This year felt a little different when it came to the Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival. Yes, it was a significantly shorter and pared back season than previous years, and it arrived for the first time during Matariki, but these aren’t the differences I’m referring to here…
It was the fact that, despite the different time of year and the shorter lead in, locals knew exactly what to do. It felt significant, a moment to acknowledge that Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival has well and truly become a part of our cultural landscape, despite the enormous challenges the team have faced to keep the kaupapa tracking, through the chaos that the pandemic has wrought for the majority of the Festival’s relatively short life span.
Last month, when Te Ara I Whiti lit up, whānau knew the drill: bundle and boot up, and get down to Te Pūtahi to enjoy a truly unique collection of contemporary Māori design along with the other locally-bred creative offerings that come with the lights.
I caught up with Tama Waipara, Chief Executive and Artistic Director of Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival to reflect on the Festival’s first Matariki season.
He described what he says couldn’t have been a more perfect Opening Night, “the light of the sunset just melted into the lights. [The sky] was an incredible pinky orange and as that light came down, the lights of the works came up as whānau began folding in. It was just magical”.
Tama agrees that the Festival has become a “norm” for us here. And while it feels like somewhat of a coming of age for our people to be able to attend the kinds of arts and cultural experiences you’d usually only be able to access in the cities, Tama is quick to point out that people in other centres don’t actually get to experience anything remotely like Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival.
By its very definition, the Festival is ‘of this place’. It is place-based and comes from the knowledge that we are all culturally located. It is a space that has been claimed for the stories of Te Tairāwhiti to be told through the arts, and with a kaupapa Māori lens, and it is that which makes it different from anything you can currently find elsewhere.
This very intentional and utterly unique kaupapa, is also, let’s be honest, the very thing that has created ‘a bit of a rub’ around the place, as there’s a big chunk of our local population - just under half of us - who aren’t at all used to being left out of the narrative.
Tama talked about how hard he finds it “to have a simple conversation these days” and ain’t that the truth. The more we learn about our own inbuilt biases, and are able, little by little, to discern the myriad different ways in which the pervasive lens of colonisation and the capitalistic system has skewed our perceptions of everything. Indeed, we realise that we should and can never assume anything.
Tama sees visibility as one of the primary issues for Tūranga. “Seeing and knowing how you connect to place is deeply restorative and vital to knowing where we all stand.”
It seems to me, Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival is an incredibly powerful vehicle by which we can begin to heal decades of entrenched racism and trauma. For Tauiwi and Pākeha, there are so many opportunities for learning and for nurturing our understanding, for listening. For Māori, a chance to celebrate, to heal and to deepen connection.
I’m looking forward to seeing how the Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival continues to evolve. I don’t think I’ve ever talked to Tama about the Festival without him mentioning the way kids interact with the festival spaces, filling them up with the sounds of their enjoyment and their spirit.
For our tamariki to be growing up in a time in which there is no longer just the one single-sided narrative, for them to get to witness us, often clumsily and often with hurt, attempting these difficult conversations, for Māori tamariki to have the opportunity to grow up knowing their own stories, after so many years when that was not so, these are the reasons why Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival will always be one of the most important things that happened around here in contemporary times.
Kia ora Tama & Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival team
Story by Sarah Cleave
Image credits Phil Yeo for Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival