Heading

This is some text inside of a div block.

How the arts can unlock identity & wellbeing for the disabled community

Illustration / Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

According to Creative New Zealand’s New Zealanders and the Arts research from 2020, people with lived experience of disability attend arts events significantly more frequently than the national average – with 29% attending arts events 11 or more times a year. Sixty-one percent participated in the arts in the last 12 months – significantly higher than the national average (52%) - while 33% of those surveyed agreed that arts and culture have supported their wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis. 

I spoke with Arts Access Aotearoa director, Richard Benge, to understand his role in bridging the gap between a proven desire to participate and access the arts from the disabled community, and the arts industry. 

“My drive is to help people who don't have the obvious barriers to be involved in the arts to understand that their [position] is a privilege and that they can provide systems and processes that reduce the barriers for other people to get what they have just because they woke up that day. It is society that disables people.”

Arts Access Aotearoa facilitates access, inclusion, and participation for disabled communities, enabling the wellbeing impacts of the arts to be experienced by more people. Their Arts For All programme ensures constant connection with disabled communities. “The programme is a grassroots common sense approach to inclusion where festival directors, producers, funding managers, ticketers are put together with disabled practitioners to figure out the best way to communicate with each other,” explains Benge. “It's about understanding what access is and finding a way to be inclusive.” 

Musician and composer Pati Umaga has had an impressive career as an advocate: he co-founded the contemporary music programme at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua, engaged in developing policy for the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is a trustee of the Pacific Music Awards and former president of Disabled Persons Assembly NZ.

Umaga maintains disabled communities are capable in every aspect, but what is lacking is the space and sovereignty to communicate their perspectives and needs, which he hopes he can do through his art, as a non-traditional format. “Disability strategies or policies are being developed everywhere but until we develop it ourselves it's gonna be under the approach of other people, not us. For our wellbeing, we need to do things our way, that's what’s gonna build our wairua.”

Umaga’s creative journey started when he and his brothers formed the band Kabasa, and as the oldest, he claimed the position of lead guitarist. “I taught myself how to play the guitar because I wanted to be able to get the girls and also sing at the parties. My brothers and other people didn't have the heart to tell me that I was kidding myself,” Umaga tells me. “A cousin of ours came and joined us. He was a guitarist, and he started playing all these things. And I was looking at him like, ‘I'm not playing the guitar anymore.’” 

“You had the mauri,” I offer, laughing.

“I had the mauri, but not the skill so I played with four strings instead of six.”

He has been a bassist ever since, notably for Holidaymakers which had hits in the eighties such as Sweet Lovers, a cover of the Bill Withers song We Could Be Sweet Lovers. 

Umaga shares the concept video for an upcoming musical project, which starts with the pounding of drums and harmonising voices in Sāmoan, and I am delighted with an animation of sketched images. 

Rodney Bell, renowned tangata whenua dancer and founding member of the Aotearoa’s leading professional, disability-led performance company Touch Compass, is suspended by his wheelchair in the air by an enormous bird; his arms open in flight, flying towards Ranginui [sky]. 

Lusi Faiva, Sāmoan stage performer and dancer and another founding member of Touch Compass, is staring at her reflection as she performs Siva Sāmoa, the image of her ancestor, or ‘Avatar’ as Umaga describes it, stands behind her, mirroring the dance; while Umaga sits in half-light playing his bass, before striking it into the ground, causing Papatūānuku to split.  

There are images of lightning flashing and the clouds gathering; the natural world rises to meet the figures within the video. The concept is futuristic as well as traditional, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. 

Umaga praises the artists that have joined him in his vision for the video. “Lusi Faiva has always captured me because her movements are powerful, how she expressed herself, when she performed live at the Kia Mau Festival last year you could see people getting emotional, especially Sāmoan people who could see what she was doing, and could relate straight away to the traditional dance, even though her movements were restricted.”   

Art has been an access point for many parts of Umaga’s identity and wellbeing, and has been a tool he has wielded intentionally for his own expression as both a Sāmoan and disabled artist.

