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Dance with my coloniser, dance with my culture

The Wireless logo The Wireless 31/05/2017

In an inconspicuous corner of Wellington, Kahu Kutia finds members of the Māori and Pasifika theatre community preparing for Kia Mau Festival.

Performers in Mīria George's Fire in the Water, Fire in the Sky. © Provided by Radio New Zealand Limited Performers in Mīria George's Fire in the Water, Fire in the Sky. Performers in Mīria George's Fire in the Water, Fire in the Sky.

Photo: Kahu Kutia

On an industrial street in central Wellington, a cold steel building tells nothing of the creative hub that is inside. To those familiar with the space, this is “Te Haukāinga”, the centre of an constantly building community of artists who whakapapa to Aotearoa, the Pacific, and past that further into the world.

“Te Haukāinga” may be translated as a home – a true home.  For the Māori and Pasifika theatre community in Wellington, it is a tūranga waewae, a place to stand, to rehearse, to create, and to connect. This is not a theatre space, but a hub of creative development. Here I watched people gather for hui, to share kai, organise costumes, and rehearse ideas. Everyone from babies to kaumātua wander into these rooms at any point during the day, just as on the marae. 

Much of what is understood as Māori or Pasifika theatre today, grew from a shabby space in Wellington. Previously called “the Depot” (because it was above a bus depot), it became Taki Rua theatre. In the ‘80s and ‘90s it was a haven for Māori and Pasifika, gay and lesbian theatre, as well as having a strong dance tradition.

The name Taki Rua was gifted by a kuia – Tungia Baker. Taki Rua is to weave in a pattern of twos. For those who were there, this was the weaving together of tangata whenua and tauiwi (those from across other waters). These days, Taki Rua is not a physical space, but rather a virtual production space. Taki Rua now, is one of the bodies who share “Te Haukāinga”.

There’s a consciousness rising from Māori and Pasifika young people across our communities.

Wellington breeds a certain kind of adventurousness in its cultural scene. It was in the inquisitive spirit and blistering winds of this city that early practitioners such as Don Selwyn, Keri Kaa, Wi Kuki Kaa, Rowley Habib and Tungia Baker fought for structures that would enable other Māori and Pasifika artists to work. At this time, “Māori” theatre was perceived as poi and haka only. Those who laid the path of Māori and Pasifika theatre fought for contemporary work, for bi-culturalism, for their rights to articulate themselves in the way they wanted to.

While the oral and performative traditions of our peoples laid the roots, Wellington fostered artists coming together. This was indigenous creators re-inventing for themselves what it means to be Māori or Polynesian. Whilst working, these artists were being kept out of mainstream theatre spaces. This is the history that precedes Kia Mau Festival – running for its third year, bringing together indigenous creators in Wellington this month.

Mīria George, co-founder of Tawata Productions, says one of the strengths of Māori and Pasifika theatre is that it is resourceful and nimble. Mīria is Te Arawa, Ngāti Awa, and Kuki Airani. She draws for me a lean and muscular picture of Māori and Pasifika theatre. Every single resource has been utilised for its full value, and there is not a drop that will be wasted.

Tawata Productions co-founder Mīria George. © Provided by Radio New Zealand Limited Tawata Productions co-founder Mīria George. Tawata Productions co-founder Mīria George.

Photo: Kahu Kutia

When Kia Mau started, multiple theatre spaces agreeing to be available around the same time was not the done thing. Here I see a connection to our ancestors who managed to navigate towards and thrive on a scattering of islands in the middle of the expansive Pacific ocean. Here is a theatre tradition familiar with adversity, and like our ancestors, makes use of space and resource to create well-being.

Māori theatre is not necessarily kapa haka. It is not necessarily in Te Reo. However, there are a lot of preconceived ideas as to what Māori work brings. Production companies and theatre spaces have labelled this kind of work as “risky” because it prioritises a Māori worldview.

Mīria suggested that because of all these challenges “indigenous artists are stronger, more agile, more persistent, more tenacious, more innovative, more relentless because we are so used to working our way through”

When working as an indigenous person, should we focus on changing spaces that aren’t diverse in their voice? Or do we work at the culturally powerful core, and continue to innovate and spread the voices of our culture, our identities, our tīpuna. How do we contextualise Māori and Pasifika work in mainstream spaces?

