was also published in Sunday magazine
Matariki and her daughters make the annual journey across the sky to visit their kuia, Papatūānuku, at the turning of the Māori new year. In a showcase of light, these whetū [stars] encourage all to find the beauty and brightness within. Traditionally it's a time of reflection and rumination.
Three modern Māori wāhine were invited to wānanga [ponder] the attitudes behind “Māori Beauty” and despite their separation in age, occupation and location all women agreed beauty lies in “connection”.
Bask in the glow of Matariki this June, as her annual trip reminds all to continue carrying this torch of light throughout the year. These wāhine rangatira confirm that a connection to nature, to people and especially to ourselves allow us to blaze most brilliantly.
Kua haehae ngā hihi o Matariki. The bright rays of Matariki have spread.
As a practitioner of tā moko Julie Paama-Pengelly (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāi Tūwhiwhia) is an embodiment of the kīanga [expression], “adornment is all about connectivity”.
Paama-Pengelly asserts that the beauty in tā moko lies in its ability to “animate the inanimate”. Using kōrero tuku iho [passed on wisdom] she physically etches the connections of whakapapa, whānau, stars and oceans, which lay crucial to the identity of ngāi Māori.
“I think for Māori taking on moko, it’s so beautiful because it is an immediate identifier of our people. It’s an opportunity for connection. This elevates our sense of self and pride.”
Paama-Pengelly is currently practising out of Art + Body Creative Studio in Mount Maunganui and is honest about her own journey of self identity and acceptance.
“Honestly, I’ve never felt beautiful. But since getting my moko kauae done I’ve been filled with this overwhelming sense of wholeness.”
Paama-Pengelly begins to beam, “I’ve not had my kauae done for very long and I’ve never doubted I was Māori, well not since I was very young. But since receiving it, I get greeted more intimately by people. I now hear ‘Kia ora Whaea’ and I’ve found that connection is often what we’re all craving.”
Whaea Julie demysties traditional perceptions of beauty by explaining that tupuna never talked about a “certain look”, rather they amplified the qualities of a person’s āhua [characteristics]. Often likening them to something else within the taiao [environment].
“When you look at the words that describe beauty in a Māori sense, they always talk about a connection to something else in the natural world. I think that’s what it’s all about, connection.
“Beauty isn’t a judgment of how you look in a Western sense, it’s a judgment of how connected you are to our tupuna and whenua.”
Trying to break into mainstream social media platforms as a culturally connected Māori rangatahi has been no easy feat for Awatea Rikirangi-Thomas (Te Arawa, Ngāti Ranginui).
Currently a design student freelancing as a digital creator, Rikirangi-Thomas admits that a big word under beauty is “insecurity”.
“Beauty is unfortunately subjective and social media holds standards that I don’t necessarily agree with or like.”
She says social media is rife with embellishment and brimming with false narratives a empting to portray a societal standard of wealth, beauty and popularity. A standard coveted by many and only achievable to those of privileges, the online beauty communities are big perpetrators of the standard.
Rikirangi-Thomas, lucky to be raised in her Māoritanga, champions the positive influences that being culturally connected has given her.
“When I hear beauty I automatically think of the expectations put upon women to look a certain way. Whereas beauty can actually come from anywhere; your traditional dress, your genetic makeup or even speaking your mother tongue. These are the things that make me feel beautiful.”
Having been raised in the first reorua [bilingual] city, Rotorua, Rikirangi-Thomas conducts herself in a way that connects tikanga to the forefront of all her interactions.
“I don’t see many Māori in my line of work, so I feel a sense of responsibility there. For example, when entering a partnership, I always ensure a brand isn’t negatively affecting Papatūānuku or Tangaroa. I also inquire to see how these labels interact with mana whenua. This is how I approach kaitiakitanga [guardianship] in a modern-day setting."
Working within the industry, Rikirangi-Thomas ensures that because of its subjective nature, rules are often shifting in the beauty space. She encourages all to pursue beauty in their own time and space. “There’s no right or wrong way to do beauty.”
Terangi Roimata Kutia-Tataurangi
“Working in a consumer-driven industry, like beauty, is inherently against tikanga,” says Terangi Roimata Kutia-Tataurangi (Ngāti Konohi, Te Aitanga-a-Hauiti).
Having spent 20 years as a nail technician, Kutia-Tataurangi notes that while traditional beauty industries bank on insecurities, Māori beauty has always been about the holistic connection between outer-self and inner nature.
“It gets under my skin when people stereotype beauty services as a superficial thing. Yes, there are elements, but there’s more to it. From a hauora [wellness] perspective, there’s so much more.”
Kutia-Tataurangi says she steps into a space of tapu when working with clients. Currently running Ariaariki, she considers herself a keeper of kōrero to the many women who pass by her hands.
“When I’m doing my mahi it’s very intimate. A lot of women will share deep things with me, cry with me and even call me their therapist. So yeah, it’s far more than just pretty nails.”
While the toimaikuku [Māori nail art] technician recognises the connection between looking good and feeling good, she says her designs also bring a cultural connection, which bene ts the wellbeing of others, she says.
“Anyone who does toi Māori [Māori art] knows that it’s so much deeper than the pattern themselves, it’s the kōrero and whakapapa associated. When I’m doing nails, the designs will come intuitively and clients usually bask in how connected they feel to tupuna. So I feel like I’m doing something for their hauora as well.”
Asking Kutia-Tataurangi what “Māori Beauty” really means she upholds the mana tuku iho [inherrented prestige] that women living their authentic Māori selves carry with them.
“The aunties in the kitchen, nannies on the pae, the women living their authentic Māori lives. For me, that’s a beautiful Māori.”