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Arts Smarts: Mind your Mental Health

Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho. Image by Peter Meecham for NZ Herald
Jeremy Yap for Unsplash
Nik Macmillan for Unsplash
Sam Grover catches up with Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho to hear how artists can look after themselves.


It’s great to make a living as an artist, or any kind of creative, if you can. But in order to do this, you also need to look after something more important: your mental health and general well-being. After all, if you burn out, it doesn’t really matter how successful you were before you burned out; burning out is often a multi-year pause, and sometimes permanent end to your artistic career.

This is the issue that Borni Te Rongopai Tukiwaho has dedicated himself to working on. Borni wears a lot of hats - he’s a producer, director, lecturer, actor, singer and community activist. I caught up with him to hear how artists can look after themselves, and how art can help society in general look after themselves.

Borni has produced all kinds of material and walked alongside lots of companies and people in this space. His most recent work was co-authoring a Wellbeing resource for the arts sector with Playmarket and Fiona McNamara. He’s also a part of a dedicated rōpu launching a national network committed to well-being in the arts - Te Ora Auaha: Creative Wellbeing Alliance Aotearoa. (Te Ora Auaha is launching this week, so keep an eye on our social channels for more information!) 

But in the meantime, here’s what I learned from my conversation with Borni about the importance of mental well-being, how artists can look after themselves, and how doing so benefits society as a whole.

No more suffering artists

One of the less-helpful tropes in our society is of the “suffering artist” - this idea that to create great art, you need to suffer. Borni rejects this mentality entirely. “Art is about authentic representation,” he says - and if you’re constantly ‘suffering’, you don’t have the opportunity to put your true self into what you work on.

“Art is about authentic representation.” 

Rather, artists can develop strategies to look after their well-being while producing their art. To do this, you need to think about what kind of things make you feel like a suffering artist - is it pressure from impending deadlines? Is it meeting with new people? Is it something else entirely?

Once you identify these pressure points, you can create strategies to deal with them. Maybe you need to limit the amount of meetings you have per day. Maybe you need to divide your deadlines into manageable sub-deadlines. Discovering the answer is up to you - but the output is less suffering, and better-wellbeing.

Communicate, communicate, communicate

To Borni, well-being is about more than just developing strategies. More importantly, it’s about an ongoing conversation - touching base with your colleagues, your peers and yourself to make sure you’re okay.

This is something he’s been working on for years now. When he returned from overseas in 2009, he said that people weren’t really talking about their well-being in the performing arts realm. In some sense, it “wasn’t allowed.” Over the years, he’s been working to break this cycle, and get people to communicate more effectively and discover what support they may need. Now, those conversations are becoming more “full and robust - we can question things.”

So it’s good to discover your ‘tribe’ and make sure you’re having conversations about your well-being. And make sure those conversations are open, honest and with people you trust.

Better well-being, better art

This authenticity has benefits beyond your own well-being. It also helps you thrive as a human and an artist - which in turn helps society itself thrive, it’s a trickle on effect. Borni told me that art “helps us be more authentic within ourselves.” If you’re talking about the tough issues and really opening up to the people around you, it helps to centre you and allow you to focus on producing more connective art.

Art created by artists who have balance and understand their own well-being needs can challenge power balances, highlight conflicts we have, and show how we negotiate things.

This has a flow-on effect to society as a whole. If artists are looking after their well-being, and creating more authentic art, this gives all of us art with more depth and richness. This doesn’t mean it’s all doom and gloom, and it doesn’t mean it’s all rainbows and sunshine, either. Rather, it’s honest. Art created by artists who have balance and understand their own well-being needs can challenge power balances, highlight conflicts we have, and show how we negotiate things. These are all authentic lived experiences, and art is made more valuable by shining a light on them.

So look after your well-being, artists! It’ll keep your head in a good space - and you’ll also help produce art that helps to look after society’s well-being as well. All told, it’s a pretty good deal.

Portrait of Borni by Peter Meecham for NZ Herald


*The Big Idea Arts & Well-Being Week*
We believe that the arts play an essential role for our well-being.
All our stories this week, April 1 - 6, will look into the importance of the arts for our health - make sure to check them out here! #artsmatter

Written by

Sam Grover

31 Mar 2019

Sam loves telling quirky stories about The Big Idea’s community of artists and interviewing successful arts practitioners to gather insights about funding and commercialising their art.