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Lowdown: Big Long Weekend For NZ Artists

30 May 2024

From large-scale art shows to industry-leading awards - there's plenty happening in the creative community and the Lowdown has some accolades worth noting.

A large number of artists are celebrating more than just the long weekend - it's a chance to be seen by what is hoped to be a big audience in Wellington.

The NZ Art Show is ready for its 21st incarnation, with more than 250 artists - including more than 100 onsite - putting forward more than 2,000 original artworks at Wellington's Queen's Wharf (this story's feature image, Space Case by Ché Rogers, among them).

Among the highlights, the announcement of the $25,000 R.T Nelson Awards for Sculpture, the inaugural Emerging Artist Awards - with candidates from 20 schools competing for a prize pool of $1,000 - and $3,000 on offer for the People's Choice Award.

As well as individual artists and galleries, a range of organisations are involved - including Toi Māori Aotearoa, who join DYED Studios, Art Start, and the Whiti o Rehua School of Art (Massey University).

Toi Māori Aotearoa stands as an independent Māori arts organisation devoted to championing the interests of Māori art and artists on local, national, and international platforms - and they will be represented by 15 artists at this year’s show.

The exhibiting artists range from emerging to seasoned, representing an important milestone in their careers and some are emerging for the very first time.  This has the potential to be a big step forward for their careers.

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Alex Nathan, Poutama. Photo: Supplied.
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Darcy Nicholas. Photo: Supplied.

Helping drive Toi Māori Aotearoa's involvement with Toi Matarau Gallery is respected artist Darcy Nicholas, who told The Lowdown "In the current economic environment artists and their families are struggling.  Our aim is to promote and uplift artists with opportunities that bring economic and social well-being.

"Our artists are the storytellers who speak visual languages that emanate and manifest the identity of Aotearoa New Zealand that need to be seen.

"We work with artists of all cultures inclusively locally, nationwide and internationally so they are at the forefront of the creative industry, tourism and business.

“I’m excited to showcase these artists, both established and emerging, representing diverse art disciplines,” says Nicholas. “Among them are Maria Brockhill and Carla Ruka, with their ceramic creations, award-winning photographer Tania Niwa, and Alex Nathan, who will present exquisite silver jewellery. Additionally, award-winning adornment and object artist Neke Moa will be showcasing some pieces.” 

Today (30 May) sees the VIP preview underway and the opening Gala Evening - before the show opens to the public Friday to Sunday (31 May-2 June).

Musical cheers

It's a massive day for New Zealand Music, with the return of the Aotearoa Music Awards tonight (30 May) after a year absence that will ensure NZ Music Month ends with a flash and a bang.

Two talented singer/songwriters are already feeling the glow after being recognised at the Country Music Honours in Gore, coinciding with the start of the Tussock Country Music Festival.

South Island folk songwriter Holly Arrowsmith became a two-time winner of the Best Country Music Song Award for Desert Dove.

Arrowsmith told The Lowdown "This song was written as a tribute to my Grandfather, a true cowboy from New Mexico who was an art and antiques collector. He traded with the likes of Johnny Cash, Elvis and John Wayne and is the reason I was drawn to Country, Folk and Americana music.

"I feel proud for the song to be acknowledged - like I have done him justice."

Arrowsmith continues "There is so much world-class music being made here in Aōtearoa which is influenced by these genres (Folk, Americana, Alt-Country), but we have our own interpretation of that style which, to me, is often more interesting than what is coming out of places like America -  a little more darkness maybe and even humour. 

"The awards in Gore are so lovely, the whole community gets behind it and the hospitality they show is next to none. We had a driver who has been volunteering every year for forty-two years!"

Desert Dove is part of a new record Arrowsmith has made with Tom Healy (Marlon Williams, Bic Runga, Tiny Ruins) which will be out in 2024, followed by a tour with a full band. 

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Mel Parsons (left) and Holly Arrowsmith (right) with their Awards at Country Music Honours in Gore. Photo: Supplied.

For Mel Parsons, it was second time lucky, winning the MLT Songwriting Award that celebrates unreleased songs from Aotearoa and Australia with her love song Hardest Thing after being a finalist for Best Country Song last year.