“Art and storytelling is about building our narrative, as disabled artists and why that's important for me is that our stories have always been taken by others, for their own use. We can capture our own stories, and we are the ones who have the guardianship over that. No one can take it from us. But it requires resourcing and support. A lot of the time people don't understand what our disability related needs are. It's part of our journey. Others look at us and think we can fit into the same box as everyone else. The only way we can influence is at the governance level. There’s got to be some way for us to build our own approach that works for us as disabled but it has to come from us.”

Pelenakeke Brown, a multidisciplinary artist who works with art, writing and performance, has worked with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Gibney Dance Center and The Goethe Institute, amongst others. Art practice is a vital form of expression in her life. 

“When I went to university I really wanted to either go to art school or theatre school, but I didn’t know that was a possibility. I studied English and Pacific literature to understand my Sāmoan identity. I didn’t want to be writing about art, but I thought it was the closest I could get. Overseas was the place I could go to see if [making art] was a possibility, or if I was good. For me, making art is a necessary thing.”

In 2020 Brown brought that experience back home to Aotearoa, where she collaborated with fellow artist Yo-Yo Lin to make Rotations, where disabled arts practitioners from across the world could share their expertise and workshop their craft in cycles.

Like Umaga, Brown finds identity and wellbeing through her community in the arts. “Growing up I always thought you had to choose: are you going to be Sāmoan, are you going to be disabled? So I really took the time to figure out my identity and, in that way, my work is about wellbeing - being able to support and carve out spaces for other disabled artists.”

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

No items found.
Illustration / Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

According to Creative New Zealand’s New Zealanders and the Arts research from 2020, people with lived experience of disability attend arts events significantly more frequently than the national average – with 29% attending arts events 11 or more times a year. Sixty-one percent participated in the arts in the last 12 months – significantly higher than the national average (52%) - while 33% of those surveyed agreed that arts and culture have supported their wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis. 

I spoke with Arts Access Aotearoa director, Richard Benge, to understand his role in bridging the gap between a proven desire to participate and access the arts from the disabled community, and the arts industry. 

“My drive is to help people who don't have the obvious barriers to be involved in the arts to understand that their [position] is a privilege and that they can provide systems and processes that reduce the barriers for other people to get what they have just because they woke up that day. It is society that disables people.”

Arts Access Aotearoa facilitates access, inclusion, and participation for disabled communities, enabling the wellbeing impacts of the arts to be experienced by more people. Their Arts For All programme ensures constant connection with disabled communities. “The programme is a grassroots common sense approach to inclusion where festival directors, producers, funding managers, ticketers are put together with disabled practitioners to figure out the best way to communicate with each other,” explains Benge. “It's about understanding what access is and finding a way to be inclusive.” 

Musician and composer Pati Umaga has had an impressive career as an advocate: he co-founded the contemporary music programme at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua, engaged in developing policy for the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is a trustee of the Pacific Music Awards and former president of Disabled Persons Assembly NZ.

Umaga maintains disabled communities are capable in every aspect, but what is lacking is the space and sovereignty to communicate their perspectives and needs, which he hopes he can do through his art, as a non-traditional format. “Disability strategies or policies are being developed everywhere but until we develop it ourselves it's gonna be under the approach of other people, not us. For our wellbeing, we need to do things our way, that's what’s gonna build our wairua.”

Umaga’s creative journey started when he and his brothers formed the band Kabasa, and as the oldest, he claimed the position of lead guitarist. “I taught myself how to play the guitar because I wanted to be able to get the girls and also sing at the parties. My brothers and other people didn't have the heart to tell me that I was kidding myself,” Umaga tells me. “A cousin of ours came and joined us. He was a guitarist, and he started playing all these things. And I was looking at him like, ‘I'm not playing the guitar anymore.’” 

“You had the mauri,” I offer, laughing.

“I had the mauri, but not the skill so I played with four strings instead of six.”

He has been a bassist ever since, notably for Holidaymakers which had hits in the eighties such as Sweet Lovers, a cover of the Bill Withers song We Could Be Sweet Lovers. 

Umaga shares the concept video for an upcoming musical project, which starts with the pounding of drums and harmonising voices in Sāmoan, and I am delighted with an animation of sketched images. 

