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Creative Heartbreak, Aroha & Resilience In Auckland's Flooding State of Emergency

01 Feb 2023
Tāmaki Makaurau artists are among those confronted with the devastation gripping so many in the city - we hear heart-wrenching tales, shows of support and the latest on what comes next.

Kia kaha.


This is not an arts emergency - it’s an everyone emergency. And it appears it's not over yet.


The destruction and continuing threat of flood damage that has hit the top half of the North Island has impacted so many.


Floodwater doesn’t discriminate - individuals, communities, businesses and sectors of all shapes and sizes have been pushed to breaking point. Any issues the creative community have are as much to do with geography and meteorology than anything unique to the sector.


But like any community - those involved in the arts rally to support each other.


While Northland, Waikato and the Bay of Plenty have had issues thrown their way since Friday, it is of course Auckland that is the hardest hit. 


Today (Wednesday) is scheduled to have more heavy rain - but hopefully, at least this time Tāmaki Makaurau residencies will be prepared for it.


Artists staying strong in devastating circumstances


It’s been heartbreaking to hear of the damage being done to the lives and livelihoods of so many creatives, but it’s also been heartwarming to hear of the manaakitanga, the support and love those hit hardest have received and the way the creative community has rallied.


Not to mention the way creative individuals have refused to have their spirits broken.


Andy Leleisi’uao is one that would have every reason to feel overwhelmed and wanting to retreat into his shell.


The much admired South Auckland artist - like far too many - had waist deep water through his Mangere house and studio, much of his artwork wiped out.


The talented, big-hearted Samoan creative agreed to share his story with The Big Idea not to look for sympathy, but in case it is of help to others in the creative community to know they’re not going through this alone.


Incredibly, it’s his damaged art that is helping Leleisi’uao through this ordeal.


“My family are safe and have moved out - we've had cousins and friends come round to help clean up and provide comfort and food.


“Even though a huge amount of my work will be destroyed because of the water damage, I won't abandon them. I still sleep here. I want to be around them for as long as I can before I say goodbye.


“So I decided to start hanging them throughout the house. I just want to be surrounded by them one last time. I'm saddened - but I'm not distraught because I've had my time with them at different stages of my life. 


“I'm humbled by what has happened but I'm also happy because I know I have my imagination.


“My artist friends Delicia Sampero, Raymond Sagapolutele, Marcus Hipa have come everyday and others in my art circle have all reached out to which we are extremely grateful.



“The hanging at night (above is his mother's room) when everyone has left has been therapeutic and helps me stay strong for the next day, when I see my amazing family and friends again.” 


The ability of creatives to have gratitude and empathy for others at the top of their list of emotions during such incredible turmoil is shining through.


Perhaps its best illustrated by musical powerhouse duo Anna Coddington and Dick Johnson. From the surely terrifying need to escape out the second story window with your two children on kayaks, and seeing your home “annihilated”, as described by friend Adrienne Walker - Coddington and Johnson have shown no bitterness.


As anyone who is a freelance artist will tell you, knowing where your next paycheck can come from can be a stress in itself - but needing to rebuild your life with a mortgage to pay and family to raise when you’ve lost virtually everything could easily feel crippling.


Anna Coddington and Dick Johnson's house underwater. Photo: Givealittle page.


After Walker twisted their arm to allow her to set up a Givealittle page to let others help support them, Coddington and Johnson have been blown away with the response, more than $57,000 raised inside three days.


Responding to the outpouring of love, Coddington wrote “there are no words to convey the gratitude we feel, but we want to acknowledge the extraordinary generosity we are experiencing and how much your support means to us.


“The first line to one of my favourite waiata (songs) is ‘ko te aroha anō he wai’, which means ‘love is like water’. That is what we are experiencing.


“The water that came down in Auckland on Friday was overwhelming, literally and figuratively. It overwhelmed anything in its path, including our home, along with many other people's homes. We feel overwhelmed by what has happened, what we and others have lost, and what we are yet to face in trying to find somewhere else to put down roots.


“But the aroha we are receiving is equally overwhelming in the best possible way. It is a force even stronger than that which took our home. We have shed few tears over the things we've lost, but when we read your messages we want to cry and cry not from sadness but something else. We're overwhelmed by your aroha, I don't know how else to say it.”


The money raised will not only mean a roof over the head for their family in the short to medium term, but also help the pair replace whatever tools of the trade they need to perform gigs (Coddington’s guitars weren’t spared but much of DJ Johnson’s vinyl collection was off-site).


Creative venues under pressure


Clean up under way at Auckland Theatre Company. Photo: Supplied.


So used to being at the whim of lockdowns over the last few years, the resilience of the theatre and gallery ecosystem around Tāmaki has again been tested.


Auckland Art Gallery’s (AAG) doors were forced closed for a short period after the Friday deluge - with hundreds of artworks in crates needing to be moved around the building - including needing to use the public spaces to store it.


With around 700-1000 square metres of workspaces feeling the effects of water seeping through, the cleanup has been no small feat.


