Seawalls: Murals for Oceans

20-26 March 2017, Napier

“Wow!” my kids exclaim as we drive down Hastings St, and I recall the mural while deftly pulling into a park. We jump out of the car and walk over to the alley way. The “Wows” keep coming.

We’d come down to this spot a few days before, when the artist was just starting. He’d had two long handles, wrapped end-to-end with gaffer tape, with a crayon taped to the end, and he’d been waving this wand around getting the outline sorted. I had marvelled at the ability to hold something of such vast scale in his head, whilst concentrating on one small part. The mouth, for example.

“I think it’s a whale,” my son had said once the mouth was clear. “A humpback whale.” We’d watched for a while, and then moved on.

Now, at our second viewing, there definitely is a whale. It is coming together so quickly! And I am drawn to the eye. The eye is so sad. So resigned. So, whale-like.

We stand looking at this whale for a while.

“It’s struggling up,” my four-year-old daughter says.

The whale has been painted with a couple of houses on its back. Not just resting on its back, but causing the whale to bend, and accommodate them. You can see the folds of blubber and skin under the weight of the house. And the house seems to be giving directions. It’s bug-eyed, and a little demented looking. And it’s oblivious to the fact that the thing that is taking it for a ride is ‘struggling up’.

“The house is on the blow hole,” my son says.

I don’t know whether this is a pedantic observation of physiology, or another metaphor. I guess it doesn’t matter.

“The whale can’t breathe. It needs some air.”

“Yeah,” I respond, nodding emphatically.

We move on again, and go around the other murals, have chats about each of them, about the effect of pollution on the marine environment, of people on the sea. It’s not a pretty story, really, but it’s being told in a beautiful way, which is an enormous feat.

What I like about the murals is that they serve as constant reminders that it’s up to us. In Napier we could so easily gloss over the fact of our pollution. We could just celebrate Art Deco Weekend, or The Day-Nighter, or F.A.W.C! We could do these things and forget about the pressure we put on the environment. About our ability to make different choices. To put a cup to our lips, and not need a straw. To buy a $30 re-usable coffee cup, and remember it. To reject single-use plastic. To become plastic-bag-free. To recycle. To compost. A thousand little things we can do. We can do. It often seems so futile, the situation, but it isn’t, doesn’t have to be. And I’m reminded of something the actor Mark Ruffalo said about the Dakota Access Pipe Line, “If you’re losing hope, you’re not doing enough.”

These murals, the conversations they spark, and the learning they engage us with, they are simultaneously a commentary and a call to action. It’s up to us to do the rest.

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