Rodney Bell, renowned tangata whenua dancer and founding member of the Aotearoa’s leading professional, disability-led performance company Touch Compass, is suspended by his wheelchair in the air by an enormous bird; his arms open in flight, flying towards Ranginui [sky]. 

Lusi Faiva, Sāmoan stage performer and dancer and another founding member of Touch Compass, is staring at her reflection as she performs Siva Sāmoa, the image of her ancestor, or ‘Avatar’ as Umaga describes it, stands behind her, mirroring the dance; while Umaga sits in half-light playing his bass, before striking it into the ground, causing Papatūānuku to split.  

There are images of lightning flashing and the clouds gathering; the natural world rises to meet the figures within the video. The concept is futuristic as well as traditional, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. 

Umaga praises the artists that have joined him in his vision for the video. “Lusi Faiva has always captured me because her movements are powerful, how she expressed herself, when she performed live at the Kia Mau Festival last year you could see people getting emotional, especially Sāmoan people who could see what she was doing, and could relate straight away to the traditional dance, even though her movements were restricted.”   

Art has been an access point for many parts of Umaga’s identity and wellbeing, and has been a tool he has wielded intentionally for his own expression as both a Sāmoan and disabled artist.

“Art and storytelling is about building our narrative, as disabled artists and why that's important for me is that our stories have always been taken by others, for their own use. We can capture our own stories, and we are the ones who have the guardianship over that. No one can take it from us. But it requires resourcing and support. A lot of the time people don't understand what our disability related needs are. It's part of our journey. Others look at us and think we can fit into the same box as everyone else. The only way we can influence is at the governance level. There’s got to be some way for us to build our own approach that works for us as disabled but it has to come from us.”

Pelenakeke Brown, a multidisciplinary artist who works with art, writing and performance, has worked with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Gibney Dance Center and The Goethe Institute, amongst others. Art practice is a vital form of expression in her life. 

“When I went to university I really wanted to either go to art school or theatre school, but I didn’t know that was a possibility. I studied English and Pacific literature to understand my Sāmoan identity. I didn’t want to be writing about art, but I thought it was the closest I could get. Overseas was the place I could go to see if [making art] was a possibility, or if I was good. For me, making art is a necessary thing.”

In 2020 Brown brought that experience back home to Aotearoa, where she collaborated with fellow artist Yo-Yo Lin to make Rotations, where disabled arts practitioners from across the world could share their expertise and workshop their craft in cycles.

Like Umaga, Brown finds identity and wellbeing through her community in the arts. “Growing up I always thought you had to choose: are you going to be Sāmoan, are you going to be disabled? So I really took the time to figure out my identity and, in that way, my work is about wellbeing - being able to support and carve out spaces for other disabled artists.”

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
No items found.

How the arts can unlock identity & wellbeing for the disabled community

Illustration / Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

According to Creative New Zealand’s New Zealanders and the Arts research from 2020, people with lived experience of disability attend arts events significantly more frequently than the national average – with 29% attending arts events 11 or more times a year. Sixty-one percent participated in the arts in the last 12 months – significantly higher than the national average (52%) - while 33% of those surveyed agreed that arts and culture have supported their wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis. 

I spoke with Arts Access Aotearoa director, Richard Benge, to understand his role in bridging the gap between a proven desire to participate and access the arts from the disabled community, and the arts industry. 

“My drive is to help people who don't have the obvious barriers to be involved in the arts to understand that their [position] is a privilege and that they can provide systems and processes that reduce the barriers for other people to get what they have just because they woke up that day. It is society that disables people.”

Arts Access Aotearoa facilitates access, inclusion, and participation for disabled communities, enabling the wellbeing impacts of the arts to be experienced by more people. Their Arts For All programme ensures constant connection with disabled communities. “The programme is a grassroots common sense approach to inclusion where festival directors, producers, funding managers, ticketers are put together with disabled practitioners to figure out the best way to communicate with each other,” explains Benge. “It's about understanding what access is and finding a way to be inclusive.” 

Musician and composer Pati Umaga has had an impressive career as an advocate: he co-founded the contemporary music programme at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua, engaged in developing policy for the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is a trustee of the Pacific Music Awards and former president of Disabled Persons Assembly NZ.

