In a time of crisis is art essential? We might have been locked away and, in some parts of the world, this is still a grim reality for many. But there has been a lifeline in the form of the arts. The world has turned to consume an unprecedented amount of literature, film, drama, podcasts, live streaming of poetry, dance and theatre; as well as engaging in a whole range of practical arts-based activities. Dione Joseph catches up with artist/performer Alvie McKree and dancer/choreographer Eddie Elliott to discuss the role of art in healing and shaping a better future for us all.
"For me, art is service," says Alvie McKree. "It offers a way through crisis and I see artists as holders of a vision that can help us get through - whether it's a personal moment of reckoning, a tragedy like the death of George Floyd or a global pandemic."
An interdisciplinary artist, arts therapist and Qoya teacher, McKree's whakapapa on her mother's side is Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Kahu ki Whangaroa; and on her father's side Yurumein/Barbados. Both lineages are integral to her work.
"I came to art looking - and staying with it - primarily because of the therapeutic benefits it offered, whether I'm writing a play or a poem about my lived experience growing up Black and Māori here in Aotearoa; or whether I'm working with textiles and dyeing fabrics - it's always about moving towards a place of healing and restoration."
McKree also facilitates therapeutic art workshops, offering Qoya - movement that combines yoga and dance - and ceremonial gatherings for women, using performance and textile-based installation as a means of healing the rifts in her cultural identity caused by colonisation, migration, and the transatlantic slave trade. Most recently, she has also been invited by Black Creatives Aotearoa (BCA) to join their Black Out Series, a online interview platform that will feature 13 Black New Zealand artists across 13 weeks responding to the impact of Covid-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement.
It's another step towards understanding, engaging and finding ways through crisis with art. As one of the first interviewees for the series, she is looking forward to sharing her insights during this tumultuous time.
"We may have come out of lockdown but we haven't come out the same and it might not be nameable but it is palpable. People are different and, when we engage, it feels different. I'm still trying to make sense of that in my head and in my day-to-day work."
To do this McKree is currently working on a project involving both her grandmothers, Ripeka Paapu (maternal) and Gladys McKree (paternal). "The idea came to me long before Covid and started off as a way to strengthen my connection to my whakapapa, re-tell their stories within my own work and also start to heal that rift.
"It's also an attempt to weave myself back into that story and lockdown has given me all this time at home. It made absolute sense to be stitching, weaving and dyeing with plant material that's growing in my garden and along the road," she says.
McKree is also looking forward to developing her first play, Black Māori Girl, with support from BCA, a story she hopes can offer others insight into what it was like growing up both Black and Māori in the 70s and 80s in Aotearoa.
"I deliberately position myself as a Black Māori woman because for me that signals my Blackness but I don't have a lived experience of being Afro-Caribbean," she says. "This play is essentially a story of a young girl struggling with her frizzy hair and her mum, who's at her wits end because she has straight Māori hair and doesn't know what to do with her daughter's afro.
"It's funny, because I feel both Black and Māori artists use humour to respond to our traumatic past and it's a tool that helps us cope and process our own stories."
All of McKree's work is linked by a strong belief that the opportunity to share stories is incredibly therapeutic. It's fundamental to her belief in the transformative power of art to help us survive.
"The stakes are now higher than ever around our expectations of transformation - if it had just been Covid, that would have been one thing but it was also the murder of George Floyd," she says.
"This crisis has enabled us to be witness to Floyd's death in a way that wouldn't allow for a brief moment of grief and then business as usual - we need to tell our story in a way that makes space both for ourselves and for others, because only then does true healing take place.
"As an artist it's the combination of finding the right medium to explore an idea or an issue as well as having people around you to talk story with - and that is where the intersection between art and healing resides."
Black Out Series, live from August 16, on BCA's Facebook page
We are caught in a smudged reality where things are no longer what they seem, says Eddie Elliott, "and the arts are giving us a way to find some relief".
A dancer and choreographer, Elliott (Ngāti Maniapoto) had his world turn upside down when the virus gripped Canada and forced his Turtle Island tour to cancel. Returning home sooner than expected, however, offered him the unforeseen opportunity to reconnect with his upcoming work, Uku - Behind the Canvas.
"I feel I'm in the right place at the right time," says Elliott. "When my contracts in Canada got cancelled I was gutted but heading home meant that I could look at Uku once again and make sure that the story I was telling was connected in a way to what was happening in the world."
The work's genesis began more than two years ago, when Elliott was travelling to Canada for a dance tour and found himself fascinated by the work of Swiss painter Andy Denzler who was featured in an in-flight magazine.
"His [Denzler's] work resonated with me because he had a distinctive technique of blurring his paintings and it gave me a sense of being held in a particular moment of time - caught in between reality and the abstract."
Today in an altered landscape Elliott has felt even more compelled to invest in his vision with renewed energy. This moment led Elliott to consider how he could create a gateway for his audiences to be part of that "blurry" moment on stage. To do this he turned his focus inwards and looked to his family for inspiration.
"I grew up learning sign language to communicate with my brother and I noticed people were intrigued when we were having a conversation," he says. "They didn't understand what we were saying but they knew that we were exchanging information and were connected.
"Body language, hand gestures and facial expressions are all part of sign language and I wanted to use that to inform a movement practice that I developed by merging the moment of 'anticipation' with the process of 'intensification' - and that is one of the key elements in Uku".
Developing Uku and keeping his artistic practice alive has also been a huge part of Elliott's own process during lockdown, all of which he spent with his beloved Nanny Kim. However, when he came home it required some adjusting to understand just how serious the situation was.
"I must confess that I didn't realise just how bad things had got," he says. "When I left Toronto there were over 2000 cases and yet people were still going out, restaurants and bars were open and some events were still going ahead."