It goes with the collection of accomplishments the Lyttleton-based singer/songwriter is raking up in her career, along with her Best Folk Artist Tūi from the 2020 Aotearoa Music Awards, 2019 Taite Music Prize finalist and Top 20 finalist for the APRA Silver Scroll Award in the same year. 

Much like Arrowsmith, Parsons was blown away by her experience in Gore. 

She told The Lowdown "Of course it’s a thrill to win, but honestly the best thing is just being a part of a celebration of our songwriting community. It can be a pretty lonely job at times so the chance to get together is the highlight for me.

"It was my second time at Tussock Festival and performing at the Honours night - it’s a massive community effort, they really turn it on down there. Super well organised, pro operation with a fabulous house band and really great production - but with a lot of heart and care at the same time. 

"The festival is very inclusive - I come from a more indie/folk background rather than country but am still invited down and welcomed into the scene. I think the genre in Aotearoa is expanding all the time, and probably also coming more into the mainstream consciousness here with the international success of artists like Tami Neilson and Kaylee Bell. 

"As part of the festival, I curated one of APRA’s 321 songwriting sessions - (3 artists, 2 hours, 1 song) We had 12 local Southland writers come in for the day, from amateurs through to working artists, and the songs that came out of it truly blew me away. 

"The way they nurture their young songwriters and artists through Gold Guitars and a really supportive community is so impressive, and I think that’s why they have such a strong scene down there." 

Parsons' new record Sabotage is released on 7 June, which will see her tour Christchurch (14 June), Auckland (15 June) and Wellington (16 June) before heading to Canada to play at the Vancouver Folk Festival.

Brothers on Quest

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Alfred (baritone) Emmanuel (tenor) Faamanu (baritone) and Jordan (tenor) Fuimaono. Photo: Supplied.

A pair of brothers are among the 10 remaining contestants in the 2024 Lexus Song Quest that were revealed on Monday (27 May).

Baritone  Alfred Fonoti-Fuimaono and brother Emmauel - a tenor - have both been selected for the semi-finals of Aotearoa’s premier opera singing competition, competing for a prize pool of $92,000.

For Emmanuel, it's not a new experience - he was a finalist in 2022 - but he's thrilled to be joined this time by one of his three opera-singing siblings Alf, who has a Masters in Advanced Opera Studies at The Aotearoa New Zealand Opera Studio (TANZOS) as Sir William and Lady Judi Scholarship Artist.

Emmanuel told The Lowdown "I think I had just finished a singing lesson and Alfred was heading in for one when we both saw a missed call from an unknown number!

"Being named alongside my brother as a semifinalist for 2024 is amazing! We've watched the LSQ be won by singers who've inspired us, so it feels like a full-circle moment to be competing this year. 

"It’s an exciting time to be able to prepare for the semifinals in July.

Alf explains "I feel proud and somewhat relieved to be selected alongside Eman. We started in this art form together through Project Prima Volta, and I don’t think either of us knew exactly what we were getting ourselves into, let alone where it would lead us. 

"I know how passionate Eman is about the craft and have watched him work hard to become the artist he is today, so to share the stage with him is an honour. It tells me that I must be doing something right.

"Family is most important to both of us, and competing in such a prestigious competition together takes a little bit of pressure away."

Also back for another crack at the Song Quest title are sopranos Felicity Tomkins (2022 runner-up) and Tayla Alexander (2022 semi-finalist), as well as tenor Manase Latu (2018 finalist).

Joining them in the top 10 are Austin Haynes (countertenor), Madison Horman (soprano), Katie Trigg (mezzo-soprano), Morgan-Andrew King (bass) and Samuel McKeever (baritone).

Many of the finalists are based overseas - as is the just-announced head judge, Grammy Award-winning South Korean lyric coloratura soprano Sumi Jo, who will select five finalists with the semi-finals held across two nights in Wellington (27-28 July).

The winner will be decided at the Grand Final Gala at the Michael Fowler Centre on 3 August.