AAG Director Kirsten Lacy told The Big Idea that they’re yet to find out the full extent of the potential damage.


“A number of artworks are in crates but there's no point starting an industrial clean if we're about to potentially have more groundwater seepage. So we're just in that holding pattern of waiting and seeing what the weather does.


“We've moved artworks in low lying areas - nothing was stored directly on the floor anyway but if we start to see knee deep water, we've got a very different situation. We’re also moving a number of works to our off site collections store.


Auckland Art Gallery staff working to keep the creative taonga safe from flood damage. Photo: Supplied.


“It will take time to assess the damage and also make sure we are fit for purpose. We've never seen water come up through the concrete of the basement of the gallery before and it was a shock. Just things we really hadn't put our mind to like how do you get rid of water when you don't have major drainage in a significant space or area - it's really hard to get rid of water if you can't drain it away.


“We will be really much more prepared for the future - we know a lot more about the building as a result.”


Many of the independent galleries around Auckland The Big Idea spoke to reported only light flooding and leakage with little major damage - certainly not at a level they were complaining about, given the battering so many others have experienced throughout the city. 


Scott Lawrie of Scott Lawrie Galleries points out the thoughts of most.


“I don’t think we could have prepared for it - but it would have been useful to have had one of those emergency phone alerts. I had no idea what was about to hit me until the water started rushing in.


“What was really nice was the shout outs for help from artists and even other galleries - we’re a good community when we pull together.”


Auckland Theatre Company’s Balmoral studios saw water pouring through the walls on Friday and Saturday - causing the rehearsal floor to buckle in areas and put the collection of costumes under threat (below).



Artistic Director and CEO Jonathan Bielski told The Big Idea “we are fortunate to have wonderful people who swung into action over the weekend (including the Youth Company, who were in auditions at the time) to minimise damage from flooding. Our rehearsal studio will be out of action for a while but ASB waterfront theatre is water tight. Our people are safe, that’s what’s most important.


“The challenges for the sector keep coming.”


Basement Theatre’s Cat Ruka is among the many keeping a close eye on things in the coming days, with the first show of the year starting next week.


She adds “As always, our thoughts are with independent artists right now who already live financially challenging lives, and could now be experiencing further pressures due to the flooding and clean up of their homes.


“If any of our independent communities are struggling right now, we urge them to get in touch with us for assistance and support, whatever that may look like.”


The timing has been rough on so many - with cancelled or postponed performances or exhibitions, including Tui Emma Gillies and Sulieti Fieme’a Burrows opening of The Last Kai at Tautai Gallery, which is closed until further notice.


The start of February is also the start of Auckland Pride month but once again, a large - and this time, wet - spanner has been thrown into the works.

The decision has been made to  delay the start of in-person events until Thursday following advice to avoid unnecessary travel tomorrow.


While launching with People of Power Whā - an online POC performer showcase tonight (Wednesday).the first Thursdays on Karangahape Road including Audrey Baldwin’s Art Chemist and Queers + Wares Markets is postponed, as is Saturday’s Sapphic Style Day at SEEN & HEARD and the Supreme Ball, while tonight’s Night of the Queer’s Preview has been cancelled.


Like with all events booked in over the coming weeks - keep checking their sites for updates (for example, here is Pride's update page).


Funding bodies reaction


The heads of the arts sector are closely monitoring the situation and - as this is far from an Arts issue (as mentioned earlier) - are letting the right departments take care of the state of emergency.


Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage Deputy Chief Executive Emily Fabling responded to The Big Idea ”with Auckland still in a live state of emergency, Manatū Taonga is currently working with sector partners to better understand and assess the extent of the impact on the cultural sector and creatives.


“Our thoughts are with the many creatives across Auckland who have been impacted by cancelled events and performances, and, alongside heritage sites, galleries and museums, have had their property damaged.


“We recommend affected individuals and groups go to the government fact sheet on the Auckland Floods for further information on support available and where you can get help.


Creative New Zealand is also gathering information and giving people the space to deal with the immediate situations they are facing – organisationally and personally. The Big Idea has been told CNZ has contacted the Auckland-based arts organisations it funds on a multi-year basis to identify known impacts and reached out to sector bodies and others to get a picture of the ways in which people and the sector are being affected.


CNZ’s also put the required reporting deadlines on a temporary pause to allow focus to be where it should.


What to do


Keep safe, look out for whānau,friends and neighbours -  and have a plan on what to do/ where to go if the flooding becomes an issue in your area.


Nothing is more important than staying safe - but getting any of your mahi or important documents that are digitally backed up to cloud storage if possible will provide peace of mind - and keep whatever you can off the floor or any previously compromised parts of the house. 


Keep up to date with New Zealand Civil Defence to get the state of play - they’re on Facebook and other social media platforms.


For urgent accommodation assistance, please call Auckland Emergency Management on 0800 22 22 00, and for welfare assistance, please call the Ministry of Social Development on 0800 400 100.