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The power of art in exploring Asian identity

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.

For much of his childhood, Ahi Karunaharan grew up in Sri Lanka closely surrounded by family and friends. Living in a “massive old-school Sri Lankan-style house” with six or seven other families, he recalls how - as the youngest child of his parents at the time - he’d naturally assumed the position of “family clown”. 

But despite the seemingly light-hearted nature of the role, being the “family clown” assumed a lot of meaning for both Karunaharan and his audience – Sri Lanka at the time was engaged in a brutal civil war, sparked in large part by ethnic tensions between the country’s Sinhalese and Tamil citizens. The war would go on for the next 26 years, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

“It was the height of the civil war when I was living in Sri Lanka, and safety was really paramount because there was constantly warfare outside our door,” he says. “So storytelling, creating worlds, being in my imagination, and entertaining family and friends was a way to protect myself and to heal myself from what was happening out there at the time.”

As fighting progressed, Karunaharan and his family moved to New Zealand in the early 1990s where his creative pursuits expanded into theatre. Despite expectations to follow a more typical migrant success pathway, such as through accounting or engineering, Karunaharan knew the creative arts was where he belonged.

“When I finished uni, I worked for a couple years in the corporate world and realised the arts sector was where I needed to be,” he says. “I wasn't really sure what I was expecting to do, I just knew that being in this creative space made me feel good and gave me a sense of belonging that I couldn't find anywhere else. Theatre and the performing arts was a comfortable space. It was a space where you could feel heard, where you could feel that knowledge, and I just wanted to keep that feeling going.”

Today, Karunaharan is an award-winning director, playwright, screenwriter, producer and Arts Foundation Laureate (2020) with dozens of works under his belt. In many ways, his earliest desires to entertain and to heal through the arts has continued, fostering his own wellbeing but also that of his community with works presented through a south Asian lens, for a south Asian audience.

Ahi Karunaharan. Photo / Ankita Singh

His 2018 stage production Tea, for example, not only explored themes of home and belonging from a Sri Lankan perspective, but also brought to the fore many from the Sri Lankan community not often seen on the main stage. Karunaharan is also the founder of Agaram Productions, a South Asian production house championing alternative narratives and otherness in an arts landscape that’s historically excluded diverse cultural voices.

As New Zealand’s Asian population continues to grow at a rapid pace (and is expected to account for just over a quarter of the total population by 2043) having spaces created by and for Asian creatives to flourish is more important and necessary than ever. As a 2020 survey of Asian New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the arts found, a majority of respondents agreed that the arts contributed positively not only to their “sense of self, nationhood, and understanding of others”, but also to their personal wellbeing and mental health as well.

“There’s real power in seeing someone who looks like you, who's had experiences like you, being represented [in the arts],” says Rosabel Tan, founding editor of The Pantograph Punch and director of Satellites, a programme showcasing work by contemporary artists of the Asian diaspora in Aotearoa. “That feeling of being ‘seen’ and feeling that jolt of recognition… it can really make you feel less lonely and more connected to the world, and give you a stronger sense of belonging in this incredibly powerful way.”

“That's been the seed that's blossomed into work like Satellites, which has been about creating a space for Asian diaspora artists to really be their full, messy, complicated selves, and to not necessarily be confined to just their cultural identity or only represent some decorative element of their identity,” says Tan. 

“I really believe in how creative expression can have a gentle way of planting itself in your mind. It gives you permission to be more.”

Rosabel Tan. Photo / Ankita Singh

For theatre-maker and performer Alice Canton, providing spaces for alternative voices and narratives has also been crucial to her work. As an artist of Chinese descent, Canton has often explored themes around representation and identity, most notably with her award-winning work OTHER [chinese]. The live, documentary theatre show is built around workshops for members of the Chinese-identifying community to tell their stories, thereby painting a complex, multifaceted picture of what it means, feels and looks like to be Chinese in Aotearoa today. 

“Hearing all these different stories is incredibly moving, and it’s so wonderful seeing how participants change even from just attending the workshops,” says Canton. “You hear a whole spectrum of things you typically question in yourself, but because it's in a workshop, you're actually questioning with others. So it can be quite full on but in a really powerful way, which I think is amplified because it's a shared experience.

“It's really wild when someone shares an experience and then 10 other people are like 'that's literally how I felt as well but I've never been able to put my finger on it!’”

Sharing these experiences can also have a cathartic effect, especially when it comes to processing traumatic events such as racist bullying, says Canton - something which has worsened in the last few years with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment (particularly among those of Chinese descent) since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sharing these incidents out in the open can actually change their view of their experiences because other people can validate the emotions that they're maybe afraid to think about it,” she says. “For example, there’s the classic story of bringing a certain kind of food to school and getting made fun of, [because of] what you eat. It’s a story we hear all the time but I think some people haven’t processed how horrible it can be. These sorts of things can reveal a true sense of trauma that you've never unpacked.”

The importance of examining and processing trauma is also set to be a theme in Canton’s upcoming work, Hearts Stay Broken – a show she’s been working on for the last two years that tackles the subject of grief. Currently in development and set to premiere in 2023, Canton says the work will look at not only her own personal relationship to grief, but also the experience of collective grief as a community that has lived through Covid-19. 

