The Arts Access Podcast is available on all major streaming platforms such as Spotify, Apple Music and Apple Podcasts. Below, you can also listen to the first episode, Creative Resistance: the Women’s Art Initiative.
The following is a transcript of the interview.
Creative resistance: the Women’s Art Initiative
Kia ora, I’m Sam Morgan and this is The Arts Access Podcast. Today's episode is about the Women's Art Initiative, which is a safe creative space in Palmerston North, New Zealand. It is facilitated by a group of women who have all experienced violence and abuse. Its members are artists, activists and advocates for change.
Karen Seccombe, the founder of WAI talked to me about the space.
Karen: WAI began because there was nothing like it. Like most groups that start out in this way, I think. I held an exhibition around the 13 years of violence that I had experienced and it was a really powerful thing to do, to put that narrative in a public place, and I received some really positive feedback on it and thought “well, if this has been really good for me, then surely other women would enjoy coming along and making art” and kind of having a space that was safe to talk about these things and I approached women's refuge in Palmerston North and said, “hi, do you guys have an art group?”
And Ang Jury, who was the manager there at the time said, “No. Do you wanna start one?”
And so I outlined the kaupapa and the thinking behind it and they got on board. They helped me find funding. The primary school that I used to teach at had an old dental clinic, so WAI began down there with seven of us initial members of WAI. It was really a case of [asking] what are we doing? You know, how do we operate? What matters to us, you know, and actually trying to dispel some of the, um, I guess tensions and fears that sat around why we were getting together, what the expectations were.
You know, did people have to come and talk about stuff? Cos that was pretty scary. And you know, I think that first year when we were down in the dental clinic was a really important time for us working out what it was that we wanted to achieve through WAI.
Sam: Did you end up talking about these things?
Karen: Yes. We had to make it very clear at the start that it was an art making space, not a therapeutic space or a space for talking, but that talking was okay in that space.
The thing that came out very quickly in the space was that if people had their hands busy and they were making, then they just would talk naturally. It wasn't uncomfortable. You know, if someone wanted to talk about, you know, something that they were going through, then it was safe to do that because you didn't have to look at other people, you could look at what you were doing, you know? You could just listen.
We very quickly realised that it needed to be a space that allowed people to talk if they wanted to and that was safe to do that, but also that if people wanted to come and just sit and make art, then you know, they could take themselves out of that space if it wasn't comfortable to listen.
But the more that our women talk in our space, the more it makes it safe to do so and, you know, it's often not narrative experiences of violence that are coming through in the artworks. It's our strengths. It's the light that we held on to in that space of darkness. It's the resistance and the way that we fought for our identities in those spaces where, you know, things couldn't have been any worse, where there was so much indignity, you know, that allow us to uphold our dignity.
And that has been a critical part of it, I think for all of our wāhine, you know, that have come through WAI is that sense that they are dignified in our space. There's an understanding that they always resisted violence and often in really creative, inventive and subtle ways because that's the only way that they could.
And the only way that they could remain safe. And that comes through in the making. It comes through in the processes. It comes through in the way that we interact in the space. Because if you are constantly looking at how do you uphold the dignity of someone else, you are mindful of power.
Um, you're mindful of whanaungatanga and manaakitanga, and all of those things that are really important in creating a space that's safe and welcoming and nurturing.
But also that is very mindful of power because when you've been in a space where someone else has exerted power over you, the last thing you need to do is to come into another space where control's being placed around what it is that you can do.
And so our space allows a lot of play, and there's a lot of messes that happen and I've never forgotten one of our women saying in our very first exhibition that we held in 2013, when we hung it and we walked through as a collective to look at the exhibition, “oh, it looks like artwork, all we did all year was play!”, you know, and it was just this like, “wow, actually we've made art”.
But it was a very gentle process and it was a very kind of accommodating process of, you know, wherever people were at.
Sam: So it's an “insider-directed art space”. Could you tell us more about what that is?
