It is with difficulty I write this. I feel the subject matter is sacred and I am but a child carrying a cup of coffee to his grandmother for the first time. A child with wobbly legs. I will do my best to not mansplain this. Instead, I will speak to how I have been moved by the art and the power I feel within it.

The Women’s Art Initiative in Palmerston North is also known as WAI, a profound name. In Māori, wai is the word for water. For me, this name evokes images of the shimmering of a light rain against the daydreamy school windows of my childhood; the thundering roar of waterfalls that drowns out all else and everything between. Wai is life-giving.

This is a quiet community group of insiders. We don’t hear much about them and this is by design. For these artists share a mutual experience of abuse and trauma. To me, this collective is like a nest high up in a mighty and towering tree.

From far below I can make out the nest’s intricately woven exterior. Its construction finely considered and deftly shaped. Everything within is hidden from me. Like a butterfly’s cocoon, this is as it should be.

But looking up at this beautiful bowl, mostly hidden in the canopy, I feel wonder. I know that artists, those wonderful kinds of people with whom I resonate best in this world, are hidden away up there. I know taonga are being manifested within. Some of which I might one day see.

Well, that day is now, and those days are fast running out. WAI is exhibiting their taonga at Te Manawa Museum in Palmerston North until 12 February. So just a few more days.

I am torn. I want to rave about their work. I want to share both my delight and my despair in the depth of each of the pieces, but I also want to restrain my own intellectual interpretation, my mansplaining and the arrogance that I could fathom the fathomless, so I simply won’t.

I am caught with a massive lump in my throat as I sense the deep pain and the clawing strain it takes to move forward. Yet I am filled with hope and wonder at these women who will not surrender their majesty. Who continue to create and in so doing bring forth light out of the abyss.

Contributing to the creation of a sacred space

Many of the contributors secreted their taonga into position for this exhibition and then stepped back into anonymity. Yet they have humbly contributed to the creation of a sacred space that shakes the inner parts of those who enter it. A space I feel unworthy to venture through yet profoundly honoured to be within; all at once.

I hear that the exhibition team of Te Manawa Museum assisted in the creation of this incredible space and worked with the contributors in the most professional manner providing awhi and aroha throughout. Huge thanks to that team, who regularly move mountains for exhibitors.

Again, for fear, this wobbly legged child will spill his grandmother’s coffee as I carry it to her, I dare not get into the nitty-gritty of the individual pieces. Though I would love to I simply do not feel this is my place. What I will say is that you could spend a whole day or week or year lost here, simply experiencing the taonga. This is not your ordinary exhibition.

As you step into the beautifully crafted entranceway, you are enveloped by rainbow-lit triangles that launch you on a hikoi. Within, you will be immersed in a creative embrace of wisdom and wonder to emerge from the experience, wholly deepened.

As an outsider, it would be an injustice to sum up this exhibition. To frame it for others through my own lens feels akin to blasphemy. I simply stand in awe of this blood moon-like event that I cannot justly articulate. I can but call, to bellow to others to experience the power of it before, too soon, it vanishes.

View exhibition images on the WAI website

Neil Wallace, Creative Spaces Funding Advisor | Kaiārahi Kohi Moni, Arts Access Aotearoa (Ngāti Irakehu, Kati Kuri, Kai Tahu) is also an artist and has an Advanced Diploma in Art & Creativity and a degree in creative media.


In awe of WAI


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