Umaga maintains disabled communities are capable in every aspect, but what is lacking is the space and sovereignty to communicate their perspectives and needs, which he hopes he can do through his art, as a non-traditional format. “Disability strategies or policies are being developed everywhere but until we develop it ourselves it's gonna be under the approach of other people, not us. For our wellbeing, we need to do things our way, that's what’s gonna build our wairua.”

Umaga’s creative journey started when he and his brothers formed the band Kabasa, and as the oldest, he claimed the position of lead guitarist. “I taught myself how to play the guitar because I wanted to be able to get the girls and also sing at the parties. My brothers and other people didn't have the heart to tell me that I was kidding myself,” Umaga tells me. “A cousin of ours came and joined us. He was a guitarist, and he started playing all these things. And I was looking at him like, ‘I'm not playing the guitar anymore.’” 

“You had the mauri,” I offer, laughing.

“I had the mauri, but not the skill so I played with four strings instead of six.”

He has been a bassist ever since, notably for Holidaymakers which had hits in the eighties such as Sweet Lovers, a cover of the Bill Withers song We Could Be Sweet Lovers. 

Umaga shares the concept video for an upcoming musical project, which starts with the pounding of drums and harmonising voices in Sāmoan, and I am delighted with an animation of sketched images. 

Rodney Bell, renowned tangata whenua dancer and founding member of the Aotearoa’s leading professional, disability-led performance company Touch Compass, is suspended by his wheelchair in the air by an enormous bird; his arms open in flight, flying towards Ranginui [sky]. 

Lusi Faiva, Sāmoan stage performer and dancer and another founding member of Touch Compass, is staring at her reflection as she performs Siva Sāmoa, the image of her ancestor, or ‘Avatar’ as Umaga describes it, stands behind her, mirroring the dance; while Umaga sits in half-light playing his bass, before striking it into the ground, causing Papatūānuku to split.  

There are images of lightning flashing and the clouds gathering; the natural world rises to meet the figures within the video. The concept is futuristic as well as traditional, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. 

Umaga praises the artists that have joined him in his vision for the video. “Lusi Faiva has always captured me because her movements are powerful, how she expressed herself, when she performed live at the Kia Mau Festival last year you could see people getting emotional, especially Sāmoan people who could see what she was doing, and could relate straight away to the traditional dance, even though her movements were restricted.”   

Art has been an access point for many parts of Umaga’s identity and wellbeing, and has been a tool he has wielded intentionally for his own expression as both a Sāmoan and disabled artist.

“Art and storytelling is about building our narrative, as disabled artists and why that's important for me is that our stories have always been taken by others, for their own use. We can capture our own stories, and we are the ones who have the guardianship over that. No one can take it from us. But it requires resourcing and support. A lot of the time people don't understand what our disability related needs are. It's part of our journey. Others look at us and think we can fit into the same box as everyone else. The only way we can influence is at the governance level. There’s got to be some way for us to build our own approach that works for us as disabled but it has to come from us.”

Pelenakeke Brown, a multidisciplinary artist who works with art, writing and performance, has worked with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Gibney Dance Center and The Goethe Institute, amongst others. Art practice is a vital form of expression in her life. 

“When I went to university I really wanted to either go to art school or theatre school, but I didn’t know that was a possibility. I studied English and Pacific literature to understand my Sāmoan identity. I didn’t want to be writing about art, but I thought it was the closest I could get. Overseas was the place I could go to see if [making art] was a possibility, or if I was good. For me, making art is a necessary thing.”

In 2020 Brown brought that experience back home to Aotearoa, where she collaborated with fellow artist Yo-Yo Lin to make Rotations, where disabled arts practitioners from across the world could share their expertise and workshop their craft in cycles.

Like Umaga, Brown finds identity and wellbeing through her community in the arts. “Growing up I always thought you had to choose: are you going to be Sāmoan, are you going to be disabled? So I really took the time to figure out my identity and, in that way, my work is about wellbeing - being able to support and carve out spaces for other disabled artists.”

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
No items found.