Karen: Insider-facilitated, probably, more than directed. So that means that everyone at WAI is an insider to violence. So every single person that walks through our door, unless they're invited in as a guest, has experienced violence.
That means that if someone makes a subtle reference to something, if someone talks about something that is specific to experiencing violence then there's an inherent understanding of what that means. There's no discomfort. Often in mainstream art spaces, for women who've experienced violence there is a sense of discomfort from others if they are discussing their experiences or who they are, or even mentioning that they've experienced violence, there's stigma and shame attached to that.
There's stereotypes. There's, you know, there's myths around who we are because of what we've experienced and in a mainstream art space, it's not safe always to talk about those things because, you know, there's different extremes.
There'll be people who will blame you for what's happened, who want to help you, and none of our wāhine are keen on that idea. None of us are making art because we wanna be helped.
There’s people who feel sad because of their experiences and actually not, you know … empathy's great, sympathy’s not terribly helpful. And, you know, and all of us are pretty kick-ass and actually don't need people to feel sorry for us or help us.
You know, I think there's this myth that women who have experienced violence are broken and depressed and passive – not active – and the WAI space acknowledges all of those positive attributes that we bring into the space and shares it through our art-making and I think that's the power of our exhibitions every year is that people are surprised.
I think our first few exhibitions there were expectations there'd be a lot of black work, you know, blood and, you know, graphic representations of awful things happening. But there were lots of works that acknowledged the spaces, the different spaces, the before, the during, the after, you know, that reclaiming of identity that upholding of dignity, the resistance that we consistently show.
All of those really amazing things that women do in response to violence came through in the works. I think it was quite challenging for a lot of people to come in and see not what they thought they were gonna see.
Sam: Could you tell us more about the exhibition process?
Karen: We exhibit every year, if possible. We start the year by, if we can afford to, we will do a wānanga, we'll do a camp and we kind of work through whatever our concept will be for that year.
Often it's something that's been bubbling away from the previous year. The different exhibitions we've had have had all very different kaupapa, but right from our first one, which was called Emerge. Because we felt like we were actually emerging and were allowed to say what we needed to. Through to this one this year, which is called Standing in our own light.
Sam: Could you tell us more about that name?
Karen: When a woman experiences violence, it's a very dark space to be in and often we cling to the stuff that allows us to hope and that sense of light can exist in really dark spaces. It might be invisible to anyone looking from the outside that there's actually that little spark of light inside of you that you're hanging on to.
But what that looks like even during violence, how are you standing in your own light after violence? How are you reclaiming, you know, your identity? It's around kind of acknowledging strength and identity. And that's very different for all of us. I think there's often like, like anyone, I guess who's seen as, marginalised or different, there’s expectations that we all are the same but we're all very different.
Our experiences of violence are all very different. Our place in the world is different. Our families are different. Responses to that violence are different. The responses that society's had to us have all been very different, you know, so it's, it's not a homogenous space and I think an exhibition for us needs to acknowledge that. It needs to be a very open process.
So while we set a kaupapa, we have some guidelines around that. Women tend to just do what it is that they want to do, which can be really fun. It can be tricky, kind of trying to accommodate that and pull it together as an exhibition and that's always been our struggle, I think, as a collective is how do you present a coherent exhibition that accurately represents what we're trying to say through it, but also allows autonomy and is polished enough and professional enough for people to take us seriously as artists, because often for us, our art making is seen as therapeutic and it's seen as a process that we're going through to help ourselves and make ourselves feel better because we are so broken and, you know, obviously have a lot to work through. It's not seen as a space where we are artists and kind of creating and making like any artist does.
We found a few years ago that, uh, I mean with every different woman that comes in, it changes the dynamic all the time. So there's this constant ebb and flow of how things are working in our space and exhibition processes sometimes can feel a little intimidating for a new woman coming in who maybe haven't exhibited before.
So we do have some boundaries in there, but people do whatever they want to really. It's just, if people feel comfortable having guidelines placed, then you know, they're there.
