Stand-up comedian Kura Turuwhenua stood on stage with trepidation after she had received her moko kauae, not knowing how the audience was going to react. There are few Māori wāhine doing stand-up comedy in Aotearoa, let alone one with a traditional tattoo on their chin.
“I was really nervous doing comedy after I got my moko kauae. I still had these colonial ideas that you should be talking about respectful things when you’ve got a kauae, and you shouldn’t be drinking or being in a bar,” she says.
“The more I did comedy, and the more I talked to other women with moko kauae, I realised that none of these beliefs are real, especially when 14-year-olds would get a moko kauae back in the day. No one would be telling them that they needed to be some kind of mystical Māori woman. For me, having my moko kauae has been a reminder to be strong in my Māori identity and that includes sometimes being naughty and saying funny things on stage.”
The 21-year-old received her moko kauae three months ago alongside her mother, Jeni-Leigh Walker, and three of her elders. Her great grandmother, Hinehou, also wore a moko kauae and the experience has made Kura feel closer to her ancestors.
“I’ve spent my whole life knowing I’m forever committed to standing proud in my Māori identity and as I turned 21, I wanted to wear a symbol of that dedication.”
Moko kauae is becoming normalised in our society. Māori women are wearing it proudly in corporate spaces, sports fields and it’s even on the faces of reporters and newsreaders on national TV. Kura is proud to perform stand-up with a moko kauae and represent her culture in the comedy industry.
“I never acknowledge having a moko kauae on stage. Audiences can see I have one and just accept it. Audiences don’t know what to expect when they see me on the stage because there’ve been so few Māori women stand-up comedians. If they see a Māori male comedian, they have a point of reference, like Billy T James or Mike King. There’s no blueprint for wāhine Māori.”
Of Kai Tahu, Ngāti Porou, Ngāi Tuhoe and Moriori descent, Kura took to the comedy stage two years ago when she was 19, after the first national Covid-19 lockdown.
“I was sick and tired of sitting inside my house and doing nothing. I signed up to an open mic night at a bar in Auckland and caught the comedy bug,” she remembers.
Her whānau provides plenty of material for her comedy and her life observations have made her a rising star. Earlier this year, Kura won the NZ Raw Comedy Quest and was crowned the best new stand-up comedian in the country. She’s also worked as a writer for the hit show 7 Days, produced and directed her own comedic short films, and gone viral on TikTok and Instagram.
“A lot of my comedy comes from my upbringing and my experience as a young Māori woman. I’m known to be weird and say some out-of-the-gate things. I’m secretly funny. I could make people laugh but I wasn’t necessarily known as the funny person,” she explains.
Kura grew up loving the humour of the local comedy series Bro Town and is a fan of Kiwi duo Flight of the Conchords. She offers a point of difference, showing that the comedy stage can be diverse, and respectful of Māori and different cultures.
“I’m lucky to have a mother that’s quite explicit, always telling me that we do not put our own people down and we do not use stereotypes. Not many comedians have that voice behind them.”
“I love writing and being to put all my thoughts onto paper and then saying them on the stage. I can see myself improving each time I perform.”
Kura has a degree in screen production and juggles her comedy career with working in the film and television industry as an editor and production assistant.
Next week, she will perform in a special comedy show, called Shoes Off (At The Door), featuring a line-up of four other Māori women stand-up comedians who are just as funny. The performers will be celebrating Te Wiki o te reo Māori and will include Courtney Dawson, Janaye Henry, Chardé Heremaia, and Aunty Lianne.
She says the industry has come a long way by embracing a talented group of funny Māori women.
“I’m very lucky to do comedy at a time where there are other Māori women comedians. Not just because I have someone to talk to but I also feel like I have people looking out for me. Māori women, in particular, always fight for everyone to be held in these different spaces. We’re like a whānau.”
Shoes Off (At The Door) is from 13-17 Sep, 8.30pm, at Auckland’s Basement Theatre.