An artist’s attempt to honor bicultural place names in the city where she lives has been tarnished by vandalism.
When Masterton-based visual artist Paula Coulthard was commissioned to paint a telecommunications box at the entrance to her North Island town eight years ago, she decided to do it in a style reminiscent of mid-century travel posters.
“Welcome to Whakaoriori”, the proudly proclaimed sign in bright cherry red paint atop a bluish scene of the Tararua Range, a fly fisherman, a cyclist and a hot air balloon.
Whakaoriori is the original name given to the region and refers to the melodious song of birds in the region, which was supposed to be so soothing that mothers did not need to sing lullabies or oriori to their children. Located at the entrance to the city limits of Masterton on State Highway 2, Coulthard felt the scene and message was a fitting welcome to the Wairarapa’s largest city.
Now the front of the artwork simply says “Welcome to”.
On Monday, Coulthard and her husband Simon noticed the sign had been vandalized, with near-perfect gray paint used to erase the te reo Māori name.
“It’s just very sad,” Coulthard says. “That it happened in our community and someone felt so much hate that they came out with a spray can.”
The artwork, says Coulthard, was originally commissioned by Chorus – one of many ubiquitous cabinet facelifts that have been undertaken in the town of Masterton and across the country.
At the time, Coulthard’s decision to include both town names was deliberate. “Masterton is the official name,” she says, but “it also goes by the name of Whakaoriori, which is the original name of this area and I thought that should be recognized as well, as places often have more than one name.
The name erasure perhaps reflects attitudes bubbling just below the surface across the region, she says. “I can only guess why anyone would do that and I guess it’s racist,” she says.
Coulthard’s husband, Simon Miller, who contacted The Spinoff about the vandalism via email, backs it up and says “it’s such a specific attack”. He notes that the other side of the box is also painted, with the phrase “Kia ora by Masterton”. This side remains intact. “You can see how carefully it was done,” Miller says, “the only thing that was vandalized was that one word.”
“This artwork is a celebration of the beauty of Whakaoriori/Masterton and the welcome people can expect when they come here,” he said in his first email. “The depth of Whakaoriori reality cannot be repainted.”
For Miller, the action taken is symptomatic of a lack of understanding of local history and especially of the local history that existed before colonization. “It reflects a fear of what true recognition of this name might mean,” he adds.
Although Coulthard hasn’t heard of Chorus yet, she would like to repaint the box. Would she do something different next time? “I was actually wondering if I was going to do it all again and make an even stronger Whakaoriori statement in response.”
A Chorus spokesperson said in an email that “sseeing the work of an artist vandalized is extremely disappointing and sad for the local communities where it is located”.
“This mural is protected by a graffiti shield, like all of our murals around Aotearoa, and can be wiped clean,” the spokesperson said. They added: “We will definitely look into doing this and would be happy to speak to the artist directly.”