Women's Art Initiative Collective

2013 –

Women's Art Initiative Collective

2013 –

Theme: Arts and crafts

This essay, written by Karen Seccombe, was published online in Women Together: a History of Women's Organisations in New Zealand in 2019.

Seven women gathered at a former dental clinic at a Manawatū school in February 2013. They shared two commonalities: they had all experienced violence, and they wanted to make art.  Most were unsure, cautious of the space, the expectations, and those present. Once paper, water, and ink were offered, they started to explore, creating vibrant puddles of colour. Conversation slowly began around effects and technique, the jug went on, and the inaugural members of the Women’s Art Initiative Collective (WAI) began to settle into this tentative kaupapa.

WAI’s humble beginnings were a seed, planted in direct response to Karen Seccombe’s Masters of Maori Visual Arts postgraduate exhibition at St Andrew’s Church in Palmerston North in 2012. This solo exhibition, with 12 large oval paintings exposing the artist’s own experiences of violence, prompted such positive and empowering social responses that she wanted to share this with other women. With the support of Palmerston North Women’s Refuge and her Massey University supervisors, Robert Jahnke and Ngataiharuru Taepa, potential members were approached, funding was sought, studio space was rented, and WAI began to emerge.

Palmerston North Women's Refuge

WAI wahine at the Against Domestic Violence Protest March, Wellington, September 2014.

The first WAI exhibition took place after only three weeks. Its hard-hitting messages challenged many common stereotypes and myths around violence against women and children. Printed onto tea towels, these messages were installed in the Palmerston North City Library, setting the tone for the WAI kaupapa. In 2017 a second group was formed in Marlborough, successfully trailing the model of practice developed in Palmerston North, and going on to become permanent and independent.

Members of WAI speak about what the group means to them

‘I am appreciative of there being a space that accepts, nurtures and strengthens the type of woman I have become as a result of my lived experiences. I have found commonality within WAI that I have searched my life for. I have found women unafraid to tell and say things, as they are using their own words. I feel I can support myself better knowing that there are others within WAI who will and who can respect my stance. I have less fear of standing up against women since being among WAI. I actually – know – that I am not alone now.’
Te Ataarangi Whenua Waaka (Ngāti Kahungunu ki Wairarapa/Muaūpoko)

‘Quite simply, WAI has given me another platform to voice my resistance to the patriarchy & misogyny, to the colonisation process & its harm and effects, to the stereotypes & labels that are continuously wrapped around ‘brown broken’ women & the intersectional violence they experience. I am forever grateful for the grace WAI has shown me, in allowing Me to be Me in my expression.’
kpm, artist

‘WAI has provided me with a space to create, learn and discover with powerful women I can relate to. There is a wonderful sense of safety that comes from being surrounded by people with some similar experiences, without the pressure to explain. WAI offers acceptance of all of this and so much more that can’t be explained – it can only be felt.’
Sasha

‘WAI allows me to add my voice to those of many women's voices who have at some stage suffered violence in its many kinds. Translating abuse – including the still normalised stuff that is happening to us in our society on a daily basis – into Art allows me to open up conversations for change while reflecting on my own journey.’
Ulrike

Image: Keli.J Art. Untitled, pencil on paper, ME, Ko Wai Ahau exhibition, Te Manawa Museum, 2018.

In 2019, WAI had 52 members in Manawatu and Marlborough, comprising anonymous activists, advocates, and artists. They had lived through many forms of violence – sexually, emotionally, and physically abused as children, raped, kidnapped, deprived, humiliated, controlled, and injured as adults. There was enormous diversity, with Māori, Pasifika, and Pākehā, young and old, experienced and emerging artists. These women stood together in solidarity, offering acceptance, empowerment, courage and wisdom to each other, alongside art ideas and techniques.

Women interacted in many different ways with WAI, and autonomy was vital. Some came along every week to work in the shared studio space; some interacted on the group’s private Facebook page but worked from home; others came and went as they were able to, sometimes with babies or toddlers at their sides. WAI collective work challenged more than just stereotypes around violence; crucially, it also offered authentic self-representation of members, both as women and as artists. WAI women ‘made art’ – they did not undertake ‘art as therapy’.

This part of the WAI kaupapa was often the hardest for those outside of their space to grasp. It was regularly assumed that when a group like this (understood as ‘broken and vulnerable’ because of their experiences) made art, it must be to help them feel better. At the very least it was perceived to be therapeutic. Such connotations around the implicit connection between art and therapy can pathologise both the art and the maker.

