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Clockwise: Flames, ‘Avaiki Nui Social, Natano Keni and Sarita So, Hikule’o – all part of Kia Mau Festival 2023: (Photos: Supplied, Image: Tina Tiller)
Clockwise: Flames, ‘Avaiki Nui Social, Natano Keni and Sarita So, Hikule’o – all part of Kia Mau Festival 2023: (Photos: Supplied, Image: Tina Tiller)

Pop CultureJune 7, 2023

‘Wellington is painted in brown’: Inside NZ’s biggest indigenous arts festival

Clockwise: Flames, ‘Avaiki Nui Social, Natano Keni and Sarita So, Hikule’o – all part of Kia Mau Festival 2023: (Photos: Supplied, Image: Tina Tiller)
Clockwise: Flames, ‘Avaiki Nui Social, Natano Keni and Sarita So, Hikule’o – all part of Kia Mau Festival 2023: (Photos: Supplied, Image: Tina Tiller)

The capital is bursting with life, art and the best vibes in the country right now. The reason? Kia Mau Festival. Sam Brooks interviews the founders and some of the participants about what makes the festival so special.

For the bulk of June, Pōneke will feel a little different. The air might be cold, but the vibes couldn’t be warmer – mostly because Kia Mau is on.

The festival, founded by Hone Kouka ONZM (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Kahungunu and Ngāti Raukawa) and Miria George (Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Kuki ‘Ārani), is now in its seventh iteration. This year’s festival sees it expand into the realms of music and visual art, beyond its focus on indigenous theatre and dance, including a Cook Island concert at the Michael Fowler centre, an immersive video installation at Te Auaha and an exhibition curated by Jamie Berry at Te Papa.

What makes the festival tick? And how has it not just sustained seven festivals, but grown to the point where it can rival the country’s biggest urban arts festivals?

The cast of Kōpū, performing as part of Kia Mau 2023. (Photo: Supplied)

“I love Pōneke. It built me as an artist. It makes sense to me as a city. So for me, Kia Mau is my way of giving back to the city and acknowledging that,” says Kouka, now the artistic director and chief executive of Kia Mau. “I felt like, for a decade in the city, the mana in the city, the mana of the artists, hasn’t been upheld.”

“This is how I do it.”

While Kia Mau officially started back in 2015, it actually has its roots in a smaller, more grassroots festival in 2010: the Matariki development festival, where new plays and works would get developed. This festival coincided with the then-annual Tawata Productions show at Circa Theatre. “There were so many people coming to Pōneke in June, when Tawata would have a show, so Hone started thinking there was more meat to it than these beautiful bones,” George, now executive director of Kia Mau, explains.

“There’s a solidity there – there’s the rock in the script, rock in words on the page, and I think that gave us good bones for us to form Kia Mau from there.”

It was 2015 when they both started looking around their city and they weren’t seeing a lot of Māori or Pasifika works on the main stages. “I went to four different venues – Hannah Playhouse, Circa Theatre, Te Papa and BATs – and basically asked them to give me a slot and I’d fill it,” says Kouka. “Miria then looked at me and went, ‘Do you know you’ve just created a festival?’” 

The pair decided to do it again, but community consultation was crucial. If the community didn’t want it, they didn’t want to do it. The response was unanimous – the community not only wanted it, they needed a festival that was Indigenous-led, Māori-led, and Pasifika-led.

The festival grew to include international artists, including indigenous and First Nations people from Canada, Hawai’i and Australia. It was annual until 2019. The festival was mostly driven by George and Kouka themselves, but they also wanted to keep practising as artists – both are Bruce Mason Playwrighting Award winners, and Kouka is an Arts Foundation laureate – so they changed the model to be a biennial festival.

“The great thing for me over a period of time is seeing the evolution of our artists, and that our artists realise there is no one way to do Māori art, or Pasifika art, or Indigenous art,” Kouka says. “As Māori, we are kaitiaki and one of the ways that we look at that is to create spaces for voices and communities you don’t hear, so we’ve also had Sri Lankan Tamil works, Cambodian works, works from Laos coming through as well.

“For me, that’s just as important, that if we’re strong, then we create space for other voices and other communities. But it’s about the artist, it is about the relationship with the artists.”

From left to right: Reon Bell, Sean Rivera and Roy Iro in Flames, a buddy cop mystery detective hip-hop musical. (Image: Supplied)

Three of the artists who have been uplifted by Kia Mau are Reon Bell (Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Kahungunu Ki Te Wairoa), Roy Iro (Rarotonga, Aitutaki, Aitu, Manihiki, Rakahanga, Penrhyn, Palmerston), and Sean Rivera (Filipino/Pākehā). All three are involved with multiple shows throughout Kia Mau, but Flames, a “buddy cop mystery detective hip hop musical”, marks their mainstage debut as makers at Circa.