How the arts can unlock identity & wellbeing for the disabled community

Illustration / Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

According to Creative New Zealand’s New Zealanders and the Arts research from 2020, people with lived experience of disability attend arts events significantly more frequently than the national average – with 29% attending arts events 11 or more times a year. Sixty-one percent participated in the arts in the last 12 months – significantly higher than the national average (52%) - while 33% of those surveyed agreed that arts and culture have supported their wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis. 

I spoke with Arts Access Aotearoa director, Richard Benge, to understand his role in bridging the gap between a proven desire to participate and access the arts from the disabled community, and the arts industry. 

“My drive is to help people who don't have the obvious barriers to be involved in the arts to understand that their [position] is a privilege and that they can provide systems and processes that reduce the barriers for other people to get what they have just because they woke up that day. It is society that disables people.”

Arts Access Aotearoa facilitates access, inclusion, and participation for disabled communities, enabling the wellbeing impacts of the arts to be experienced by more people. Their Arts For All programme ensures constant connection with disabled communities. “The programme is a grassroots common sense approach to inclusion where festival directors, producers, funding managers, ticketers are put together with disabled practitioners to figure out the best way to communicate with each other,” explains Benge. “It's about understanding what access is and finding a way to be inclusive.” 

Musician and composer Pati Umaga has had an impressive career as an advocate: he co-founded the contemporary music programme at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua, engaged in developing policy for the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is a trustee of the Pacific Music Awards and former president of Disabled Persons Assembly NZ.

Umaga maintains disabled communities are capable in every aspect, but what is lacking is the space and sovereignty to communicate their perspectives and needs, which he hopes he can do through his art, as a non-traditional format. “Disability strategies or policies are being developed everywhere but until we develop it ourselves it's gonna be under the approach of other people, not us. For our wellbeing, we need to do things our way, that's what’s gonna build our wairua.”

Umaga’s creative journey started when he and his brothers formed the band Kabasa, and as the oldest, he claimed the position of lead guitarist. “I taught myself how to play the guitar because I wanted to be able to get the girls and also sing at the parties. My brothers and other people didn't have the heart to tell me that I was kidding myself,” Umaga tells me. “A cousin of ours came and joined us. He was a guitarist, and he started playing all these things. And I was looking at him like, ‘I'm not playing the guitar anymore.’” 

“You had the mauri,” I offer, laughing.

“I had the mauri, but not the skill so I played with four strings instead of six.”

He has been a bassist ever since, notably for Holidaymakers which had hits in the eighties such as Sweet Lovers, a cover of the Bill Withers song We Could Be Sweet Lovers. 

Umaga shares the concept video for an upcoming musical project, which starts with the pounding of drums and harmonising voices in Sāmoan, and I am delighted with an animation of sketched images. 

Rodney Bell, renowned tangata whenua dancer and founding member of the Aotearoa’s leading professional, disability-led performance company Touch Compass, is suspended by his wheelchair in the air by an enormous bird; his arms open in flight, flying towards Ranginui [sky]. 

Lusi Faiva, Sāmoan stage performer and dancer and another founding member of Touch Compass, is staring at her reflection as she performs Siva Sāmoa, the image of her ancestor, or ‘Avatar’ as Umaga describes it, stands behind her, mirroring the dance; while Umaga sits in half-light playing his bass, before striking it into the ground, causing Papatūānuku to split.  

There are images of lightning flashing and the clouds gathering; the natural world rises to meet the figures within the video. The concept is futuristic as well as traditional, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. 

Umaga praises the artists that have joined him in his vision for the video. “Lusi Faiva has always captured me because her movements are powerful, how she expressed herself, when she performed live at the Kia Mau Festival last year you could see people getting emotional, especially Sāmoan people who could see what she was doing, and could relate straight away to the traditional dance, even though her movements were restricted.”   

Art has been an access point for many parts of Umaga’s identity and wellbeing, and has been a tool he has wielded intentionally for his own expression as both a Sāmoan and disabled artist.

“Art and storytelling is about building our narrative, as disabled artists and why that's important for me is that our stories have always been taken by others, for their own use. We can capture our own stories, and we are the ones who have the guardianship over that. No one can take it from us. But it requires resourcing and support. A lot of the time people don't understand what our disability related needs are. It's part of our journey. Others look at us and think we can fit into the same box as everyone else. The only way we can influence is at the governance level. There’s got to be some way for us to build our own approach that works for us as disabled but it has to come from us.”

