Maisey Rika and Tairāwhiti Arts Festival director Tama Waipara perform at Under an East Coast Moon.

Nga mihi mahana: A weekend at the Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival

Sam Brooks reports on his time at the first weekend of the inaugural Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival, which coincided with the launch of Tuia 250.

Friday – The Festival Opening

There are three things you expect at an arts festival opening. You expect free wine, you expect speeches, and you expect some kind of performance. Free wine? Check – an accidental mixture of pinot gris and prosecco that I label the ‘Gizzy Fizzy’. Speeches? Check – from Jacinda Ardern and festival director Tama Waipara. And performance? A thousand checks.

It’s an auspicious opening to the festival, with a couple of hundred people gathered on the banks of the river to watch Maui Putahi, an exhibition of light and sound set at the confluence of the Taruheru, Waimata and Turanganui rivers. It’s the kind of event that exists best in an arts festival context – it’s big, it’s splashy, and works as a statement of purpose as much as anything else. This is a festival, and it should be treated as such.

As I stood on the bridge, a boy in socks and slip-ons asked his guardians patiently, “Is that meant to be Captain Cook?” On the water, a light fixture hissed, almost as in response. It’s obviously meant to be Maui child.

When I walk past the spot in the following days, the memory of the event lingers there – flattened grass, scaffolding – and I realise that it’s done what every arts festival opening should do. It should be a foghorn that echoes until the end of the festival: “Art is here. You’re welcome, haere mai.”

Taharakau Stewart speaks on October 05, 2019 in Gisborne, New Zealand. Photo: Kerry Marshall.

Saturday – Tuia 250 Te Moanaui Flotilla Arrival and Pōhiri & Witi’s Wāhine

I stumble the ten minutes from my hotel to the vague point of the pōhiri on my map, having staunchly slept through the arrival of the Tuia 250 Te Moananui Flotilla which is all part of a commemoration of Captain Cook’s first landing on these very shores. It is not prompt, and I spend an hour and a half milling about with everybody else there to welcome, or at the very least to watch, the procession and welcome of manuhiri from around the country and also from Tahiti. Overhead, a big screen alternates between TVNZ1’s coverage of the event and its jarring commercials. Stacey Morrison and John Campbell pleasantly chat away, with the wind catching every single word they’re saying the moment it leaks out of the speaker. 

To the side, pakehā families watch from their bayside apartments. There’s a cruel irony to it – a commemoration of the very event that allows them, with a few caveats and lines, the very space and Freedom Furniture stacked balcony they stand on. The prime minister (as well as former prime minister Jenny Shipley, my second DJS sighting of the weekend) stands on their very back lawn and it seems to be more of a curio to them. Of course, I could just be projecting things onto the kinds of people who own oceanside properties.

A crueler irony is that the event is so full of people that its hard to get a good view of the pōhiri – I would’ve had a better view had I stayed back in my motel and watched it on TV. But the view seemed to be beside the point. There was a fascinating energy to the entire thing – a commemoration trying to marry the impulses between celebration and condemnation, and an audience watching on with an almost idle curiosity. Even when the wind caught and carried away what people were saying, the electricity and gravity of the event remained. This is important, this is charged, and to have it exist in conjunction with the opening of the inaugural arts festival is some smart scheduling.

The best thing you could say about it – as a prelude and de facto opening of Tuia 250 – was that the discussion around it seems to have eclipsed anything that actually went down. Not what you want in an arts festival, which this wasn’t a part of, But for a politically charged commemoration? You could hardly hope for better.

The women of Witi’s Wāhine: Mere Boynton, Piki Tuari, Roimata Fox, Ngapaki Moetara. Photo: Strike Photography.

There’s always a tense feeling for the festival premiere of a show – there have been countless festival premieres that are buzzed, then never heard again after the house lights come up. Opening audiences spill out into the foyer, grabbing for free drinks and cold vegetables on dry bread. The show isn’t spoken about until people get far enough from the venue that they can’t be heard, and unfortunately, that’s the furthest the show gets from that first outing. No tour, no follow-up season, no nothing. Quiet open, quieter close.

