Anna Marbrook's Waka Odyssey

A Waka Odyssey - New Zealand Festival - Matt Grace
A Waka Odyssey - New Zealand Festival - Matt Grace
A Waka Odyssey - New Zealand Festival - Matt Grace
Kupe NZ Festival Opening - Jeff McEwan
Dominic Hoey spoke to award winning director Anna Marbrook about the sense and scale of her latest project.


Image: A Waka Odyssey - New Zealand Festival - Matt Grace

In 2018 a fleet of waka slowly entered the Wellington waterfront at dusk. As the sun set behind the capital’s skyline, a crowd of over 20,000 people gathered along the pier, while a 1,000 strong haka was performed to welcome the waka and mark the opening of the New Zealand Festival.

The exhibition was a huge success, going on to win the Best Arts and Cultural Event award for 2018, and the opening was broadcast around the world to over 200,000 people. 

Importance of unity

Now the waka are on the move again, but this time they’re heading to Prague, via plane, where they will be part of the Prague Quadrennial in the Czech Republic along with a delegation of New Zealand Artists. I spoke to award-winning director, Anna Marbrook about the logistics behind the exhibition, Pacific art in a European context and the importance of unity. 

Waka Odyssey is a project on a scale seldom seen in this country. It was developed through partnerships between the creative team made up of Marbrook, navigator Hoturoa Barclay- Kerr and Polish Performance Designer Kasia Pol, the New Zealand Festival and Te Āti Awa / Taranaki Whānui Iwi. The sheer number of people involved in the 2018 opening alone is enough to give even the most seasoned project coordinator nightmares. 

The sheer number of people involved in the 2018 opening alone is enough to give even the most seasoned project coordinator nightmares. 

“There were partnerships with the voyaging societies here and across the Pacific,” Marbrook  we should be consistent and call her one thing  said about the team involved in bringing to this mammoth project to life. “The various paddled waka crews - Waka Taua Tete and ama. The various community choirs and the community groups who performed the 1000 strong haka, the actors, the karanga team. Warren Maxwell the composer, the special effects team, the film team for the live feed of the show. And now you are getting a sense of the scale of it.

Kupe NZ Festival Opening - Jeff McEwan 

Now the production, albeit a scaled down version, is heading to Europe. Thanks to Creative New Zealand funding, the three core creators were able to travel to the Czech Republic to begin setting up the exhibition. 

“The curators Stuart Sven had to assemble a lot of the material in Europe, and it was a massive job for them to pull it all together,” Marbrook said. “In some ways Stuart built a prototype of what a larger exhibition could be. It’s early days, and honestly logistics is part of the conversation at present.” 

With its deep history of Viking and nomadic culture, the narrative of journeys is one that resonates with a European audience, but Marbrook feels there is a deeper subtext to Waka Odyssey. 

A Waka Odyssey - New Zealand Festival - Matt Grace

Fresh perspective to old challenges 

“The story of ‘unity’ in Waka Odyssey is incredibly relevant to Europe. We come at that from the heart and the spirit of connecting audience and participants to their own voyaging histories.” 

The theme of participation runs throughout Waka Odyssey. Marbrook talks about how one of the intentions of the NZ Festival opening event was to get people involved in waka. But how will the exhibition translate when taken out of the context of the Pacific? 

“We are thinking about how to activate the visceral experience we created on the Wellington waterfront here in Europe,” she says, The exhibit at the Prague Quadrennial was the beginning of seeing how we could translate the work for Europe. Hoturoa often says that when the waka arrive they weave together the people.” 

Waka Odyssey is just the latest high-quality arts export to leave our shores in recent years. Anna Marbrook feels that not only do we have an important voice that needs to be heard on the international stage, but New Zealand artists also have the potential to bring a fresh perspective to old challenges. 

“The way we look at things is often so unjaded. We have been talking a lot about our oceanic perspective - that the ocean connects us not separates us. This is our work in the next incarnation of Waka odyssey -  to activate that perspective in European audiences.

A Waka Odyssey NZ Festival - Matt Grace

Written by

Dominic Hoey

26 Jun 2019

Dominic Hoey is an author, playwright and poet based in Tāmaki Makaurau. His debut novel, Iceland was a New Zealand bestseller and was long-listed for the 2018 Ockham Book Award.

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