Pelenakeke Brown, a multidisciplinary artist who works with art, writing and performance, has worked with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Gibney Dance Center and The Goethe Institute, amongst others. Art practice is a vital form of expression in her life. 

“When I went to university I really wanted to either go to art school or theatre school, but I didn’t know that was a possibility. I studied English and Pacific literature to understand my Sāmoan identity. I didn’t want to be writing about art, but I thought it was the closest I could get. Overseas was the place I could go to see if [making art] was a possibility, or if I was good. For me, making art is a necessary thing.”

In 2020 Brown brought that experience back home to Aotearoa, where she collaborated with fellow artist Yo-Yo Lin to make Rotations, where disabled arts practitioners from across the world could share their expertise and workshop their craft in cycles.

Like Umaga, Brown finds identity and wellbeing through her community in the arts. “Growing up I always thought you had to choose: are you going to be Sāmoan, are you going to be disabled? So I really took the time to figure out my identity and, in that way, my work is about wellbeing - being able to support and carve out spaces for other disabled artists.”

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
No items found.
Illustration / Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

According to Creative New Zealand’s New Zealanders and the Arts research from 2020, people with lived experience of disability attend arts events significantly more frequently than the national average – with 29% attending arts events 11 or more times a year. Sixty-one percent participated in the arts in the last 12 months – significantly higher than the national average (52%) - while 33% of those surveyed agreed that arts and culture have supported their wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis. 

I spoke with Arts Access Aotearoa director, Richard Benge, to understand his role in bridging the gap between a proven desire to participate and access the arts from the disabled community, and the arts industry. 

“My drive is to help people who don't have the obvious barriers to be involved in the arts to understand that their [position] is a privilege and that they can provide systems and processes that reduce the barriers for other people to get what they have just because they woke up that day. It is society that disables people.”

Arts Access Aotearoa facilitates access, inclusion, and participation for disabled communities, enabling the wellbeing impacts of the arts to be experienced by more people. Their Arts For All programme ensures constant connection with disabled communities. “The programme is a grassroots common sense approach to inclusion where festival directors, producers, funding managers, ticketers are put together with disabled practitioners to figure out the best way to communicate with each other,” explains Benge. “It's about understanding what access is and finding a way to be inclusive.” 

Musician and composer Pati Umaga has had an impressive career as an advocate: he co-founded the contemporary music programme at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua, engaged in developing policy for the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is a trustee of the Pacific Music Awards and former president of Disabled Persons Assembly NZ.

Umaga maintains disabled communities are capable in every aspect, but what is lacking is the space and sovereignty to communicate their perspectives and needs, which he hopes he can do through his art, as a non-traditional format. “Disability strategies or policies are being developed everywhere but until we develop it ourselves it's gonna be under the approach of other people, not us. For our wellbeing, we need to do things our way, that's what’s gonna build our wairua.”

Umaga’s creative journey started when he and his brothers formed the band Kabasa, and as the oldest, he claimed the position of lead guitarist. “I taught myself how to play the guitar because I wanted to be able to get the girls and also sing at the parties. My brothers and other people didn't have the heart to tell me that I was kidding myself,” Umaga tells me. “A cousin of ours came and joined us. He was a guitarist, and he started playing all these things. And I was looking at him like, ‘I'm not playing the guitar anymore.’” 

“You had the mauri,” I offer, laughing.

“I had the mauri, but not the skill so I played with four strings instead of six.”

He has been a bassist ever since, notably for Holidaymakers which had hits in the eighties such as Sweet Lovers, a cover of the Bill Withers song We Could Be Sweet Lovers. 

Umaga shares the concept video for an upcoming musical project, which starts with the pounding of drums and harmonising voices in Sāmoan, and I am delighted with an animation of sketched images. 

Rodney Bell, renowned tangata whenua dancer and founding member of the Aotearoa’s leading professional, disability-led performance company Touch Compass, is suspended by his wheelchair in the air by an enormous bird; his arms open in flight, flying towards Ranginui [sky]. 