Sam: What’s your opinion on art as therapy and why do you think there needs to be something else?
Karen: I think art as therapy has its place. One of our facilitators is an arts therapist and our other facilitator is an eco therapist. So therapy is something that sits around a lot of our women. A lot of our women receive therapeutic assistance from outside. But WAI is an art-making space, and that's always been critical. It's a participatory art-making space.
The issue that I have with using art as therapy in our space is that it pathologises the art as much as it does the maker. You know, for women who've already been spoken to, for and about, who've been analysed for deficits by lots of different people, who've had all sorts of diagnoses, analysing and using their art as a method of understanding their experiences is not helpful.
You know, we're artists just like anyone else. It's an interesting one because often people will say, “oh, I know it's not therapy”. Cos I've drummed that into so many people. Now it's not therapy. We are making art. Or “I know it's not therapy, but it must be therapeutic.”
And it's like, okay, so we need it to be therapeutic because we are so broken? You know, there's that inherent understanding that, “oh, I know that you're not doing it as therapy, but must make you feel better.”
Art makes everyone feel better. You know, I don't think it has to be just about us and our experiences and that we need that.
Sam: Could you tell us more about creative resistance?
Karen: When you are in a space where violence is something that you're monitoring for all the time, uh, when there's controls on every aspect of how you operate in the world, how you're perceived by others because of how you're operating in the world, the limitations are huge around what it is that you can do.
Resistance itself is a creative act. For a woman who's being raped, it might be going to a safe place in her head and that is an act of resistance. You know, it might be that you're thinking about something that takes you to a place that allows you to process, I guess, other stuff, not the stuff that's happening to you.
That's resistance, you know, at its most invisible level and it would never be seen. Creative resistance for me has been, you know, um, we've had different women come in and, and tell their different stories of resistance.
For me, it was stencilling roses on the wall. You know, when my ex was not in town, just that kind of, “I'm taking this space, you know, and I'm owning it”.
And for me, the rose has always been a symbol of resistance. Another one of our women is a knitter and that was her form of resistance. For many women it's words. So it's just things that you can hang on to that allow you to see beyond that space and to see something. I think for me, it was always around this space might be ugly and what's happening might be ugly, but there are still beautiful things and things that matter to me that I can actually hold on to and that's where any form of creativity, no matter how oppressed it is, allows you to hold on to identity.
Sam: Would you like to see more creative spaces like the Women's Art Initiative around the country? Do you have any advice for anyone wanting to establish something similar?
Karen: It's a tricky one. I have written up the model of practice for WAI in my PhD and there's also a facilitators’ guidebook and a collective members’ guidebook. The facilitators’ guidebook has kind of gone by the wayside cos I haven't done much with it for the last few years, but the membership guidebook is constantly being reviewed and added to.
We've put COVID stuff in, we've put sections in on racism and, you know, managing children and all sorts of things. So there is a real framework that is there around WAI.
As part of my PhD, we trialled WAI in Wellington with Te Whare Rokiroki and Wellington Women's Refuge, and it didn't carry on, but they tried it for a while and then said they'd come back to it.
But Malborough Woman's Refuge’s WAI group has been going for four or five years now and they tick along fine. They're happy.
So, I mean, it is a model that can be picked up but I think it's not a simple thing to do.
For us, WAI Palmy has worked really well because there’s been a really tight crew of wāhine who have been with us right from the start, who’ve actually developed this model of practice together, and so I’m really invested in WAI and it requires that sort of sense of team and collective from that sort of founding structure, I think.
And that's sometimes tricky and just getting your head around how to operate in an art-making space if it's not therapeutic, but having the capacity to kind of bring the best out of people in their art-making, you know, but also make it safe.
There's not the pressure to make art about things that aren't to make art about.
Sam: When running a safe space, do you need a leadership structure?
