Kōrero Mai

When Tauranga local Aroha Tamihana launched Maimoa Creative, it merged her loves of te reo and design. But while sharing her journey to reclaim her language, the scope of her mahi has evolved beyond the page.

When Tauranga local Aroha Tamihana launched Maimoa Creative, it merged her loves of te reo and design. But while sharing her journey to reclaim her language, the scope of her mahi has evolved beyond the page.

From parodies about being a shellfish-averse Māori and dances that shrug off social media haters, to discussions on tīkanga (customs/protocols), pronunciation guidance, and reciting karakia to her children — if you follow Maimoa Creative on Instagram, you’ll know that Aroha Tamihana, 29, is a woman of many talents.

Aroha designs text-based artwork that celebrates te reo Māori. However, through her regular presence on Instagram, sharing (and often spoofing) the high points and challenges of the journey to reclaim her culture and language, she’s gone from selling products to establishing herself as an impactful exponent of te reo and Māoritanga, with more than 25k followers.

A completed whakataukī and a selection of gold-embossed greeting cards.

World View

Aroha didn’t have a typical Kiwi upbringing, not by a long shot. Her Māori father and New Zealand-born Dutch mother were missionaries: she was born in the Philippines, then brought up in Tajikistan from the age of 2 until 11. “Tajikistan is a third world country and my parents decided to go in the middle of a civil war with their four kids,” she laughs. “But they were just so faith driven, they believed they were called to be there.

“We went to a missionary school, so I grew up with kids from all over the world. I have the best memories, everything was so simple, we weren’t materialistic at all — you can’t be over there. That experience makes you very open minded and accepting of all cultures.”

Although there were regular visits back to Aotearoa, when she finally moved back, she experienced a type of “reverse culture shock” when faced with her new life. It was a few tough years for Aroha, recognising she was different and trying to fit in (the strong American accent didn’t help). “I guess from that came a lot of the doubt and the questions around my identity as a Kiwi, but also as a Māori who never grew up with her Māori culture.”

These thoughts grew as she grew up. “It became apparent that something was missing,” she says. “I was never too fast to tell people I was Māori, as there was a lot of shame — if I say that, there’s going to be expectations; if I say that, then people expect you to know how to be Māori and I didn’t. So there were a few years where I didn’t necessarily deny being Māori, but I wasn’t embracing that part of my identity.”

Turning Point

Embracing her Māoritanga (Māori culture, practices, beliefs and way of life) was gradual, but Aroha does cite two key factors. Firstly, meeting her husband Hamuera, who is a te reo teacher at Bethlehem College and a fervent advocate for all things Māori. The second was her dad encouraging her to study alongside him at University of Waikato’s full-time immersion course, Te Tuho Paetahi in 2015. “That was probably the most life-changing year in terms of connecting with my Māoritanga — it was a very emotional, very powerful year.”

Two years after, Hamuera and Aroha completed the Diploma in Te Pīnakitanga ki te Reo Kairangi (level 7) at Te Wānanga. “It was really hard, really exhausting. It was at night, as we were working at the time, and most weeks I’d be: ‘I quit! This is my last week!’ And Hamuera would go, ‘Keep going!’ And we managed to get the year done.”

This education and commitment has allowed her whānau to embrace the language in everyday life — her father speaks to her children (Te Rauriki, 3, and Manahau, 18 months) in te reo, and many of her conversations with both him and Hamuera are also in te reo.

Aroha’s greeting card messages include ‘Kei runga noa atu koe!’ (you are awesome!).

Maimoatia Te Reo
(Cherish the Language)

Maimoa Creative (maimoa means ‘to cherish’) was started during Aroha’s first maternity leave from a design role. “I was so passionate about te reo Māori at this point, it made sense to merge it with my other passion, design — in particular hand lettering. Also, I was frustrated by not being able to find everyday stuff with te reo Māori on it. Even just a simple thing like a greeting card! I thought, this is ridiculous, I’ll just make my own.” She launched her online store with five greeting cards, and she now also offers gift tags, prints and custom prints.