Lusi Faiva, Sāmoan stage performer and dancer and another founding member of Touch Compass, is staring at her reflection as she performs Siva Sāmoa, the image of her ancestor, or ‘Avatar’ as Umaga describes it, stands behind her, mirroring the dance; while Umaga sits in half-light playing his bass, before striking it into the ground, causing Papatūānuku to split.  

There are images of lightning flashing and the clouds gathering; the natural world rises to meet the figures within the video. The concept is futuristic as well as traditional, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. 

Umaga praises the artists that have joined him in his vision for the video. “Lusi Faiva has always captured me because her movements are powerful, how she expressed herself, when she performed live at the Kia Mau Festival last year you could see people getting emotional, especially Sāmoan people who could see what she was doing, and could relate straight away to the traditional dance, even though her movements were restricted.”   

Art has been an access point for many parts of Umaga’s identity and wellbeing, and has been a tool he has wielded intentionally for his own expression as both a Sāmoan and disabled artist.

“Art and storytelling is about building our narrative, as disabled artists and why that's important for me is that our stories have always been taken by others, for their own use. We can capture our own stories, and we are the ones who have the guardianship over that. No one can take it from us. But it requires resourcing and support. A lot of the time people don't understand what our disability related needs are. It's part of our journey. Others look at us and think we can fit into the same box as everyone else. The only way we can influence is at the governance level. There’s got to be some way for us to build our own approach that works for us as disabled but it has to come from us.”

Pelenakeke Brown, a multidisciplinary artist who works with art, writing and performance, has worked with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Gibney Dance Center and The Goethe Institute, amongst others. Art practice is a vital form of expression in her life. 

“When I went to university I really wanted to either go to art school or theatre school, but I didn’t know that was a possibility. I studied English and Pacific literature to understand my Sāmoan identity. I didn’t want to be writing about art, but I thought it was the closest I could get. Overseas was the place I could go to see if [making art] was a possibility, or if I was good. For me, making art is a necessary thing.”

In 2020 Brown brought that experience back home to Aotearoa, where she collaborated with fellow artist Yo-Yo Lin to make Rotations, where disabled arts practitioners from across the world could share their expertise and workshop their craft in cycles.

Like Umaga, Brown finds identity and wellbeing through her community in the arts. “Growing up I always thought you had to choose: are you going to be Sāmoan, are you going to be disabled? So I really took the time to figure out my identity and, in that way, my work is about wellbeing - being able to support and carve out spaces for other disabled artists.”

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
No items found.

How the arts can unlock identity & wellbeing for the disabled community

Illustration / Huriana Kopeke-Te Aho

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

According to Creative New Zealand’s New Zealanders and the Arts research from 2020, people with lived experience of disability attend arts events significantly more frequently than the national average – with 29% attending arts events 11 or more times a year. Sixty-one percent participated in the arts in the last 12 months – significantly higher than the national average (52%) - while 33% of those surveyed agreed that arts and culture have supported their wellbeing during the Covid-19 crisis. 

I spoke with Arts Access Aotearoa director, Richard Benge, to understand his role in bridging the gap between a proven desire to participate and access the arts from the disabled community, and the arts industry. 

“My drive is to help people who don't have the obvious barriers to be involved in the arts to understand that their [position] is a privilege and that they can provide systems and processes that reduce the barriers for other people to get what they have just because they woke up that day. It is society that disables people.”

Arts Access Aotearoa facilitates access, inclusion, and participation for disabled communities, enabling the wellbeing impacts of the arts to be experienced by more people. Their Arts For All programme ensures constant connection with disabled communities. “The programme is a grassroots common sense approach to inclusion where festival directors, producers, funding managers, ticketers are put together with disabled practitioners to figure out the best way to communicate with each other,” explains Benge. “It's about understanding what access is and finding a way to be inclusive.” 

Musician and composer Pati Umaga has had an impressive career as an advocate: he co-founded the contemporary music programme at Whitireia Polytechnic in Porirua, engaged in developing policy for the United Nations’ Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, is a trustee of the Pacific Music Awards and former president of Disabled Persons Assembly NZ.