Witi’s Wāhine didn’t feel like that. Not only due to the quality of the work – a sly, clever reframing of Witi Ihimaera’s stories by genuine New Zealand icon Nancy Brunning, focussing on the women and showcasing those women – but due to the fact that it premiered in Te Tairāwhiti where Ihimaera himself is from.

The audience gives Witi’s Wāhine a standing ovation.

These are not just the women of Ihimaera’s stories, these are the women of Te Tairāwhiti. We know these women. Hell, some of them are literally sitting in the audience with us – one of Ihimaera’s sisters got up and spoke on the author’s behalf for him, as he raced to the east coast town from his flight in Hastings in a cab. A good piece of work is a good piece of work, but there’s an extra weight, a good weight, to seeing work that reflects an audience with that actual audience. These stories come from the very soil the theatre is built on, and the soil carries the weight of those stories handily.

The performers – Mere Boynton, Roimata Fox, Ani-Piki Tuari, Ngapaki Moetara, all hailing from Tairāwhiti – also handily carry the weight. There’s a refreshing balance of comfort and gravitas to them. They hold each other and the text so gracefully that we as an audience felt held. It feels like these stories, and these women, are being gifted to us. Boynton, in particular, is a highlight, tapping into a deep vein of rage that pours out onto the stage.

And the best part? When we all walk out into the foyer, we actually talk about the show.

Annie Crummer with Tu Te Manawa Maurea at Under an East Coast Moon. Photo: Phil Yeo.

Sunday – Under an East Coast Moon

Sunday brings the one cloudy day in my stay in Gisborne, and at times, walking around the town felt a bit like the friendliest version of Silent Hill. The cafe (Flagship Eatery, can recommend) around the corner from my motel has run out of bagels, crumpets and kim chi. I have my third and final Dame Jenny Shipley sighting of the weekend – wanting a table of four at this restaurant. I settle for an eggs benedict, and then wander down to the museum to look at their regular collection. 

In the evening, I walk the half-hour to Under an East Coast Moon – an outdoor concert featuring Dave Dobbyn, Anika Moa, Teeks, Rob Ruha, Maisey Rika, and the eternal and immortal Annie Crummer. It’s delightful, warm and welcoming. Before her set, Anika Moa says, “I’ve been here before. Well, I’ve been to Rhythm & Vines.” As someone who sheepishly said things along those lines to both locals and manuhiri, I felt justified. If the joke’s good enough for Anika, it’s good enough for me. She later performs ‘Naked Flame’ with the Loyal Man Himself, and I’m reminded that yup, Anika Moa has the pipes.

Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole performs at Sunday night’s Under an East Coast Moon. Photo: Phil Yeo.

The highlight of the night has to be Hawaii’s Kaumakaiwa Kanaka’ole, who ends up serving as her own MC, regaling the audience with a declaration that she’s there to get pregnant, and telling us where she’s staying (coincidentally, the same motel I was in). There’s also a powerful medley of Hawaii agit-prop songs which she performs mournfully, with full force and spirit. Again, there’s a sense of this audience – most of whom do not speak a word of the language she’s singing – welcoming her, and a true, genuine gratitude by Kanaka’ole that she’s been welcomed. When she finishes off her 20 minute long set with a rousing version of ‘Moloka’i Jam’, we’re all in.

At their best, arts festivals should do two things: they should bring art to an audience, and then audience to the art. Over three days, I saw a festival that was doing both these things already and promising to do so much more (two of the best shows I’ve ever seen, Meremere and Cellfish, are descending on Te Tairawhiti throughout the month). But nowhere was it more clear than during Under an East Coast Moon. 

It felt like the entire town had come out to see that concert – despite New Zealand kicking off against Namibia in the Rugby World Cup that weekend – and there was a mutual sense of welcome and community. The town welcoming the artist, the artists welcoming the town. It’s a sense of community that some of the bigger, urban festivals can often lack. They can feel like art for people who want to see art, but not art for the whole community.

Arts festivals are generally named when they take place, obviously. But with Te Tairāwhiti, you get the sense that this is for Tairāwhiti. And it feels so much more special because of it.

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