Karen: It's an interesting one because we are so mindful of power that anyone holding power over anyone else can make the space feel unsafe. But without someone to hold the space and keep it safe, and that's not just one person, and our collective there's three or four of us that stand in that space and hold it and keep it safe for people, without someone to do the functional things, like buy the resources and, uh, make sure the coffee's there, you know, all of that sort of thing. That’s what creates a safe space.
So our women can turn up, they can have a coffee, they can have a kai, they can sit on the couch and do nothing if they want to, they can make stuff if they want to.
They don't have to worry if there's gonna be enough glue sticks or, you know, if the thing that they wanted to make … they can do it because they've forgotten to go and buy what they needed to do it.
And, you know, it's important. It's a functional role for me, more than anything. And it's a role, a kind of service to the rest of the collective rather than a leadership position. But I mean, you are leading.
You know, and I have to recognise that. It took me a long time to accept it and I think it was being invited to speak at leadership forums that made me go, “oh, okay. people think I'm leading”. And then, someone saying to me, “well, there's all sorts of leadership”.
You know, you don't have to have that power-over kind of relationship. So for us, it's often, it's leading conversations into a safe space. You know, it's leading appropriate practices. It's kind of leading, that kind of, you know, “hurry up, everybody just wash your cup” and, you know, it's fairly … quite functional in our space but it is very careful managed.
Sam: Since it was established, have you seen any changes? Are there any examples that stand out for you?
Karen: I mean, it is tricky because WAI is set up around a model of self- representation, so speaking for others is not something that I like to do but example wise, you know, it's part of the, I guess the benefits of what we do and it's important that people know that there are benefits to what we do.
You know, we've had women that have come in who have felt too ashamed to kind of meet anyone's eyes because that's a huge step just to walk in that door.
I mean, you're already feeling so exposed. You know, the people in this room now know that something bad has happened to me. And if the only models you've been given to deal with that experience that's happened to you, or experiences that have happened to you are negative, then that's the way that the world’s encouraging you to see yourself.
So coming into a space like WAI is a really vulnerable space for a lot of women. Often, they've never spoken about their experiences. We've had several women, who've spent decades not talking about these things and then coming into WAI where we openly talk about these things, you know, people talk about hyper-vigilance and disassociation and things that are uncomfortable conversations sometimes for those who aren't inside the space, suddenly it's okay and suddenly they can kind of speak about things if they want to or they can feel normal often for the first time and that has a huge impact on the art.
And I think that the most important thing for me is that you can see people coming in and they are creating art that is safe. They're creating art that doesn't expose them but it also doesn't allow them to express their identities as a whole person because violence and experiences of violence are not who we are.
It's part of our experience as a person, but it's not us as a person. And so it's recognising that actually this isn't me. This is part of what I've experienced.
And the shift in the art-making when that starts to become realised is that I can actually talk about this stuff. I can expose myself in a way that makes me feel comfortable, you know, so people choose how much they want to kind of share.
We've been doing this for ten years now. And we are still having to challenge all these negative myths and stereotypes around who we are, you know, sometimes that can get a bit tiring and the perceptions of women as passive and incapable of actually helping themselves are not helpful.
I think the most powerful thing about WAI is that it allows us to say what we want to say about ourselves and those experiences.
The most authentic voices in this space or in any space are those of people who have experienced something, you know, and WAI offers a very different insight into what it is to be a victim of violence. What it is to live through experiences that are utterly undignifying and shaming and stigmatising and marginalising.
it's really important that those voices are out there and heard, and I think the key shift for a lot of our women when they come in is they come to make a bit of art, but then they end up as kick arse social justice activists and, you know, fighting.
Fighting for their voices, fighting for their dignity in this space where, you know, violence undignifies us as people, but the responses that we get from others after violence, enduring it, also undignify us. In fact, they can be more harmful than, you know, the violence itself.
A huge thank you to the College of Creative Arts at Massey University for letting us use their fully accessible recording studios. Thank you for listening. Mā te wā.