News | 29 May 2023
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The story behind the St James Mural

The St James Mural, Kia whakatōmuri te haere whakamua, was a collaborative effort between Pōneke-born mana whenua artist Keri-Mei Zagrobelna (Te Āti Awa, Te Whānau ā Apanui) and experienced muralist Tina Rae Carter. The mural is an epic 17 metres tall, and while the dynamic duo didn’t know each other before this project, they have come together to create a beautiful story of the land and heritage building.

Two women in high vis jackets standing infront of a mural.
Artists Keri-Mei Zagrobelna (left) and Tina Rae Carter (right).

Tell us about the story behind the mural.
Tina: The mural tells the stories of the land. The artwork begins at the south end of the wall at the mouth of Te Waimāpihi awa. 

Keri-Mei: Iwi called the awa Wai-Māpihi, the stream or bathing place of Māpihi, a local chieftainess of Kāti Māmoe and Ngāi Tara descent.

St James mural showing eel and curtains.

The mural is structured around the stream, which leads you out towards the harbour. Within the stream there is a giant tuna (eel), an ancestor. We see it as a taniwha that resided in the Waitangi wetlands. Waitangi is illustrated as a tuna to symbolise the rich abundance of eels and wildlife that would have inhabited the local wetlands. 

It’s not only the stream coming out of the mouth but it’s also about the words and stories we’re trying to portray visually - kōrero that were carried verbally throughout history.

Painted mural on the side of the St James Theatre.

There is a moko kauae, and inside this is an expansion of stars with the cluster of Matariki on the left and Puanga on the right. 

There are three silhouetted Ponga, which represents the remains of three whare ponga structures that were discovered, excavated, and protected during the construction of an apartment building on Taranaki Street.

Painted reeds as part of a mural.

The triangular structures along the wall represent Raupō (Reeds/Bulrush) whare. The whole waterfront used to be covered in wetlands and raupō was used as a building material for housing. When The New Zealand Company established their business in Wellington, they placed a fire ban and a raupō tax on the construction of raupō housing - so the art of the raupō and whare making has been lost. We wanted to bring forward that lost knowledge.

Tina: The grass at the bottom is also reminiscent of weaving and fringing, with kete and mats. Then, what we’ve woven into the south end is the story of the Royal New Zealand Ballet (RNZB) because they have been in this building since the 1990s and it’s their home we’re painting on. 

Painted dancer on the mural.

We’ve integrated them as a representation of Patupaiarehe, fairy-like creatures. The most realistic of the dancers is Mayu Tanigaito. She was one of the Principal dancer in RNZB’s interpretation of Cinderella. We’re combining stories of the building and its purpose with the dancers as well as the land and what was here before this theatre. 

Keri-Mei: As you move along, you notice the leaves are all shaded in the whare to show a pattern. In one light it’s a fish, which shows sources of food that would’ve been there when it was a wetland and a cross for tukutuku, another form of weaving. 

Mural on the side of the St James theatre.

Tina: When you view the mural from the Courtenay Place end, you are brought in by a giant theatre curtain. It falls from the top of the building and swings across the wall echoing the drama within the building and forming a protective korowai. It's based on the architecture inside the building, which is very Rococo-esque and influenced by the plasterwork of the theatre’s interior.

At the top of the curtain you can see there’s a cherub with kererū wings, blowing into a conch shell (pūoro). It looks down at the tuna, signifying that they’re having a conversation, exchanging music and inviting wildlife back into the stream. 

What was the process like?
Keri-Mei: Well, we didn’t know each other before this! 

Tina: The biggest challenge for me was the height. I’ve been painting in theatres my whole life, but for some reason this big scissor lift was so loud and grunty, when it swayed it would freak me out! 

Keri-Mei: Yea, manoeuvring the machinery was tricky. It was also my first mural and was so large-scale. There’s so much detail involved that not many people might see - the thickness of lines are intentional, we discussed every little bit. The whole thing was done by hand as well. It’s physical work! 

Worker on a lift painting a mural.

Tina: Of all the challenges, we wanted to bring out the dialogue inside the building along with the stories of the land. They work together without one taking over the other. 

Keri-Mei: We talked a lot about how we want to empower people to care and do something for the environment. 

Tina: The hard part was deciding how we could honour the artisans before us too. 

What made you want to do this mural? 
Tina: We realised we’re doing this for the community. I’ve lived in Pōneke since 2017, working for the ballet. I painted the inside of the St James. My kids were born here, and I spent time doing murals in the city when I was younger. It’s a full circle moment - returning back to where you started. You can clear the energy of the past. The air was thick in the laneway and now it’s a little more clear.

Two workers in high vis jackets painting a mural on the side of a building.

Keri-Mei: I was born and bred here. My mum and I used to work on Courtenay Pace. This city is home. I believe that you can inspire people through your actions, you can encourage tamariki to do things. We’ve had comments from people that recognise themselves in the mural and want to beautify our city too. Something positive can ricochet out from our small actions as artists and it can make our communities feel loved, inspired, and cared for. 

Not only do murals add a sense of creativity and vibrancy to the central city, they provide a proven proactive approach to reducing graffiti. Art in a public space gives the impression an area is ‘cared for’, that there are eyes on it, thus reducing the likelihood of crime or vandalism taking place. The programme for murals around the city aligns with the values of the Pōneke Promise, through the revitalisation of public spaces it contributes to our goal of a safe, vibrant and welcoming city.