“There’s a consciousness rising from Māori and Pasifika young people across our communities. There’s a level of organisation. There is a momentum that is coming from our people, from our world view and to have to slow down by trying to explain and contextualise that is of no use to anyone,” Mīria says.

In her words, I understand the value of spaces that are inherently indigenous. Where tikanga is valued, and indigenous worldviews established in the fabric of those spaces. In these spaces we are not othered. The tapu and noa spiritualities that govern our lives are respected and spaces kept safe from an imbalance. Fighting for voice and culture in mainstream spaces is important work, but here is a space where emotional energy does not need to be expended for that cause.

It was only sort of last year that I really acknowledged that I was either playing a Māori for the sake of having a Māori in the room, or they didn’t want me to be Māori.

It’s a rich whakapapa that is being kept alive by new generations of creators coming through. Neenah Dekkers-Reihana is young, Māori, and queer. She wrote, directed and is performing in her own show for Kia Mau Festival: This Is What It Looks Like. The show is about depression and asks “What if I just let myself be depressed?”

Her mother is Dutch, and her dad is Māori. Like so many of us, disconnection and colonisation has played a huge part for Neenah in articulating identity. Nevertheless, Neenah started to notice how often she was the only brown person in the room.

“It was only sort of last year that I really acknowledged that I was either playing a Māori for the sake of having a Māori in the room, or they didn’t want me to be Māori. So I was pretending to be white. And that started to sit in a really uncomfortable place for me. It’s only been the last couple of years where I’ve kind of been like ‘Oh, I am Māori”.

Sarita Keo Kossamak So is not Māori, or Pasifika, but from further abroad the moana. Sarita is a born and bred Wellingtonian, but her parents came from Cambodia almost 40 years ago. Along with her partner Natano Keni, she has written Riverside Kings. The play is inspired by Timberlea in Upper Hutt, and will be shown at the city’s Expressions Arts and Entertainment Centre for Kia Mau.

During her time studying theatre at Victoria University, Sarita encountered Māori and Pasifika theatre for the first time. “It's like seeing something that is not the mainstream point of view and being able to relate to it despite not being either Māori or Pacific Island. It's seeing the possibility that indigenousness and otherness should have a place to stand; that they are not the same thing but there’s a natural affinity there”

Poster for Sarita Keo Kossamak So's Riverside Kings. © Provided by Radio New Zealand Limited Poster for Sarita Keo Kossamak So's Riverside Kings. Poster for Sarita Keo Kossamak So's Riverside Kings.

Image: Rath Prak

The very first issue Sarita faces is recognition. It was an issue faced also by those very first figures of Māori and Pasifika theatre. Her culture does not exist in the landscape that is the creative arts in Aotearoa. It is not visible on stages and television screens. She’s played Thai characters, Japanese characters, Chinese characters, but despite many Cambodians having migrated across the waters to Aotearoa, she only knows one other Cambodian actor here.

“I know what I am, I know my culture, it ain't no thing. The problem is that I don't exist yet. With my first play it is and was a story to pay homage to my parent’s generation, the generation that came to New Zealand as refugees. I want to create works that have Cambodian characters, yet how do I start there without first explaining how we got here in the first place?”

If Te Haukāinga is a central hub of indigenous creativity, then it is the individual themself who empowers the spaces, both physical and ideological. Indigenous identity in the modern world is so diverse in its articulation. There is no metre on how much Te Reo has been said in the show, no blood quantum on the individual.

With my first play it is and was a story to pay homage to my parent’s generation, the generation that came to New Zealand as refugees.

It is the autonomous indigenous voice, empowered by self-determination and spaces to simply be indigenous. The autonomous indigenous voice speaks Te Reo Māori, but not exclusively. They maneuver around and challenge the coloniser; a dance so to speak that stems from the haka of our tīpuna. In this dance, they do not let the coloniser shape our ideals, the taonga tuku iho or gifts from our ancestors and whakapapa.

For the people who keep the fires of indigenous theatre burning, it is not just individual creativity which keeps them going. Mīria says: “What invigorates me and fires me onward is this deep commitment to my kuia and koroua, my nana and papa, and to everyone who has come before me. To pursue my art form, and to pursue a way forward for all of us. Because I know that from Cook Islands to Horohoro, that’s what they were doing. And [I am] deeply committed to honouring that.”

*Kia Mau Festival, 2-24 June at venues throughout Wellington.

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