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Culture moves in two directions for Kiwis and Italians in arts exchange

15 Mar 2018
Māori art and culture finds an unlikely home in Southern Italy where Arte Italia Tautoko Māori Association exchange their knowledge and craft with local schools and artists.

In 2017, Arte Italia Tautoko Māori - the brainchild of an Italian-based Kiwi artist - advertised a unique residency through The Big Idea, attracting over two hundred brilliant candidates. The association chose children's illustrator and artist Debbie Tipuna as their first resident. The second, Sonja van Kerkhoff, a Taranaki-born New Zealand artist of Dutch-Celtic descent, is set to depart for Italy to support Arte Italia Tautoko Māori’s mission this month.

In 2017, The Arte Italia Tautoko Māori Association, Basilicata was born, the brain child of Joseph (Ngāpuhi/Tūwharetoa), an artist living and practising in Basilicata. Joseph has had solo exhibitions in Venice, Milan, Lecce, Matera and has shown in joint exhibitions in other Italian centres.

Italy has been a source of inspiration of art and culture for Joseph and whilst Italy itself is rich in artistic culture, very little if anything is known about Māori culture and art. In the spirit of cultural exchange, Arte Italia Tautoko Māori Association aims to give Southern Italy a sense of Māori through art and indigenous culture.

It has established an annual, three month residency for New Zealand artists and hopes that in time all the arts will be represented and this will also be reciprocated in reverse, when an Italian creative will travel from Italy to New Zealand.

A major part of their vision is bringing artists to Italy to experience culture first hand. This month, Sonja will continue the association’s work in southern schools, as well as work on her own projects. Sonja, who speaks a little te reo Māori, will also support the inaugural International Short Film Festival the association is planning later this year in Basilicata.

Sonja is no doubt looking forward to her time in Italy, where she will have time to focus on two video projects she’s been wanting to work on. “It excites me that in a European country I will be engaged in projects that foreground aspects of our culture not found in other countries—I see Māori cultural values on equal terms with whatever one might call New Zealand culture—for sharing insights that cross barriers and hopefully encourage new insights.”

Last year, Giovanna Mascolo, one of the teachers from Italy and a member of the association organised and facilitated for the sharing of Māori art and song in the classroom. They learned a Māori song and performed it in public and they learned Māori legends and were able to tell them in public to groups of onlookers. They then performed and enacted these cultural items to the New Zealand Ambassador—himself a Māori. The eager participation and the readiness to perform basic kapa haka and learnt Māori culture, proves that in the area of cultural exchange of Maori and Italian, these exciting exchanges should and must continue.

One of the highlights for the association in 2017 was the visit to Southern Italy by the New Zealand Ambassador — His Excellency Patrick Rata. His visit to Basilicata was an enormous occasion for the region and for the locals, it was their first opportunity to not only see a foreign dignitary, but to witness Māori cultural greetings in action — hongi, whaikorero, and waiata. His Excellency proved that culture moves in two directions. Ambassador Rata surprised everyone by taking the guitar and singing to the children, he was genuinely curious about taking in the history and knowledge of the region and shared his own culture with all those assembled to greet and then partake of kai with him.

The support for the association has been remarkable, says Karen, Secretary of Arte Italia Tautoko Māori Association, Basilicata.  “The wonderful thing is that people in this region are proud of their towns, their region, and its history and accordingly, are very knowledgeable and appreciative of Māori culture”.  

“The town we live in is traced back to ancient Greek times — this is not just a subject for historians, people uncover ancient Greek vases in their vegetable plots constantly. In one of our little churches there is a fresco in the crypt painted by a student of the great Giotto no less. Everyone in the town is aware and a practitioner of their culture. The support and pleasure for art and culture is obvious. Sonja van Kerkhoff came last year for one day and produced an interactive installation of her ‘Caravan’ series with large origami elephants in one of the piazzas.  People came, watched and talked.”

The association has support from people who have a direct interest and influence in art and culture, in a wider sense, such as the new Chair of UNESCO in Basilicata who is keen to continue and widen cultural exchanges with New Zealand.

It faced many challenges in their first year, due to bureaucracy, organisation of venues, and publicity. However, Karen notes that: “Going into 2018 we feel we must build on our achievements and not become stale and predictable, keeping a momentum is important as well as trying to include and involve more people in our community as much as possible.”

A Big Idea that the Association has for the future, maybe next year, is inviting a Māori/Polynesian musician as one of their residents. “We have been talking with a wonderful Southern Italian musician/academic/ historian - Pierpaulo di Giorgi. He has ‘resurrected’ the local Southern Italian traditional music and dance called Pizzica. He and his band Tamburellisti Di Torrepaduli have already experimented with the use of an Australian Aboriginal didgeridoo” and are keen to experiment with a possible fusion of Polynesian/Maori beats, tempi and rhythms. Pierpaulo and his group attract enormous crowds wherever they perform and dance in the south.

However, for this year, 2018, the primary focus project is creating a Basilicata International Film Festival, which Sonja will be supporting, including a film making workshop for local young people.

Keep an eye out as Arte Italia Tautoko Māori Association will be advertising for short films in a number of  categories to enter the festival very soon (s). “We hope to get plenty of interest from New Zealand and the Pacific as well as the solid core of European entrants. Our own artist in residence will be involved and we have been fortunate to get the full support of a local filmmaker Dario Melissano, the main curator. Film is an important part of the artistic scene in Italy so we are fortunate that the region’s ‘Lucania Film Commission’ is also very supportive. We hope that the main prize winner of the festival will get the opportunity to show in New Zealand.”

Watch The Big Idea to find out about these opportunities.

Arte Italia Tautoko Māori Association, Basilicata, Sonja van Kerkhoff, Debbie Tipuna