10 Oct 2021

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Connecting reflecting and comforting   what arts and culture can do for wellbeing

Caren Rangi, Chair of the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa recently shared her thoughts on what arts and culture can do for wellbeing with Stuff. The full article that was published during Mental Health Awareness Week is available below.

As a teenager growing up in suburban Hawke's Bay in the 1980s, art was something that you 'did'. In my case, it was once a week with our groovy arts teacher Mr Lister, exploring art from Europe. You ‘‘did’’ art because it was a School Certificate subject that gave some relief from other subjects.

I also spent two days every week practising and performing as a dancer in the Hawke’s Bay Cook Islands Youth Culture Group – somewhat of a novelty to largely Pākehā audiences. While I knew I was sharing my culture with others, I certainly didn’t think of this as 'doing art' – it didn’t look, sound or feel like the accepted definitions of art.

What I did know was that as a member of a minority community, Cook Islands dance made me feel proud, unique, confident and knowledgeable, in a way that nothing else I learned at school had. Now as an adult, hearing the sounds of the drums, traditional chants and songs, and getting up to dance as a form of celebration still fills me with joy and pride.

There were other forms of arts and culture that I engaged with that also contributed to my wellbeing and how I navigated my way as a Cook Islander in mainstream New Zealand. At seven, I joined my school guitar group, taught by a local folk music identity who was a strong environmental and human rights advocate, and who played in a real band at places like Napier venue the Cabana.

So, I learned to play the guitar while singing protest songs like Big Yellow Taxi and a repertoire of Bob Dylan and Neil Young. In contrast, 10 years on I was a pianist in a chamber music trio playing baroque music. Those two creative experiences connected me to other people and perspectives and gave me a sense of belonging amongst my peers, something that was important to me.

As Chair of the Arts Council of New Zealand Toi Aotearoa, I have seen many examples of how arts and culture enhance the wellbeing of New Zealanders, particularly in recent times. Our New Zealanders and the Arts research found that our arts are making a powerful contribution to our wellbeing and are helping us get through Covid-19 – one in four of us say the arts have become more important to our wellbeing since Covid arrived in Aotearoa.

We need to recognise how arts and culture benefits our communities – from strengthening mental wellbeing, to enhancing education, and contributing to the positive rehabilitation of incarcerated prisoners. One example is the Matala Project, a series of digital online art resources that explore Pacific masculinity. Produced by the FAFSWAG Queer Indigenous Art Collective, this initiative was supported by the 2020 Le Va Pasifika Suicide Prevention Community Fund and aimed to increase knowledge about suicide prevention, resilience, and the support available – a wellbeing message delivered through an arts platform.

I remain grateful to dance for providing a beam of positivity during the uncertainty of lockdown periods. Every weekday morning at 8am I join my friend Maria’s Lockdown Dance sessions via Zoom, and we bust out our best dance moves to our favourite disco hits. It gives me a burst of energy, connects me to others outside of my bubble, and it just feels good.

I want more New Zealanders to be able to find an artform or creative activity that enhances their wellbeing. This Mental Health Awareness Week, let’s take time to get creative. It connects us, helps us see from new perspectives, and makes us feel good. And let’s be sure to support our artists – their creativity fuels our collective wellbeing.

Caren's blog was recently published on Stuff.co.nz