"I can't even come close to expressing with words what my experience at the Māoriland Film Festival this year meant to me."

Those are the words of Kāpiti artist Theo Arraj who painted two murals at the Māoriland Hub during the festival this year.

Using aerosol cans on a shipping container, Theo created two pieces with the experience reawakening him to the Māori culture.

On one side he created a piece celebrating the now extinct huia bird and on the other, his depiction of Tangaroa, the Māori god of the sea.

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"There's a lot of mental prep that goes into creating a wall."

The back of Theo's mural featuring his depiction of Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea.
The back of Theo's mural featuring his depiction of Tangaroa, the Maori god of the sea.

Taking three days before the festival creating the huia and four days during the festival to create Tangaroa, Theo's process starts with a concept which is then turned into a digital sketch before the spray cans come out.

"I was approached by Māoriland and given some idea of what they would like.

"The huia was one idea but I was given the freedom to do what I wanted.

"Māoriland for me was a huge part of my reawakening to the beauty of Māori culture.

"Being welcomed onto the marae was an amazing experience.

Theo Arraj working on a mural at the Maoriland Hub.
Theo Arraj working on a mural at the Maoriland Hub.

"Everyone was super accommodating, making sure we were all well looked after.

"Sometimes I'll go to paint a wall I won't even get offered a glass of water but these guys were like, we're going to pray, we're going to sing and celebrate the fact that you are here to paint and we are going to make a big deal about it.

"It's nice for people to really appreciate your crafts."

However, while always inspired by Māori and indigenous cultures it was only at the festival Theo was able to really connect with the culture he has grown up surrounded by his whole life.

The front of Theo's mural at the Maoriland Hub featuring the now extinct huia bird.
The front of Theo's mural at the Maoriland Hub featuring the now extinct huia bird.

"Being brown I was often treated like a Māori through school but never quite fitted in."

Being half Lebanese and not sure about the other half, coupled with the religious beliefs of his parents growing up, Theo was not allowed to do kapa haka at school leading to a disconnect with Māori culture and traditions.

"I was born on this land, I've grown up breathing this air, swimming in these oceans, rivers and lakes, eating the animals and plants grown here, I've communicated with the spirits of this land.

"In my eyes and heart that makes me a native.

"I feel like I resonate with and have always been super inspired by indigenous cultures and from the moment I arrived at Māoriland I was treated like instant whānau by everyone."

From being welcomed onto the marae to being accepted and celebrated while there, Theo was amazed by the respect that was given to the arts and the people.

"Even just meeting someone for the first time with a hongi. It's so much more than a handshake.

"You are right there in someone's space and it just breaks down barriers.

"You're sharing the breath of life. It's beautiful, I love it."