“Flames was created with the initial thought of bringing traditional hip hop and traditional theatre together”, explains Iro. “It’s bringing theatregoers into a world where a lot of Polynesians, POC or people that aren’t even interested in theatre live, and it’s a chance for people who are hella interested in hip-hop to enter a world that they’re not interested in.”

The genesis of the show was Iro and Bell in their first year as acting students at Toi Whakaari, procrastinating while making their solo shows. Bell, an accomplished DJ under the moniker WYNONA, played a specific beat, and Iro had a light switch on in his head: this belongs in a detective show.

“Me and Roy were part of Agaram New Works Festival, and both writing separate works together,” explains Rivera. “We did that for two weeks and out of it, we got huge amounts of writing.”

From there, a veritable train of people jumped onboard. Veteran producer Vanessa Immink reined them in for Pūtahi Festival, where Kouka ended up seeing the show, leading to its eventual programming in Kia Mau.

“These are all people who have a really strong kaupapa of supporting young indigenous voices, and they’re the exact same people that inspired those scenes across Aotearoa from the very start,” says Bell. “It’s a privilege for not only them to give us an opportunity to do it, but that those people make us feel very cared for and like we’re part of the bigger picture.”

Mā and the Fly Hunnies, featuring WYNONA (Reon Bell) right. (Photo: Supplied)

All three have not just been supported by Kia Mau, but by George and Kouka specifically. And not just one-off support either – it’s the kind of consistent support that any artist wants, and frankly, needs for a sustainable career. “To be given this kind of platform as emerging artists is dope,” Bell says. “It’s the coolest festival in the country, and it will probably continue to be that way for quite a long time.”

Bell, who is also performing his own acclaimed show Concerning the UFO Sighting Outside Mt Roskill, Auckland (directed by Rivera) and as WYNONA elsewhere in Kia Mau, has wanted to be part of the festival since he moved to Pōneke, especially because so much of his connection to his Māori culture is rooted in the arts. “It means a lot for me as an actor, it means a lot for me as a sound designer, as a musician and it makes me feel good about my choices in life.” 

Iro, who is also a performer in the Cook Island music extravaganza ‘Avaiki Nui Social, is stoked to be  chosen to be part of the festival. “It’s just cool to be part of an opportunity where you can see your culture uplifted,” he says.

“The city of Wellington gets painted in brown.”

Natano Keni and Sarita So, the co-writers of O le Pepelo, Le Gaoi Ma Le Pala’ai – The Liar, the Thief and the Coward. (Photo: Supplied)

The festival doesn’t just support emerging artists, but more established artists too. Two of those artists are Natano Keni (Samoa/Aotearoa) and Sarita So (Cambodia/Aotearoa), the co-writers of O le Pepelo, Le Gaoi Ma Le Pala’ai – The Liar, the Thief and the Coward. The show is set in a not-so-distant past Sāmoa, where Pili Sā Taulievā, a proud Ali’i, has suddenly fallen ill, leaving him unable to tend to his duties within the family, church and village.

The show is about a man in power within the matai system, who refuses to give over power when it’s time for him to hand over the torch. “I was looking at what’s in a name, and titles – what’s carried down through a bloodline,” says Keni about the show. “With the service system that’s in place – the tautua system – it’s all based on how much you filter into the family, whether that be monetary, cutting the grass, or keeping home fires alive. “

This premiere sees the show in the Circa One space, a huge level up for I Ken So Productions, who have had shows in the festival before. It’s a show that’s worthy of the space, with a cast of nine and a crew of 15, including Keni and So. “The people that I’m surrounded by, that you make the show with, are out of this world, they’re next level,” says Keni.

The support that the festival provides to So and Keni, who have been in the industry for well over a decade, is invaluable as well. “If we were just relying on basic funding systems or models, I don’t know if we’d be practising with artists as such,” says So.

“We’re super lucky that this festival exists, and that it’s a Welly based festival. It not only continues the work and creation that’s happening here, but also it brings work from afar here.”

Sisi’uno Helu in Hikule’o. (Photo: Supplied)

A lot of things make Kia Mau different, and special. It’s an indigenous-led festival, where the indigeneity is built into the very foundations of it, rather than renovated in after the structure is built. It’s also, crucially, not just a festival that is artist-led, but supports those artists over a number of years, in a variety of roles and forms, and then sends them out into the world beyond the festival. 

George puts it simply: “Our festival grows artists.”

“It’s not about holding these people tight to us, it’s about going, ‘I’m gonna shine the light on you and you go away, and if you wanna come back, we treated you well, you will come back’,” says Kouka. “And we find a lot of the artists do wanna come back to us.”

Artists, and art, feed into Kia Mau, and the festival feeds them back tenfold. When you give support, time and care to artists, the artists benefit but so do the audiences. You just have the look at the programme – painting Pōneke brown – to see that for yourself.

Kia Mau runs until June 17 in Poneke. You can read the whole programme and book tickets here.

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