Māori couple help Japan's indigenous Ainu revive culture

By Kelvin McDonald
Street Prints creative director Jah Smith (Ngāti Ranginui) meeting an indigenous Ainu representative in Japan.  Photo/Supplied

The indigenous Ainu people of Japan are getting a helping hand from a Māori couple keen to help them revive their culture.

Jah and Lovie Smith (Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Porou) are the husband and wife creative team behind the recent Street Prints Mauao and Papaioea street art festivals that have been a hugely popular way to cover our country's walls in stunning art telling Māori stories.

“In the street art organisation field, we’re pretty much the only Māori that run street art festivals throughout the world. So it’s important for us being Māori that we need to weave Māori culture throughout our mahi. We also want to share our culture with those we bring into our country,” Street Prints creative director Jah Smith (Ngāti Ranginui) says.

Street Prints creative directors Lovie and Jah Smith.  Photo/Supplied

Jah has travelled to the island of Hokkaidō north of mainland Japan where a large number of Ainu live to meet local leaders to speak about a potential Ainu and indigenous Māori street art festival.

"At the moment, there's a lot of mahi that's happening behind the scenes with Māori and Ainu, where the Ainu are sort of at the point where we were 20 or 30 years ago, where it was dying and now they're trying to revive their indigenous culture," he says.

"So a lot of Māori are actually helping facilitate that. We just thought this was a creative way or avenue to help Ainu to put their culture out there internationally on a creative level, by creating some artwork that relates to a theme which can bring light to their culture to the world."

Mother and daughter street art mural by Irish artist Fin DAC for Street Prints Papaioea 2020 in Palmerston North.  Photo/Supplied

Jah's visit was aimed at meeting face-to-face to build their relationship and also to work through some of the building blocks of a festival.

"We just needed to find what the city that we were going to paint in was, what artists we were going to involve in that festival, what that was going to look like and the theme and all that sort of thing." 

Street Prints Mauao promo.  Credit/Yoshi Travel
The original plan was to time the festival for the opening of the new Ainu museum in Shiraoi in Hokkaidō and the Tokyo Olympic Games in July.
 

However, potential funding for the festival is still being worked through, with plans underway to submit a proposal in the next funding round. "It’s going to happen we just need to refine our proposal," Jah says.

The Ainu themselves are also planning to source backing. "We need to get support from them too to meet us 50-50 so that we can make this thing happen."