In a small office in Manukau, a ngahere of artists is growing tall.
The ecosystem of a ngahere is a delicate balance. From nutrient-dense soil grows life; tall trees reach up towards the sunlight, providing a canopy for the smaller life below. And the smaller living things – from silver ferns to kawakawa, fungi, insects and manu – all play a part in how the ecosystem thrives.
In the heart of Manukau, a ngahere of another sort has been growing since 2018. Under the guidance of Manawa Udy (Te Arawa, Tainui, Mataatua), Ngahere Communities and its various branches – including a newly refurbished brick-and-mortar store called Konei – is fostering a collective of artists and creatives.
From podcasts to 3D printed ocarina, gaming to raranga, photography, textiles and whatever else their ever-growing community of creators is interested in, the artistic talent of this small community in South Auckland is being given a canopy of cover under which to grow.
Manawa Udy came up with the idea for Ngahere while she was working at youth centres, helping kids from disadvantaged backgrounds to create their own sources of income with some basic entrepreneurial skills. From that small seed, Ngahere was brought to life as a social enterprise by a small group of friends, part of a partnership with Auckland Council and Tātaki Auckland Unlimited to set up a collaborative space in South Auckland.
Documenting the journey of the first five years through an ongoing vlog series has allowed Udy and her team to connect with the wider community beyond Ngahere itself. From the first vlog, an introduction to the small team, to the latest, a tutorial for using 3D printed instruments, the videos act as a time capsule – the rings of a rākau – for the growth of Ngahere Communities over its first years.
After a number of years working for other people, Udy decided to go out on her own, bringing what she’d learnt from her community development mahi and using it to give opportunities to Māori and Pacific artists, creators and entrepreneurs.
“We have this kind of hybrid of helping creatives grow while also providing creative services, but then a lot of business and entrepreneurship too,” explains Udy.
The collaborative office space in the centre of Manukau, known as Grid Manukau, is where the ngahere began to grow – where, ever since, Udy’s been tilling the soil and planting seedlings for the creative talent in South Auckland to take root.
“From a te ao Māori perspective, we’re always so strong in wanting to have our lands and our connection to that land. There’s something about that connection that enables you to then thrive,” says Udy. This space gave them that connection.
Now with a core staff of eight running their coworking space, retail premises, and all the other day-to-day mahi, and a rotating cast of dozens who use and contribute to the space, it’s safe to say that Udy’s idea has built that community she hoped for.
“From the creatives that we support to the programmes that we deliver and the space we have here, it’s really crucial,” she says. “That’s a real passion behind what we do, to not just serve the people of South Auckland, but to help lift them up. When we see that happening, we know we’re on the right track.”
When Covid-19 hit and the country went into its various waves of lockdown, artists were one of the many groups wondering what they would do to keep income flowing while stuck at home. Konei was born from this uncertainty.
Now occupying the ground floor area at their Manukau headquarters, Konei is another rākau in the Ngahere ecosystem – the storefront where creatives supported by Ngahere can sell their products. Alongside the Manukau brick-and-mortar premises, an online store ships both domestically and to Australia. For many of the artists and craftspeople involved, Konei represents their first opportunity to support themselves through their art.
The store is housed in a newly refurbished space that feels more permanent than the previous iteration that was hidden away in a small corner of the same floor. Getting it to this point has also been a lesson in collaboration for Udy and the team.
Jesse Armstrong (Ngāti Hine/Waikato) is the founder and CEO of 3D printing and education company Vaka, whose HQ shares an office with Ngahere Communities. He and his small team teach students across the country the basics of 3D printing technology, with the goal of helping students, schools and communities to use this knowledge – an unique blend of tech and art – to make money.
To fund this mahi, Vaka sells “ocarina pūoro”, 3D printed instruments available in four colourways inspired by the seasons, at the Konei store.
“All the money that we’re generating from this is going back into the work that we do with schools and community groups. But we also aimed to hopefully start some kind of a movement of sorts for people to investigate the world of tāonga pūoro,” says Armstrong.
He was commissioned to create a 3D-printed Konei sign to hang in the new shop front, along with some other decorative elements – the first commercial commission of this kind for the Vaka team.
Armstrong says the experience and expertise of Udy and the rest of the Ngahere and Konei team has been vital to helping Vaka grow as a business. “They fill the gaps that we can’t fill ourselves. They’re experts in e-commerce and retail, and that’s not something that we know how to do – but we know how to make cool products,” he says. “All I need to do is the thing I want to do, which is the creating, and they take care of the rest.”
As well as the Konei sign, the Vaka ocarina puoro are stocked in the store, surrounded by art by many others, including Udy herself, who dusted off her camera to take portraits of some of the artists who collaborated on the new shop.
Ahi Nyx (Te Āti Awa me Ngāti Raukawa), a raranga artist, created four types of kono to hold and display items for sale at Konei, alongside a hinaki, or eel trap, woven with harakeke from Udy’s hometown of Rotorua. Nyx says the opportunity to contribute to the store was her way of helping to re-indigenise the space for everyone who might visit or use it.
“If we couldn’t work together and remind each other how awesome we are we might not have been able to do so much for re-indigenising and decolonising. The acts that people took in the ’70s to grab the reo and hold our language for us has made space for me, who doesn’t have reo, to grab raranga and all of its tikanga and all of the mana it requires while still growing my reo connection.”
It’s not only the artwork and furnishings that are embedded with Māori creativity at Konei. The panels the centre counter are also the creation of a Māori-owned business that’s dedicated to both sustainable and creative architectural materials.
Rui Peng is one of the co-founders of Critical, a business that transforms plastic waste into recyclable panelling for building fit outs. Focused on creating pieces that are both beautiful and planet friendly, Critical was born after Peng, in his previous architecture role, noticed how little existed in the fit out industry for customers looking for style and sustainability.
“When you go to the shopping centre and your favourite retail store, the life cycle of a fit out is about five to seven years,” Peng says. “So every five to seven years all of the fit out materials get stripped and all the building materials go straight into landfill.
“At Critical we want to solve this problem by creating a sustainable recycled panel that at the end of its life we can take back and recycle into new material for retail stores like Konei, so that we can be good kaitiaki and look after te taiao.”
With the launch of Konei 2.0 now completed after months of work, Udy feels as though the Ngahere canopy is growing taller, with more space than ever for new artists to take shelter among the roots of the more established brands like Vaka. And as those roots become deeper-set, and as that work becomes more self-sustaining, she’s particularly excited about what comes next.
“Konei is a really important part of what we do, because that’s how we can really share our work with the public,” she explains. “But we also have our Tukua List platform, which is all about connecting Māori and Pasifika creatives with people that want to hire them.
“So whether it’s the shop or through making those connections, what we really want to do is shine a spotlight on the amazing work being done by our people. We want them to know what they can achieve if they follow those passions.”