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Saturday, 20 April 2019 06:07 pm

Art bridges the distance between Maori and Somali cultures

A WELLINGTON theatre group is using the performing arts to bridge the distance between Maori and Somali communities.

Director Heather Timms learnt of the cultural distance while working for Christchurch Maori theatre company Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu.

“I would listen to some of the perspectives of the rangatahi around the tensions with new migrants, particularly African new migrants,” she says.

After leaving Te Rakau Hua O Te Wao Tapu, Heather worked with migrants in theatre projects.

“They (the Somali community) felt a real loss that they didn’t have more opportunity to connect with tangata whenua. They knew Maori were the indigenous people of New Zealand, but they didn’t feel they had any understanding of that or had any point of connection or building with those people.”

Heather says a key idea that emerged from speaking to people in Maori and Somali communities was the role of tangata whenua in hosting new migrants.

“Although they have this position of the people of the land and the values of manaakitanga (hospitality and kindness) and whakawhanaungatanga (the process of establishing relationships and relating well to others) these things are core to their cultural practice.

“They’re not in the position to practise it in terms of how people come into New Zealand.

“They are not in the position of host, which is a very strong and powerful position, and so they don’t get to learn [about] the new people coming in. And those new people coming in don’t get to develop an understanding of Maori as tangata whenua.”

Heather feels this distance is contradictory to the welcoming Maori nature she found when moving from Australia to New Zealand.

“The values inherent within a Maori kaupapa hold encounter and engagement very strongly and the world can learn a lot of that.”

Despite historical and cultural differences, both Maori and Somali communities share high rates of imprisonment, violence, cultural dislocation, youth gang culture and negative health outcomes.

Crossing Lines, a professional theatre show backed by an exhibition, works to change shared negative social indicators between Maori and Somali communities and forge new lines of communication to improve understanding between cultures.

It is the result of two years of work and research involving more than 400 people in the Maori and Somali communities of Wellington.

Ideas found by speaking to people from seemingly disparate communities are presented in an hour-long theatre performance.

Four young actors – two Somali and two Maori – bring to life the relationships and questions which emerged when analysing the two cultures.

Their performance flows from the exhibition space which uses large projections, shadow imagery, intimate and personal poetics to physically transport the audience through space, time and culture.

Crossing Lines is part of the Southern Corridor project, which has been used as an inter-cultural dialogue between Maori and other ethnic minorities in Aotearoa.

Heather says there is excitement about the potential for professional art to be used as a platform for communication. Until the Southern Corridor project it happened only in a governmental sector.

Tamati Cairns, chairperson of Te Ata Hou Trust, says Māori have always had the capacity to form and sustain good relationships all over the world without the assistance of crown input.

Heather hopes Crossing Lines will provoke audiences into thinking about what changes can be made to promote cultural understanding and immersion.

Umulkheir Amiin, an actor in Crossing Lines, says Somali people – or refugee people in general – stress their culture so much “because of that fear of losing it”.

“Years after year, we keep saying that this is what happened to me,” he says. “It’s like the same story, different day. So how do we, the ones that have been here for a long time, how do we make a difference?”

Contributions to Crossing Lines came from more than 400 people from Berhampore School, South Wellington Intermediate, Wellington East Girls and Rongotai College through to the Wellington Tenths Trust and the Somali Council.

Despite personal and cultural differences, all stories are presented as both special and universal in their attitude to relationships, land and identity.

Heather hopes that similar productions will be presented as the wider community reflects on cultural understanding: “It’s a different way of looking at the things we currently practice in New Zealand.”

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