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Nancy Brunning’s play Witi’s Wāhine will have its world premiere at the festival. From left: Stars Ngapaki Moetara, Ani-Piki Tuari, Roimata Fox and Mere Boynton. Photo/Strike Photography

A new arts festival is a creative coming of age for the East Coast

An ambitious new arts festival will be a creative coming of age for the East Coast.

The creative landscape of the greater Gisborne area is about to change. Giving the region a new voice is Tama Waipara, tasked by the Te Hā Sestercentennial Trust to direct the inaugural Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival (4-20 October). With a local population of just 38,000, a three-week festival featuring more than 70 events is a transformative moment in the history of Te Tairāwhiti (which loosely translates as “the coast upon which the sun shines across the water”).

“Our region is synonymous with creative talent, names such as Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Witi Ihimaera, Lee Tamahori, Murray Ball, [playwright] Hone Kouka, and going back to people like [composers] Tuini Ngāwai and Ngoi Pēwhairangi,” says Waipara, who hopes the festival will become an annual event. “It’s so important that we create opportunities into the future for our community, our artists, and that we spotlight the magic of the region.”

So what is this magic? “Tairāwhiti doesn’t box neatly,” he says. “There’s a kind of a cheek to it. It’s rugged, sometimes with brashness, other times deep humility, and this is particularly evident in the arts.”

Waipara (Ruapani/Rongowhakaata/Ngāti Porou) is delighted to be back among his whānau. His father grew up in Manutūkē, just south of Gisborne, “aka the heart of the universe”.

“He always instilled in us a love and deep connection to who we are as iwi, hapū and whānau,” says Waipara “He was the only boy in a family of eight siblings. I have seven aunties, five with us today, four of whom live in Tūranga [Gisborne]. They are a real litmus test to all of my thinking; they are everything that is home to me. I’ve lived overseas and done various work, but for who? In this role, I’ve had to ask myself, ‘What do I have in my kete to contribute to the wellbeing of all?’”

Festival director Tama Waipara. Photo/Strike Photography.

Given Waipara’s background as a performer, producer and singer/songwriter, and seven years in festival programming, his kete is fair brimming. “There are legends around our place, stories of deep connection. The aim is to try and sing the songs of our place.”

The Te Tairāwhiti area is 50% Māori, and the festival will be proudly bilingual. Waipara has taken inspiration from other indigenous festivals, including Auckland’s Matariki and Wellington’s Kia Mau. “I want the festival to acknowledge our beginnings, who and what we are. When you have a strong sense of home, you’re able to welcome others.”

Nancy Brunning’s play Witi’s Wāhine, based on excerpts from Ihimaera’s stories, will have its world premiere at the festival. “When I read the play, I was reminded of the playfulness and realness in the way my aunties speak,” says Waipara. “They tell the truth and help you define who you are from that truth.”

Other highlights include a new production of Wild Dogs Under My Skirt, which brings New Zealand-Samoan poet Tusiata Avia’s poetry to the stage; a free Manu Aute Kite Day; the performance artwork Meremere; outdoor concert Under an East Coast Moon, featuring Teeks, Anika Moa and Dave Dobbyn, among others; and a special opening night, Māui Pūtahi, conceived by Teina Moetara.            

 Te Tairāwhiti Arts Festival, 4-20 October.    

This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of North & South. Follow North & South on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and sign up to the fortnightly email for more great stories.