“People don’t have time to listen to anyone anymore,” Lemi Ponifasio tells me in a crowded Auckland cafe humming with happy hour enthusiasts. “The problem we have is our lack of depth. We need to listen to each other deeply. To hear from the depths of other people’s experiences.”
Lemi is an artist who defies easy categorisation. He is a choreographer, dancer, director and designer, and now, one of the three guest curators for the New Zealand Festival of the Arts. So far, our conversation has traversed a myriad of topics from youth suicide, the art market and technology, to the problems he sees with New Zealand culture.
“It’s not good,” he reflects. “Why do we have homeless people? Racism? Mosque shootings? We need to make people understand that culture is anything we make; it’s human. Culture is not just song and dance. It’s the mode, it's the frame by which we live and work.”
We need to talk
His concern for the current cultural landscape is what spurred him to use his role at the New Zealand Festival of the Arts to curate its first-ever conference, one he hopes will spark both “critical conversations and deep listening.” Entitled Talanoa Mau - we need to talk, it presents an opportunity to place culture, art and community at the centre of discussions around what kind of society we want to live in. Attendees will hear from international and local artists along with leaders, researchers and visionaries over two days on February 24 and 25 at Te Papa.
Lemi Ponifasio. Photo/Harry A'Court.
The speakers will explore the most pressing issues of our times as they see it. Each presenter will have 20 minutes to incite passion, explore new ideas or offer critique before a fellow presenter with an alternative lens offers their response. The conference will also include panel discussions.
“Why do we have homeless people? Racism? Mosque shootings? We need to make people understand that culture is anything we make.”
Lemi says Talanoa Mau is for all New Zealanders and visitors invested in our country’s future. It's for people from every sector interested in expanding their worldviews and hearing from an extraordinarily diverse range of visionary speakers.
Coping with cultural change
Lemi has invited a diverse range of speakers to present at Talanoa Mau, ranging from Green Party MP Golriz Ghahraman and feted opera and theatre director Peter Sellars to South African protest song writer Neo Muyanga, US Youth Poet Laureate Kara Jackson and distinguished professor, writer and historian Dame Anne Salmond.
“I don’t want to talk to cultural experts, because that’s not real life.”
Lemi says the diversity of the panel is “a reality of the world - I don’t want to talk to cultural experts, because that’s not real life. The world has changed, our communities have changed, so how do people deal with this change? Politicians sit around and talk about infrastructure like roads, but what about our cultural infrastructure - how do we prepare for the change in our population? In its culture, race, size? We don’t know how to deal with it yet.”
“This is not an academic conference,” Lemi stresses. “I respect theory, but [academics] do such a bad job with communicating. I’ve read their work and have been impressed, but how can a 13-year-old read them? We need to find a language that communicates these findings, much like how artists need to find a language to communicate what we are thinking about.”
This desire for inclusivity at all levels has seen Lemi offer up forty scholarships for freelance artists and young people to attend and join the Talanoa Mau conversation.
Applications are now open and close on January 10, 2020. Lemi is particularly keen to see young people join the conversation. “There’s that cliche that children are the future - but it’s true,” he laughs. “They must become part of the arts festival and wider discussion about culture; it’s important that they are seeing themselves up there and represented.”
When asked what a successful conference would look like, he smiles broadly. “I’m going to ask that question back to you - what does a successful family gathering look like?”
“Everyone being together; a free flowing line of communication and ideas?” I offer.
“And listening,” he nods. “I want people to give importance to alternative views. We can’t continue the way we are right now. The current culture of exploitation, entitlement, extraction - that’s what happens when families don’t sit down and talk about themselves. Talanoa Mau is how you build a community.”
To ensure a fair and equitable selection process, Arts Scholarships will be assessed by an independent panel. Scholarships will be awarded to artists who meet the selection criteria, and awarded to ensure a diverse breadth of attendees. Applications close January 10. For further info visit festival.nz/talanoa-mau.
Talanoa Mau - we need to talk will be held on February 24-25 at Te Papa. See Lemi Ponifasio’s full programme along with the rest of the 2020 Festival programme at Festival.nz.