"It was actually my Nanny Kim, who is an essential services worker, who gave me a good talking-to and that made me realise how intense things had become."
Elliot had two weeks of self-isolation and then seven weeks of lockdown. Like many others, he found it a struggle. However, he used the time to reflect, practise his karakia, work on his exercise routine and channel his creativity into the final development of Uku.
"It's very important for me that my work responds to the moment," says Elliott. "This virus has changed so much for so many and lots of us have struggled - myself included."
"I'm a big believer that through struggle we find strength and I wouldn't be the dancer or the choreographer I am today if it hadn't been for some of the challenges that I've experienced - and that includes overcoming this crisis."
For Elliott, Uku is more than just a dance work - it epitomises the need to return to indigenous ways of knowing and being, a timely response considering the damage of Covid-19 upon the world.
"Uku is a journey, both my journey and that of how we came to be here," he explains. "My work sits deeply within Te Ao Māori and I wanted to share how I find ways to bring my truth to life."
Elliott, who graduated with a dance degree from Unitec, later travelled around the world as a professional performer.
But his work returns to story - both his own and that of the atua, or gods.
"This work [Uku] is about Tāne Mahuta's journey to create Hineahuone and how he fashioned her from uku [clay] and gave her the breath of life. Drawing upon the stories of our ancestors and gods was a way for me to connect to both my masculine and feminine side - and embrace the mauri of our atua."
Holding that vision close helped Elliott get through the isolation and lockdown period, where he admits his past and present collided.
"I found myself asking: 'who am I? What are my values?' During the lockdown I'd find my mind was racing so fast it took a while to calm down and that's when returning to my work helped," he says.
"This period of crisis has really helped me appreciate my whānau, Nanny Kim and especially the lessons she's given me on having patience, how to share knowledge and learn how to give of myself to others.
"After Covid I wanted to be actively involved in supporting other Māori youth in developing their skills in contemporary dance," he says, "I was recently at Manurewa marae and saw these young boys and they were amazing. It's young people like them who I'm here to help support - and, in fact, anyone who wants to use te ao Māori in ways that create movement."
Ultimately for Elliott, collaboration is key and making his way through his own past crises - and more recently the global pandemic - he's proud of the fact he's had another chance to make Uku relatable to the present world of flux.
"For me dance is not just a career, it is my language," he concludes. "The arts are essential in times like this. For me dance creates a pathway to tell my story of who I am as a Māori - allowing me to breathe and give life to my work - and in doing so, return to myself renewed."
Uku- Behind the Canvas will premiere alongside The Fibonacci by Tors Columbus as part of New Zealand Dance Company's Night Light at 7.30pm on August 13 and 14 at ASB Waterfront Theatre.
Why is art an essential service?
Tom Scott, Avantdale Bowling Club
"Essential is food, water, shelter, health care, education ... and somewhere down that list you might get art. I think art is a luxury. We're lucky to have it. But it's not essential to life."
— Tom Scott and Avantdale Bowling Club, Hopetoun Alpha on Friday, October 23, Elemental Nights
Jacqueline Coats, Semele
"Art allows us to make sense of what we're going through. Art allows us to escape from what we're going through. Art gives makers and audiences a way to experience, to express, to say the things that are difficult to say. Art can inspire, empathise, change minds. But most of all, art is a reason for people to gather, to commiserate, to celebrate. It creates community and, in a time of crisis, community is essential."
— Jacqueline Coats, associate director for New Zealand Opera's production of Semele, September 10-19, Holy Trinity Cathedral, Auckland. nzopera.com
Kody Nielson, Opossom
"I believe that art is essential to a functioning society.
Art is older than money, it has been practised for centuries before the invention of the engine, plumbing or even the wheel, and is part of our humanity."
— Opossom perform at Hopetoun Alpha on Tuesday, October 20 as part of Elemental Nights
Matthew Davis, Flying Out
"There's nothing that soothes a troubled soul like music, and we've seen clear evidence of this at our record store in recent times, with people using music as a coping mechanism, a welcome distraction and a way to support each other. Coming out of lockdown — one thing that everyone definitely missed is the ability to come together and celebrate — and that's really what our festival, The Others Way, is all about. We couldn't do our festival without the community that surrounds it — from the artists, the venues, volunteers and the fans — and it's a great chance to bring everyone together after a period of huge uncertainty."
— The Others Way, September 11, across Karangahape Rd. Tickets at flyingout.co.nz
Bic Runga, King Sweeties
"There is another reason why art is important in this crisis, especially music and it's because if we supported and mobilised our countries musical talents, our economy could be helped
significantly. New Zealand needs to get a bigger share of the US$20 billion pie that is global digital streaming revenue alone. We don't really need to go anywhere to do that. When I wrote my first song, Drive, it changed my life. I made a living and I employed people. For something that comes only from inside your imagination, this is extraordinary to me. I would like to see songwriting taught in schools, for the cathartic and emotional benefits it can have to anyone, as well as the huge economic potential it could have for our country."
— King Sweeties, Tuesday, October 20, at Hopetoun Alpha as part of Elemental Nights
Reb Fountain, musician
"Art transcends politics and plagues. Art embraces and expands the human spirit. Art distracts us, nurtures us and connects us with our hearts. That is why you'll find a piano being played in the middle of a war-torn city or graffiti murals expressing dissent, joy or loss just as much as you will find musicians livestreaming or performing for their neighbours when they can't leave their houses. Dance, music, film and art reflects the expression and expansion of our humanity. As artists we do it for the love, we do it because it is necessary; necessary for us as individuals and for society and culture as a whole. Art is fundamental to our individual and collective wellbeing. Art is our anchor."
Reb Fountain 2020 NZ Tour,
October 23-November 21; tickets from Banished Music, Ticketek