Umaga maintains disabled communities are capable in every aspect, but what is lacking is the space and sovereignty to communicate their perspectives and needs, which he hopes he can do through his art, as a non-traditional format. “Disability strategies or policies are being developed everywhere but until we develop it ourselves it's gonna be under the approach of other people, not us. For our wellbeing, we need to do things our way, that's what’s gonna build our wairua.”

Umaga’s creative journey started when he and his brothers formed the band Kabasa, and as the oldest, he claimed the position of lead guitarist. “I taught myself how to play the guitar because I wanted to be able to get the girls and also sing at the parties. My brothers and other people didn't have the heart to tell me that I was kidding myself,” Umaga tells me. “A cousin of ours came and joined us. He was a guitarist, and he started playing all these things. And I was looking at him like, ‘I'm not playing the guitar anymore.’” 

“You had the mauri,” I offer, laughing.

“I had the mauri, but not the skill so I played with four strings instead of six.”

He has been a bassist ever since, notably for Holidaymakers which had hits in the eighties such as Sweet Lovers, a cover of the Bill Withers song We Could Be Sweet Lovers. 

Umaga shares the concept video for an upcoming musical project, which starts with the pounding of drums and harmonising voices in Sāmoan, and I am delighted with an animation of sketched images. 

Rodney Bell, renowned tangata whenua dancer and founding member of the Aotearoa’s leading professional, disability-led performance company Touch Compass, is suspended by his wheelchair in the air by an enormous bird; his arms open in flight, flying towards Ranginui [sky]. 

Lusi Faiva, Sāmoan stage performer and dancer and another founding member of Touch Compass, is staring at her reflection as she performs Siva Sāmoa, the image of her ancestor, or ‘Avatar’ as Umaga describes it, stands behind her, mirroring the dance; while Umaga sits in half-light playing his bass, before striking it into the ground, causing Papatūānuku to split.  

There are images of lightning flashing and the clouds gathering; the natural world rises to meet the figures within the video. The concept is futuristic as well as traditional, and it’s like nothing I’ve seen before. 

Umaga praises the artists that have joined him in his vision for the video. “Lusi Faiva has always captured me because her movements are powerful, how she expressed herself, when she performed live at the Kia Mau Festival last year you could see people getting emotional, especially Sāmoan people who could see what she was doing, and could relate straight away to the traditional dance, even though her movements were restricted.”   

Art has been an access point for many parts of Umaga’s identity and wellbeing, and has been a tool he has wielded intentionally for his own expression as both a Sāmoan and disabled artist.

“Art and storytelling is about building our narrative, as disabled artists and why that's important for me is that our stories have always been taken by others, for their own use. We can capture our own stories, and we are the ones who have the guardianship over that. No one can take it from us. But it requires resourcing and support. A lot of the time people don't understand what our disability related needs are. It's part of our journey. Others look at us and think we can fit into the same box as everyone else. The only way we can influence is at the governance level. There’s got to be some way for us to build our own approach that works for us as disabled but it has to come from us.”

Pelenakeke Brown, a multidisciplinary artist who works with art, writing and performance, has worked with The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Gibney Dance Center and The Goethe Institute, amongst others. Art practice is a vital form of expression in her life. 

“When I went to university I really wanted to either go to art school or theatre school, but I didn’t know that was a possibility. I studied English and Pacific literature to understand my Sāmoan identity. I didn’t want to be writing about art, but I thought it was the closest I could get. Overseas was the place I could go to see if [making art] was a possibility, or if I was good. For me, making art is a necessary thing.”

In 2020 Brown brought that experience back home to Aotearoa, where she collaborated with fellow artist Yo-Yo Lin to make Rotations, where disabled arts practitioners from across the world could share their expertise and workshop their craft in cycles.

Like Umaga, Brown finds identity and wellbeing through her community in the arts. “Growing up I always thought you had to choose: are you going to be Sāmoan, are you going to be disabled? So I really took the time to figure out my identity and, in that way, my work is about wellbeing - being able to support and carve out spaces for other disabled artists.”

This story is part of the Creative Wellbeing series, a partnership between Creative New Zealand and All Right? that shines a light on the transformative wellbeing and hauora benefits that arts, culture and creativity provide. You can read the whole series here.

Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program
No items found.