July 11, 2019, 9:59 a.m.
A vision 40 years in the making has come to life on the banks of the Hātea river as the city’s first cultural centre opened to promote Toi Māori in all forms.
Stage one of the Hihiaua Cultural Centre was designed as an open space for artists, weavers and carvers to collaborate and project leader’s Janet and Te Warihi Hetaraka said it is the realisation of a dream of elders since passed.
“I’ve been involved since the beginnings, back in the early 80’s, I was on a committee that was looking at a more Māori presence on the town basin and I don’t think they could have envisioned what we have done here,” Janet said.
“This was an old boat shed, in 1993 the council called elders from hapu around the region to consult on how Māori could take part in the development of the town basin. They identified the site for a cultural centre,” Te Warihi said.
The building had a huge team of lawyers, accountants, environmental managers, architects and builders but Janet said Hihiaua Chairman Richard Drake’s involvement has been crucial in driving the project.
“He has driven this stage one with single minded determination, tenacity and integrity, he's knocked on doors and broken down fences for us and we couldn’t have done it without him, he's been at the forefront of it all,” she said.
“It’s about building relationships and it takes a whole lot of people to mobilise and if we don't do that, we hit a brick wall,” Te Warihi said.
When the tohunga suppression act was established in the 1800’s, many Māori art forms were lost and Te Warihi said the centre is a space where Māori can feel comfortable in their own skin, creating their own pieces.
“A thriving culture, our young people, growing up, being proud of who they are as Māori, secure in their identity as Māori and with achieving that, I think the real blending of cultures can come together no matter what, but our people have to feel safe and comfortable in their own skin before we can start sharing, so its a place to relearn but using the arts to enter that realm,” Te Warihi said.
“What attracted me to whakairo was the stories that carving told of our histories and initially I was sent away to bring back the skill of whakairo, to bring it back to the north.
“In 1835 carved meeting houses were abolished and so essentially they threw the baby out with the bathwater. So then the realisation came that the depth of who we are as Māori was locked in whakairo,” hei said.
“It’s a very special place, there's a wairua here that doesn't exist elsewhere, it's a learning place, it's a calm place, its very creative,” Janet said.
Stage one has two open working spaces, an exhibition space, conference room and waka shed and was completed with the help of a number of financial contributors however stage two has even bigger plans with at least 12 million required to complete.
“Stage two! That is going to be something else! What we have here is a working environment, stage two is a performance venue, we’ve designed a huge stage for performance, for haka and you can perform indoors or outdoors. That stage will be quite unique.
“It's a different space for weddings, for events, for conference and we have this amazing deck.
“We need to raise our operational costs because we need staff to run the space efficiently and effectively and do it well.” Janet said
“Now that the wraps are off and the community can enjoy the space, we really hope they can get behind it.
“The public are a very important part of the future success of this place and we’ve got to reach out to the community, in the end the success of this place will become the success of Whangārei.”