Ten artists were funded for a year to go into their communities and create art. What came out of it? Sam Brooks finds out.
When you first hear about it, Whiria te Tāngata sounds utopian. Ten artists, given a living wage for a year, and also given the resource to bring arts, culture and creativity to the many communities that make up the Waikato region. In 2023, the programme supported playwrights, puppeteers, visual artists and musicians to carry out artistic projects that specifically target, engage and uplift those communities.
That language may sound corporate, but on a base level what it really means is more people in the Waikato engaging with the arts, and having their lives improved as a result.
The genesis of the programme, backed by Creative Waikato and funded through the Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s Innovation Fund, was multifaceted. It partly came from Creative Waikato’s vision for a region that thrived with diverse and transformative creative energy.
“For us it means looking for ways to support, create and empower more arts, culture and creativity in all the communities of our region,” says CEO Jeremy Mayall. ”We know the importance of the role that artists play in communities as being enablers of expression, storytelling connection and more.”
The organisation had recently completed research into the impact that arts, culture and creativity had on the wellbeing of people in Waikato, and it showed that people who were engaged in creative activity on a higher level also tended to have a higher wellbeing.
From this thinking and research, Creative Waikato developed the idea for Whiria te Tāngata – an artist-in-residence programme that operated across multiple communities. The idea was that it would exist as a guaranteed income programme (essentially a UBI) that would also include pathways for community outcomes, support for the costs of running community initiatives, with a mentorship component woven through for the artists participating.
Each of the 10 artists on the programme worked in a different way with a different community, ranging from a small rural community in Port Waikato learning about creative process, to a group of mothers and infants exploring their own individual and collective creativity, to multicultural communities sharing their stories through puppetry.
“When we look to the future it’s important that there is ongoing support and investment in communities,” Mayall says. “And also the building of capability in those communities, and accessible pathways for people to find their own connections with the creativity around them.”
Benny Marama, one of the 10 artists who was in the Whiria te Tāngata programme, is an award-winning playwright and founder of the theatre company TAHI TA’I TASI. His goal was to “identify, activate, and enable” young Pasifika playwrights in a region that has historically lacked that representation, especially when compared to other theatre hubs like Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch.
Marama points to the commonly held arts sector refrain of “everybody deserves their story to be told” when talking about his specific trigger for this mahi. He identified that the story of Pasifika people, especially Pasifika youth, wasn’t being told in the region, at least by themselves. “Why wasn’t that happening? What can I do as a Pasifika playwright to enable, and to activate, that?”
“We’re a big enough city, so why aren’t there more of our stories being told?”
Every Monday night at Hamilton’s Meteor Theatre, he gathered five emerging Pasifika writers together with one goal: Talk about themselves, and how they’d tell their stories. By the end of the year, and the programme, his group consisted of five writers who were well on their way to telling their own stories, and the stories of their community.
“When we started, only one of them had any writing experience, and by the end, they could stand up with something they had created,” he says. “We ended with these five confident Pasifika writers who were eager to continue writing.”
Beyond his initial goal of enabling more writers, it also allowed Marama to grow into dual roles as facilitator and mentor. “[The programme] has helped me to be a more conscious and conscientious creative,” he says. “It’s helped with carrying myself in this direction that I didn’t really think I had.”
“I get to enable opportunities for my people to be seen here, in the Waikato, and it might not mean a whole bunch to everyone, but in the Pacific community? Here, especially, it feels great.”
Fay Purdie-Nicholls had been running creative wellbeing workshops within the region for some time when she joined the Whiria te Tāngata programme. She was running four per week – two for adults and two for kids – around the Coromandel. These workshops covered a range of mediums and forms, including painting, collage, sculpture, stone-carving, and lino printing. “Sessions were run in a relaxed and friendly atmosphere,” she says. “The focus was on process rather than outcome. We were building little creative communities where people come back every week and try new ways to express their creativity.”
“The workshops and retreats are about learning about yourself, exploring your feelings and emotions or memories, and putting those into creative art, in a gentle, encouraging way.”
While she started running these workshops for children, she quickly realised how much the children’s wellbeing was improving, and started to run them for adults as well. Whiria te Tāngata’s support added structure, and more importantly, resources to grow her work. Crucially, it also allowed the workshops to be free for the community to participate in.
“Programmes like this give people something to look forward to in their week,” she says. “They know they’re coming to a safe space with a group of people who are also looking for creative outlets, looking to improve their wellbeing, and wanting to create new connections within their communities.”
The highlight of these workshops, however, were the retreats that Purdie-Nicholls ran. Throughout 2023, she ran five of them at different beaches around the region. Each of them involved spending three days immersed in a creative space, with as much resource as they needed, specifically drawing inspiration from the surroundings.
That process is extremely important to Purdie-Nicholls, and across these retreats she saw people being able to express themselves through a variety of mediums. “It helps you let go of things that you could have been holding onto, that you might not even be aware you were holding onto,” she says. “It helps you connect with other people and tell your story in a way that’s not so scary.”
“It’s much easier to draw, to paint something, to smush paint around with your hands and let all those thoughts go that way, rather than talk about it.”
Again, at its core, Whiria te Tāngata does a simple, but profound, thing. It puts resources in the hands of artists, artists who belong to various communities, to take their practice to those communities. While professional arts and culture is important, so too is grassroots art, and community access to it.
“Having entities like Creative Waikato is an important component of that ecosystem,” says Mayall. “To support the local artists and community organisations, to build capability and support engagement, and to advocate for the value of arts, culture and creativity to the public good of all communities.”
Purdell-Nicholls, looking back on her year of mahi in 2023, puts it simply: “The opportunity to have something like this to attend is incredibly important … it should be more accessible for everyone.”