Lines of Connection and Identity

In 2012 during my travels through New Zealand,  I encountered a Maori lady wearing a Moko Kauae (facial tattoo). I had traveled there for a project that had me tracing the 34th parallels north and south, linking my birth town to Los Angeles (where I started) to the number of years I had been on the planet. The encounter with the Maori lady stirred a fascination in me. The Moko Kauae reminded me of the traditional Berber tattoos, known as Tichrat or Taghzait, seen on members of my family and on Berber women in my Moroccan homeland.

What was the significance of these facial tattoos? What were the stories behind them? Was there a connection between the two?

I had uncovered a pathway which begged further investigation. Morocco and New Zealand  are at the exact opposite coordinates. If I stuck a needle through Morocco, through the centre of the globe, that needle would emerge in New Zealand. Would this same needle sew a thread, trace a link, and ink the two traditions?

There are similarities between the Berber and Maori culture; both have experienced repression, belittlement of cultural tradition, suppression of native language and feminine disrespect.

(Story continues below.)

Maori woman with tattoo, photograph ©Malika Squalli

Catherine – the first woman I met with a Moko, back in 2012 in Ahipara – who was the catalyst of this whole project.


photograph of a tattoed woman © Malika Squalli

Pat – at peace with herself since having inked representations of  her grandma on her chin, her parents on her shoulders and her granddad on her chest. This was at a Mokopapa on the East Cape where her husband was getting his own Moko.


Mere Taylor Tuiloma, photograph © Malika Squalli

Mere Taylor Tuiloma telling me about when she decided to take the step of getting her Moko done, a year after her husband’s death.


Rawi - a Marori healer, photograph © Malika Squalli

Rawi – a Maori healer at her favorite spot in Kerikeri, where she lives.


Woman of Tabant, photograph © Malika Squalli

Aicha from Tabant – She decided to keep her tattoo because it is the only keepsake she has of her mother. She had it done at the age of 8.


Woman of Tabant photograph © Malika Squalli

Aicha is around 110 years old. She was also a tattoo artist. She told me my tattoo behind my ear was rubbish – a tattoo has to be seen – therefore on the face or ankle or wrists or chest or neck – parts of the body that were not traditionally covered by Berber women.


Woman of Marrakech photograph © Malika Squalli

A fortune teller from Marrakech.


In Berber culture, it is a disappearing tradition, found only in remote areas of Morocco, and generally on the bodies of female elders. Although language and other traditions are being revived, the Oucham is becoming increasingly taboo primarily due to religion and the perception that a traditional tattoo is not acceptable in modern society. There seems to be a a great deal of ignorance and lack of interest within the Moroccan community itself about it.

The Moko Kauae, on the other hand, is seeing a resurgence and is worn with pride by both elder and younger Maori women in the multicultural New Zealand environment.

I met Catherine who had decided to get tattooed at age 30 and told me that her Moko design traced her roots and identity and embodied her values and purpose in life. Like a facial lifeline, a purposeful representation, the wrinkles and scars of her life journey. I often found this to be the case with Maori Moko Kauae.

The Moko and Tichrat/Taghzait are a strong, beautiful ‘in-your-face statement’; the body acting as an eternal canvas for the landscape of personal and traditional life, facial poetry connecting the wearer to who their core, for each tattoo has a special story to it.

This is the very beginning of this work in progress where I investigate the stories, document, portray these powerful personal representations, capture the pride and sense of identity with which they are worn. From the starting point of the facial tattoo, this project will touch on a more broad social and cultural specificity documentary.

If you are interested in this project or want to support it don’t hesitate to contact me!

Text and all photos: © Malika Sqalli

There are 4 comments

  1. Christine

    Beautiful Malika, love your work, love you. It was a real pleasure meeting you in Kerikeri & spending time with you. I am loving seeing how this project is unfolding. Blessings to you.

  2. James

    There was a guy called Thor Heyerdahl who thought that people from the Canary Islands followed ocean currents through the Americas and into the pacific. He at least demonstrated the possibility of the voyages with primitive technology. Heyerdahls theories rely on cultural diffusionism. His ideas really fell out of favour due to the misconception that he had claimed that the Polynesians were from S. America in their entirety. This is obviously against archaeological evidence, very blatantly, and he was ridiculed, despite only ever claiming that there were migrations from the east also. The point of my comment is that compelling theories exist that link the Berbers of North Africa to East Polynesia and New Zealand, so your connection is quite fascinating.

    1. Malika

      James, this is oh so insightful. When I embarked on this I had no idea of the many layers and how big that pandora’s box it was going to be. Thank you for adding another layer, another line to trace.

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