Social media has been her only platform for marketing, and what started as product promotion, has broadened to more personal content geared to empower people to reclaim their Māoritanga. “People don’t connect with products, they connect with people and personality, your values and your vision. So the more I started sharing my experiences as a wahine Māori going on her reclamation journey, and providing more educational content, the more people really started to connect with me and appreciate my mahi.”

As with anyone that has a sizable presence on social media, Aroha has to deal with the detractors, ranging from negative comments to flat out racist remarks. But the positive side of the Instagram community she’s fostered is that she’s able to educate and inspire people into action, and it’s often an outlet for people to share similar experiences to Aroha. “I constantly get messages from followers saying: ‘Thank you so much for the content you share, you’ve given me the push and I’ve just signed up to learn my reo’. This is exactly why I do what I do! It’s about empowering people to realise that they can do this... it’s never too late to learn. And making them realise there’s so much beauty in taking that step.”

She also notes the importance of non-Māori to help the language to thrive. “I want to empower Pākehā, tāngata tiriti — that translates as respectable treaty partners, to jump on the waka too. It’s going to take everyone, Māori and non-Māori, to allow our reo to thrive.”

Aroha at work with her brush pen and ink, writing a well-known whakataukī for a customer.

Pene ki te Pepa (Pen to Paper)

“Pretty much all my designs start with me at my desk hand lettering,” says Aroha. Her process simply involves a brush pen dipped in ink and her elegant script that she has down to a fine art. “I pride myself in creating unique designs; because they are all done by hand, none are the same,” she says. “Obviously the prints that I sell online are re-prints, but I do a lot of custom work for customers that request whakataukī [proverbs] from the iwi or waiata [songs] or karakia [prayers] — I love doing those as they are such a taonga [treasure].”

Close to her heart is the creation of custom pepeha (a way of introducing yourself in Māori). “I think there’s something powerful about having it hung in your whare. When manuhiri [visitors] walk in, they know exactly where you’re from and that’s how Māori work — we like to know where you’re from, not what you do. It’s all about whakawhanaungatanga [the process of establishing relationships] and making those connections, she explains. “I was really proud when I finally realised the pepeha as a product because it felt like it kind of encompassed everything Maimoa Creative stands for — acknowledging where you’re from and being proud of it.”

Aroha also takes on select design projects that work with her kaupapa (philosophy, ideas), such as designing the Kaupapa board game for Kura Rēhia (speak.maori.nz). It’s a beautifully designed wooden game for speakers and learners of te reo. Her latest project was a set of terrific kāri Māori (playing cards), which was a collaboration with another Māori-owned company, Konei (konei.nz).

Aroha and Hamuera with their children, Te Rauriki and Manahau.

On the Horizon

From the interactions with her ever-growing audience, especially all the questions she receives around pronunciation, it’s clear that people are keen to learn more. Answering that need may well be her next project. “I’m really keen to start releasing online resources, maybe a series of videos, to teach the basics of the Māori alphabet and sounds, so that people can actually look at any word and confidently say it,” she says. “There are a lot of people hungry for it — they can’t necessarily take time off to study or sacrifice a night, but they can follow something easy online.

“These are all just my whakaaro [ideas], but it feels like something I’m leaning towards and I’m definitely someone who follows my wairua, my instincts. If an opportunity opens and I think it feels right, I’ll say yes.”

maimoa.nz@maimoa.creative  Local stockists include Paddington Store at Bayfair Shopping Centre and Okorore Ngā Toi Māori at The Historic Village.
Te Wiki o Te Reo Māori (Māori Language Week) runs 13-19 Mahuru (September) 2021. Check out our What’s Up section for ways to get involved.
Story by Sarah Nicholson
Photography by Jane Keam