“What’s in the blood? What’s in a name? A whenua split for Pākehā gain, a bone or a skull for museums to claim, continue to sing past abuse and the blame, we have to create to stay sane,” the Māori Mermaid sings. Jessica Thompson is an English and Art History student here at Otago, who is completing a Master’s degree studying Ekphrastic Māori poetry. However, most people know Jess by her pseudonym Māori Mermaid, under which she is an artist, writer and poet.
Jess experiments with various mediums of art, but loves to express herself through the likes of digital prints, painting and poetry. As she explains, “I aim to dabble in as much as I can. I am not a minimal or tidy person, I like throwing paint at things, spilling glitter, sketching charcoal, capturing pictures whether they look tacky or sharp, and I write with a freedom I am so lucky to have kept. If I had to choose, I would take the written word with me to the grave. Poetry transcends it all.” Her background in English and Art History has helped greatly to articulate her work, but more importantly taught her self-discipline, explaining how “you don’t need an expensive certificate to make something genuinely special, you just need the passion, a room of your own, and an open mind”.
While Jess has always been drawn to self-expression via creative outlets, it has been in recent years that she has found her creative style through incorporating her Māori heritage in her works. “To be honest, my art was so clueless before I opened up to my Māori heritage. Everything I drew or wrote just floated in a pointless space and faded effortlessly. But now, I am more bonded to my culture, there is no question about it; I value my work more, and feel like myself more.”
“In terms of engaging with Māori issues, I hope to create more awareness in my drawings and poetry, an awareness of racism in NZ, land rights and abuse, the undeniable importance of tikanga, and I hope to take as many photographs and create discussion/discuss as much as possible with other Māori creatives”. She showcases her art through her personal Instagram account @Maori_Mermaid, which has over 3000 followers.
Jess published her first poetry book as a part of Zinefest in 2018, entitled ‘The Māori Mermaid Sings’, with illustrations by Emily Crooks. As well as this, She has been a featured poet at Dog With Two Tail’s open mic night, and hosted her first exhibition ‘The Māori Mermaid’ at Agency Inc at the start of June. “The atmosphere was so inspiring, so pleasant and supportive, and I’m incredibly grateful to all the people who helped out and came to see my work.” These experiences have only lead her to want to expand her art further, with her plans for the future including “a poetry book, hopefully another exhibition, as many photo shoots and fun art times as possible. More readings, more meetings, more kōrero, travel and hopefully a Māori art class. I want to make t-shirts to spread my mermaid imagery, as well as use clothing and posters to spread more Te Reo.”
While her art is used as a medium of self-expression, Jess hopes that her art helps inspires a wider conversation about encouraging other young creatives to express themselves. “I hope people get more confidence in themselves artistically; I love the idea that I might inspire other artists who are just as anxious/unsure as I am. I hope people open their minds to learning more about Māori tikanga, whether they are Māori or not, and I hope to create a more caring and open minded conversation when it comes to identity, Māoridom, and wāhine issues/topics.”
“Art is important to me because it keeps me alive and makes sense of a messy world. To create is to breathe, and without poetry and imagery there is just no point. Don’t be afraid to learn, don’t shy away from trying. So long as you’re giving the culture respect, listening to Māori and other “indigenous” voices - you are doing well. Just keep up the reo and embrace the chance to make mistakes. If you’re new to learning, you have to think of yourself as a child, completely fresh and young. You’re gonna have to start with the basics to grow and move forward, and it may seem scary, but it will only benefit yourself. To be honest, this country would be a lot better if we lived by pre-colonial tikanga and listened to tangata whenua.”
You can follow Jess and purchase her works through her Instagram @Maori_Mermaid