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Accidental Activist

By tackling big issues like mental health and sexuality, in-demand artist Sara Moana's proving that light-hearted art can help conquer a locked down heart.

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Fear not, you aren’t alone. After nearly 120 days of lockdown, many of us are starting to return to our so-called ‘new normal’ with the serenity of a house fire. 

But artist Sara Moana reckons that while we don’t have to smile from the window of this burning building, despair won’t do us any good either. 

Actually, it’s getting hot in here. Let's take off all our clothes. 

Sara Moana (she/her) is a Welsh-Māori (Ngāti Tamaoho, Tainui) illustrator best known for her clever and light-hearted approach to otherwise pretty loaded socio-political discourse. 

With herself as a muse, Sara’s art unpacks the experience of exploring cultural identity, body image, queerness and mental health with an approachability you wanna call radical, political. But it wasn’t her intention. 

Sara jokes her activism is actually a fusion of self-advocacy, efficiency and nonsense. Accidentivism?

“I support activism 100%, but that’s not my mission.

“I’m just existing! Me existing's radical. That makes me laugh because I love subversive art.”

Subversive? Yeah. Erroneous? Heck no. Sara’s characters are indigenous, queer, fat, semi-nude (or all of the above) not because these narratives are less seen but because, for Sara, anything else would be untrue. 

“I’m just a person expressing myself, I’m expressing my own experiences because that’s all we can do.

“If it makes people feel less alone, that’s cool too. I’d be here anyway.”

And she would be, because this is just Sara. The fact that it delivers comfort to so many is gravy, deliciously inclusive gravy. 

Sara promotes self-acceptance, illustration by Sara Moana 2021.

Two sides of the same page

One of the 12 artists to make up this year’s Āhua Collective, Sara showcased her two part series Wāhine Mytholeg at the opening exhibition. 

The title is an amalgam of Welsh, Sara’s mother-tongue, and te reo Māori, speaking to the duplexity of her cultural journey,

“I moved [from Wales] to Aotearoa when I was 11 with a heavy [Welsh] accent and wasn’t expecting such a Pākeha culture. It debilitated me a bit because I thought everyone must think I’m Pākeha. But I’m Māori too.”

It also speaks to her sexual identity.

“It connects to the fact that I’m bisexual and understanding the gatekeeping and erasure that exists there too.” 

 

Branwen in Wāhine Mytholeg by Sara Moana for Āhua Collective’s opening exhibition, May 2021.

Wāhine Mytholeg sees Mahuika, Māori goddess of fire join Branwen, Welsh goddess of sacrifice in an ethereal alliance. Suspended from the ceiling, the women sit back to back on the same two-sided page. An analogy of Sara’s blended whakapapa. 

When asked if she aligns with one culture more, Sara laughs. 

“I’m both! If I couldn’t exist in two spaces I’d just disappear…cease to exist!

Mahuika in Sara Moana’s Wāhine Mytholeg for Āhua Collective’s opening exhibit, May 2021.

Pulling viewers into an ancient, sexy fantasy, Mahuika and Branwen’s severity is implied, yet the work is soft, sensual and queer as hell— with bicultural, bisexual stories so often marked with uncertainty there’s radical joy in seeing one told with whimsy and defiance. 

Channeling the urge

The road to accidental radicalism, though, never did run smooth. 

Sara’s signature effervescent style emerged during a mental health hiatus from studying. Burned out, Sara’s counsellor told her to draw anything in her mind to break the barrier and end the stagnation. 

So she drew her burn out. 

Wincing as she mentions Freud, Sara likens the experience to sublimation: the transmutative process of channelling unwanted urges into productive practices. Like when bad break-ups become good haircuts or lockdown fatigue becomes bread-making rather than psychic collapse. 

Sara Moana. Photo: Supplied.

She placed herself in the narrative, centralising her own subjectivity and loving her process. 

“I grew to really respect my stream of consciousness.

“I had to trick myself. Like, OK, I’m acting on my impulsive thoughts, but I’m only acting on them by drawing them."

Digital drawings require few resources, so what began as self-described “silly drawings” became a cathartic style that let Sara create art on the fly, unaffected by lockdowns. 

Sublimating anxiety into social commentary with a reactionary freedom characteristic to dadaism, Sara wants to honour the moment — good or bad, for art’s sake. 

“I love art that sits within space and time. 20 years from now it won’t make as much sense or have the same impact. It co-exists in society without need for explanation.

“And it means I can keep it kinda light and still get the message across, y’know?”

Sublimation in action, illustration by Sara Moana 2021.

This ever-ready approach delivered Sara the opportunity to produce work for ASB/Rainbow Youth, Mason Tangatatai’s Massive Magazine, and most recently UNITE AGAINST COVID-19’s social media platforms with 5-part series ‘Stay-At-Homers’ — essentially expanding her reach to all of Aotearoa in one project. 

Sara is a participant of The Big Idea’s Toipoto Programme too, an initiative supporting Tāmaki Makaurau’s creative sector. 

It is no secret that Sara has been prolific. She understands her agency, trusts the spaces she moves between and is intentional about maintaining superhero momentum. 

And she’s only just begun.  

Sara’s future looks rosy, illustration by Sara Moana 2021.

Just like the rest of us

But Sara isn’t here to save us. We know this because she’s in her bedroom-corner office with her comfy knickers, a growing collection of coffee mugs and just choosing joy like the rest of us good people.

“I’m here with you. I’m in this burning building too! And we can have a laugh about it.”

You can find Sara Moana’s mahi at saramoana.com.

 

 

Sara Moana offers custom Kirihimete portraits via her website, like this tribute to her Toipoto Mentors (clockwise from left) Sam Walsh, Dina Jezdic and Dominic Hoey.

Written by

Em Berry

13 Dec 2021