Causing Something To Start
Activate - to cause something to start. A movement, a sourdough starter, charcoal, mixed nuts - or in Leafa Wilson’s case, a creative community.
Last October, Leafa Wilson (Olga Krause) began her contract as South Waikato Cultural Activator with gusto, with plans to whip up art hurricanes in Tīrau, Putāruru, and Tokoroa. Operating under Manatū Taonga’s (Ministry for Culture and Heritage) year-long Creative Arts Recovery and Employment fund program pilot.
South Waikato was one of the eight regions identified by MCH, to have a huge lull in funding uptake and arts activity post Covid-19.
“A tonne of these places went dead line with the arts.” shared Leafa.
“The cultural activation role was created to enable people to rediscover, and learn to celebrate, their creativity and tell their own stories. Now - they can tell their own stories.”
Creativity and arts were already happening behind doors, but lacked a space to bring it all together, where people felt comfortable to express and experiment, and connect with fellow creatives in their community. In dreaming how the role could be implemented successfully, Leafa knew she needed to have somewhere to locate herself, that people could find, and come to easily.
Leafa hunted and hunted and eventually found the unlisted 212 Rosebery Street in her home town of Tokoroa. “It was the old Fish ‘n’ Chip shop and it was just perfect. It already looked like a gallery because the landlord had recently done it up and got stuck doing it up because of covid.”
Leafa took the ideal bones and transformed the space into a vibrant, resourced studio hub for locals to explore, connect, discover and tell their stories through the medium of art.
“A studio is a place where an artist creates and makes. Any kind of artist, musician, writer, dancer - whatever. A studio is the place.”
Leafa believed that if she opened up the space, the people would come. “I’m a great believer in the right people hearing the call - and they did.”
Tatou Va came to life, stories were exchanged, histories shared and events the whole community could see themselves represented in were organised. Leafa networked to spread the news of upcoming activities by South Waikato Impact hub and Tokoroa Business Inc.
The exhibition, Matariki Ki Tokoroa celebrated the inaugural and now formally recognised Matariki Day with local stories, history, Kuki Airani drumming, music and artworks on 24 June. On Sunday 25 September, Kōanga Spring affordable art show platformed works from Tatou Va Studio, Creative Arts, Ngaati Koroki Kahukura and Gallery 77. Another highlight for Leafa in her year were sessions with Creative Arts from South Waikato Achievement Centre who came every Thursday. “They were the best fun. We made paintings, sometimes we danced, sometimes we just laughed and had feeds. We even had a hamburger and art session.”
Passions for art making were reignited in a safe and special way that proved the importance of having the role in this region - particularly in the case of Marama Talbot.
Three months into the role, an article about Leafa and Tatou Va was organised by Karen Remitis and published in January 2022. A short time after, Leafa was working in Tatou Va and heard a woman knock on the door and say, ‘I want to learn how to paint.’
This was Marama.
A previous art school attendee from years past, Marama led a life of almost complete isolation. She stayed inside and did virtually next-to-nothing, until she read the article in the paper, saw Leafa and what Leafa was talking about and said to herself ‘I am going to paint.’ She made a visit to Tatou Va, met Leafa in person and “hasn’t put a paintbrush down since.”
‘From that day to this, she is the most excited, and hasn't lost that passion.’ shared Leafa of her friend.
As a lasting initiative to make sure momentum doesn’t end, Tatou Va has ‘become its own thing’ and what Leafa did with the part of the remaining funding from MCH, is to support the group in enabling rent and power in a community connected space for the new Toi Tatou Va.
With that initial funding secured, Marama is part of the newly established group of the artists continuing this legacy at the new community run studio space above the country fried chicken shop in Tokoroa, Toi Tatou Va.
“They really felt as a group - not me - THEY decided as a group that this was the new direction that would go towards their own vision.” said Leafa.
“Which was the point of my role, to bring people to a point where they could see themselves doing it - and they did it.”
“Quite often arts spaces are for the privileged, middle to upper income people. Not necessarily rich people either, just that they are privileged and they have the confidence and the art education to go and do something that resembles a studio or a gallery. So, now the group of artists, some established, semi-established or even lapsed artists, now have the confidence and networks through Creative Waikato to get the assistance whenever they need it, and they can run it themselves, and they know it.”
“It’s like Leafa who? What’s great is I haven't heard from them [in a couple of weeks], which is exactly what it’s about - it’s not about me - I was just there to spark a fire and them to keep the fire going. It doesn’t require my name or my presence, it's for them to say this is ours. And for the first time they can afford a space and they have a room to call their own.”
“Do you know how powerful that is?”
She’ll never truly leave. South Waikato is Leafa’s heart and she will always have a presence and connection there. But as the contract comes to a close on her role as Cultural Activator, and as she reflects on her year, Leafa’s parting words to the activated community of South Waikato are - “You are art, incarnate.”
Words by Lauren Mann. Image of Leafa Wilson at Matariki Ki Tokoroa.