Dame Kiri Te Kanawa - whose foundation supports the competition - states, “Right back to my time singing in the Song Quest, it’s been a marathon. Sustained pressure is one of the factors that makes this such a unique and worthwhile test of young voices. Talent is on trial but so is character. 

"The judges have done a great job in whittling the field down to 10 semi-finalists. But it won’t be until early August that the marathon is decided once and for all. I wish all the singers well as they face the joys and rigours of what lies ahead.”

Laughing matters

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Lana Walters with her new prized yellow towel. Photo: JInki Cambronero.

May's not just about music - in fact, you can argue it's one of the biggest creative months of the year.

As well as the record-breaking Auckland Writers Festival and the launch of the Learning Network, it's also been jammed back with laughs at the NZ International Comedy Festival.

It concluded in its traditional fashion with the Last Laughs! event, a significant moment in the careers of some of our leading comedians.

Few accolades in the comedy community are more coveted than the yellow towel that represents the Billy T Award, presented to a comedian with the most outstanding potential.

And there could barely be a more popular winner from inside the industry than Lana Walters, who has been a constant presence and is well-regarded by her peers. Her show Don't Lick That was an homage to the joys and grind that is raising a toddler. 

As well as Billy T James's iconic towel, it comes with a $5,000 grant.

Walters told The Lowdown "Winning the Billy T Award means so much to me, I didn’t want to admit to anyone how much I wanted to win but I wanted it bad! 

"This one is for all the Mums out there. I can’t wait to wrap my little baby in that yellow towel.”

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Barnie Duncan & Trygve Wakenshaw with comedy's most cherished gumboot. Photo: Jinki Cambronero.

The other big gong handed out was the Fred Award for the Best New Zealand Show in the Festival - and the 2024 winners of the John Clarke (AKA Fred Dagg) tribute gumboot are Barnie Duncan & Trygve Wakenshaw. 

The pair told The Lowdown “This award is a tribute to the power of best-friendship. When we first created this show it was simply to be able to be in the same room as each other and create something hilarious for us.

"At that stage, we had no deeper intentions for this show, but it’s gone on to have a glorious life of its own and we’re so proud to have won the Fred Award." 

It’s great timing for Wakenshaw, who's currently touring his solo show NAUTILUS around Whangārei, Wellington, Christchurch, Taranaki and Hawkes Bay. 

Former Billy T and Fred Award winner Rhys Mathewson added another to his collection with his show 10th Rodeo picking up the Festival Director's Choice Award.

Two best Newcomers were given a confidence boost with Courtney Dawson (Auckland) for Dreams Are Free and Samuel Gebreselassie (Wellington) with I'm A Refugee... Get Me Out of Here! recognised in front of their peers.

Gebreselassie told The Lowdown “Winning Best Newcomer means I’m on the right track, and that my show resonates with people. Being recognised is such an honour, especially by my community. I hope to continue to create more work like this.”

Anyone interested in seeing the Billy T and Fred finalists perform - Last Laughs! airs tonight (30 May) on Three.

Southern comfort

Alison Glenny. Photo: Supplied.

A southern sojourn is on the card for poet Alison Glenny.

She's been announced as the Caselberg Trust Margaret Egan Cities of Literature writers resident for 2024, which will see Glenny welcomed to the Caselberg House in Whakaohorahi/Broad Bay from the start of November till mid-December this year.

Christchurch-born, Kāpiti Coast-based Glenny reacts ‘For me, the residency offers a period of uninterrupted time to focus on the early stages of bringing a new project into being. 

"I also value the opportunity to spend time in Ōtepoti/Dunedin and to deepen my connections with the writing community there, to experience the inspiring environment of Caselberg House and its surroundings, and to join the community of writers who have benefitted from the legacy and generosity of Margaret Egan.’

Glenny has a third collection of poetry being released this year - with two previously published collections including The Farewell Tourist, an Antarctic-themed collection of prose poems and fragments which was awarded the Kathleen Grattan prize.

This is the second year of the residency, run jointly by the Caselberg Trust and Dunedin UNESCO City of Literature, which alternates each year between writers of all genres from Aotearoa and international writers from other UNESCO Cities of Literature.