 The space for dialogue opened by WAI was of central importance in relation to violence against women. In 2019 the conversation around gender, culture, and colonisation alongside violence still created a challenge for many. The statistics showed one in three New Zealand women experiencing violence at some stage in their lifetime, and these numbers were not decreasing. Government funding was directed mainly into crisis responses; women were routinely expected to ‘move on’, ‘get over it’ and ‘put it behind them’ once the crisis was over.

Violence, however, has no neat end. Women may walk away from the perpetrator, but oppression, economic deprivation, fear, misrepresentation, isolation, negative social responses, ongoing power and control, and marginalisation can follow for many years. Violence impacts on identities and the capacity to reclaim these. Post-crisis community-based responses such as WAI, often undervalued and unsupported, play a desperately needed role.

As a grassroots community organisation, WAI was voluntarily facilitated by Seccombe and another member in Manawatū, and Vonny Paul in Marlborough. Expenses such as studio hire, art materials, tea and coffee, and exhibition costs were applied for on a rolling yearly basis. Members were used to making do with free, recycled, and donated materials, and living with the regular stress of wondering where the next rent payment would come from. Somehow it worked and the two groups survived.  

Every year exhibitions were held (eleven by 2019), with themes addressing many difficult and complex lived aspects of the violence experienced. Involving a wide range of media, the works were powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, fierce, confronting, and sometimes raw. The quality was consistently high – many of the members had arts qualifications and/or had spent years as makers. Their aspirations and ideas were limited only by their access to equitable funding. Exhibited art works were rarely for sale – for many women, these works were deeply personal and too hard to let go.

WAI offered a crucial, authentic, and knowledgeable voice within the discourses of both violence and art. Using art as a process of connection, a space for creation, and public education, the two communities in the collective held open an honest space for others to speak their truths, for perspectives to shift, and for transformative change to occur in the way women and children are viewed, understood, and responded to when they disclose experiences of violence. Through their art making, WAI members challenged the overwhelmingly common, negative understandings of how violence affects victims. Instead their artworks represented the many active, courageous, protective, creative, subtle, and thoughtful ways that women resist violence and fight for their sanity and safety, upholding dignity and honouring autonomy. [1]

Six years after the small WAI seed was planted in 2013, it had grown into a sturdy many-branched vine, weaving its way through the WAI approach in both locations – flourishing, dying back, resting, and regenerating.

Karen Seccombe on behalf of the Women’s Art Initiative Collective

Notes

[1] The WAI model of practice, refined over seven years of working together for social justice, is recorded in a series of guidebooks and discussed in depth in Seccombe, 2018.

Unpublished sources

Seccombe, Karen, ‘The Clarity of Light: A personal response to the social justice work of WAI – the Women’s Art Initiative’, unpublished Creative Arts PhD thesis, Massey University, 2018. Available from: https://mro.massey.ac.nz/handle/10179/14109

Published sources

Forrester, Georgia, ‘Women take stand against violence at Palmerston North art exhibition’, Stuff, 3 Nov. 2017, https://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/well-good/98471116/women-take-stand-against-violence-at-palmerston-north-art-exhibition

Hulbert, Paula, ‘Strong women thrive at art initiative’, Stuff, 22 Aug. 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/marlborough-express/your-marlborough/106369348/art-studio-for-victims-of-abuse-paints-poor-financial-picture

McIntyre [later Seccombe], Karen, ‘Painting indignity / painting in dignity: Art-making in response to gender-based violence’, Women’s Studies Journal Vol. 29 No. 2, Dec. 2015, 60–69, http://www.wsanz.org.nz/journal/docs/WSJNZ292McIntyre60-69.pdf

Massey University News, ‘Public lectures showcase exceptional doctoral research’, Massey University, 15 May 2019, http://www.massey.ac.nz/massey/about-massey/news/article.cfm?mnarticle_uuid=6FFCC733-AE82-4BAD-9C84-95D6661B08D1

Thomas, Carly, ‘The women will speak and the words will be strong’, Stuff, 9 Nov. 2016, https://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/lifestyle/86202960/the-women-will-speak-and-the-words-will-be-strong

Thomas, Carly, ‘The light, the woman and the wardrobe’, Stuff, 25 Jan. 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/arts/100801981/the-light-the-woman-and-the-wardrobe

Thomas, Carly, ‘A collective of women lay down a challenge’, Stuff, 10 Nov. 2018, https://www.stuff.co.nz/entertainment/arts/108368233/a-collective-of-women-lay-down-a-challenge

Further information

Response-Based Practice website: https://www.responsebasedpractice.com/

WAI Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/WAI-the-Womens-Art-Initiative-932435926782102/?ref=bookmarks

WAI Marlborough Instagram: https://imggra.com/user/womensartintiative/8954390668

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