Julia Mage’au Gray

The Calling

It is the water that brought us to our land. Our old people to our land.

It is the water that brought ‘them’ to our land, their new land.

It is the water that falls from our eyes at all that separates us today, from the way we were.

It is the water that continues to call us back to our old peoples thinking.

The calling.


C’est l’eau qui  nous a amenés sur nos terres. Nos ancêtres sur nos terres.

C’est l’eau qui les amenés sur nos terres, leur nouvelle terre.

L’eau qui tombe de nos yeux nous sépare de la façon dont nous étions.

C’est l’eau qui continue de nous rappeler à nos anciens.



Melanesian marking (tattoo) was always a women’s practice. In the past, the water would take the men, they would travel and move, fishing and gathering food along the coast for weeks on end: perilous journeys. Women would stay to build gardens and construct relationships and family networks. Women were the backbone of our societies. Their strength and their connections and their familial wealth were displayed upon their skin. Mothers to daughters, mothers to daughters continued this visual language so that even when the sea would separate us (through marriage) the marks would always connect and identify us to our land, to our people.

With colonisation holding hands with its religious belief systems, arriving on the shores of Papua New Guinea, our women were strongly affected. Not knowing how important the marks upon our skin were the practice of ‘tattooing’ was stopped.

Stripped of their marks, their visual language that spoke to our men to remind them of their strength and their value. Women became ‘less than’ in a system that raised men above and eradicated our old ways that gave recognition to the strength of the many roles of men and women at all ages.

Today our women still sit below our men’s feet. Reviving these marks on our women’s skin is an act of hope, an act of connection, an act of regaining our strength.

We make our way to the water to call and to let others know we need to stand. Let the water take us to a new way of thinking, decolonising our minds and our bodies and our hearts.

The Calling is a work that reflects the journey of the revival of ‘Melanesian Marks’. The act of live tattooing by mother and daughter team embody this history. It is the relationship between the two that mark other women’s skin that is the most important essence of this work. It is the dialogue shared through the time spent marking skin, opening wounds and gifting transition.

In the clear light space that is open and bright, it rejects the ‘mysterious’ notions from the past of dark huts and caves where the newly tattooed young women emerge. The film embraces the past, the present, the future of this journey (undertaken in 2012). From research of many old photographs and records of our tattooed women collected by many overseas institutes, from the new skin that carries old marks developed and changed to reflect the old but embrace the new, from mother to a daughter whom physically embodies the history of colonisation and religion stopping the practice in one half of her genetic make-up and the other half of her family striving to bring back the marks of our old people.

Julia Mage’au Gray (b.1973) is from the Mekeo people, Port Moresby, Central Province, Papua New Guinea. She currently lives and works in Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand.

Trained as a dancer and choreographer, Gray also works in the mediums of tattoo, photography and film to explore her Papuan and Mekeo heritage within an urban Australian and New Zealand context. Her performances frequently combine dance with evocative video narratives.

Gray co-founded the performance group Sunameke in 1997. Dress, adornment, including markings of the body with tatu (tattoo) are often of particular significance in her performance and film work. Whilst based in Auckland, as a tattoo artist, Gray increasingly works internationally as Mage’au: Melanesian Marks.

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