“For me, I want the audience to feel like if they're not able to process something themselves, being a witness to somebody else processing it through a theatrical presentation of the stages of grief may help them learn something they can embody in their own lives. Because theatre can do that: we have an opportunity to suspend people's disbelief, and represent these narratives through the stories we tell.”

For Karunaharan, 2022 is set to be a busy one with an acting performance at Edinburgh International Festival in the next few months as well as a directing role in The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom premiering at Silo Theatre later this year. 

After almost two years of Covid-19 restrictions, he says he’s excited to get back to being on stage – and hopes people won’t forget the valuable role art played in getting us through some of the worst of the global pandemic.

“Art was deemed inessential during the pandemic, but it’s so essential," he says. "People express themselves through literature, people heal themselves through music… Artists have contributed to so many more aspects of our lives than most of us are aware of. Art provides comfort – it’s such an integral part of all our lives.”

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.

For much of his childhood, Ahi Karunaharan grew up in Sri Lanka closely surrounded by family and friends. Living in a “massive old-school Sri Lankan-style house” with six or seven other families, he recalls how - as the youngest child of his parents at the time - he’d naturally assumed the position of “family clown”. 

But despite the seemingly light-hearted nature of the role, being the “family clown” assumed a lot of meaning for both Karunaharan and his audience – Sri Lanka at the time was engaged in a brutal civil war, sparked in large part by ethnic tensions between the country’s Sinhalese and Tamil citizens. The war would go on for the next 26 years, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

“It was the height of the civil war when I was living in Sri Lanka, and safety was really paramount because there was constantly warfare outside our door,” he says. “So storytelling, creating worlds, being in my imagination, and entertaining family and friends was a way to protect myself and to heal myself from what was happening out there at the time.”

As fighting progressed, Karunaharan and his family moved to New Zealand in the early 1990s where his creative pursuits expanded into theatre. Despite expectations to follow a more typical migrant success pathway, such as through accounting or engineering, Karunaharan knew the creative arts was where he belonged.

“When I finished uni, I worked for a couple years in the corporate world and realised the arts sector was where I needed to be,” he says. “I wasn't really sure what I was expecting to do, I just knew that being in this creative space made me feel good and gave me a sense of belonging that I couldn't find anywhere else. Theatre and the performing arts was a comfortable space. It was a space where you could feel heard, where you could feel that knowledge, and I just wanted to keep that feeling going.”

Today, Karunaharan is an award-winning director, playwright, screenwriter, producer and Arts Foundation Laureate (2020) with dozens of works under his belt. In many ways, his earliest desires to entertain and to heal through the arts has continued, fostering his own wellbeing but also that of his community with works presented through a south Asian lens, for a south Asian audience.

Ahi Karunaharan. Photo / Ankita Singh

His 2018 stage production Tea, for example, not only explored themes of home and belonging from a Sri Lankan perspective, but also brought to the fore many from the Sri Lankan community not often seen on the main stage. Karunaharan is also the founder of Agaram Productions, a South Asian production house championing alternative narratives and otherness in an arts landscape that’s historically excluded diverse cultural voices.

As New Zealand’s Asian population continues to grow at a rapid pace (and is expected to account for just over a quarter of the total population by 2043) having spaces created by and for Asian creatives to flourish is more important and necessary than ever. As a 2020 survey of Asian New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the arts found, a majority of respondents agreed that the arts contributed positively not only to their “sense of self, nationhood, and understanding of others”, but also to their personal wellbeing and mental health as well.

“There’s real power in seeing someone who looks like you, who's had experiences like you, being represented [in the arts],” says Rosabel Tan, founding editor of The Pantograph Punch and director of Satellites, a programme showcasing work by contemporary artists of the Asian diaspora in Aotearoa. “That feeling of being ‘seen’ and feeling that jolt of recognition… it can really make you feel less lonely and more connected to the world, and give you a stronger sense of belonging in this incredibly powerful way.”

“That's been the seed that's blossomed into work like Satellites, which has been about creating a space for Asian diaspora artists to really be their full, messy, complicated selves, and to not necessarily be confined to just their cultural identity or only represent some decorative element of their identity,” says Tan. 

“I really believe in how creative expression can have a gentle way of planting itself in your mind. It gives you permission to be more.”

Rosabel Tan. Photo / Ankita Singh

For theatre-maker and performer Alice Canton, providing spaces for alternative voices and narratives has also been crucial to her work. As an artist of Chinese descent, Canton has often explored themes around representation and identity, most notably with her award-winning work OTHER [chinese]. The live, documentary theatre show is built around workshops for members of the Chinese-identifying community to tell their stories, thereby painting a complex, multifaceted picture of what it means, feels and looks like to be Chinese in Aotearoa today. 

“Hearing all these different stories is incredibly moving, and it’s so wonderful seeing how participants change even from just attending the workshops,” says Canton. “You hear a whole spectrum of things you typically question in yourself, but because it's in a workshop, you're actually questioning with others. So it can be quite full on but in a really powerful way, which I think is amplified because it's a shared experience.

“It's really wild when someone shares an experience and then 10 other people are like 'that's literally how I felt as well but I've never been able to put my finger on it!’”

Sharing these experiences can also have a cathartic effect, especially when it comes to processing traumatic events such as racist bullying, says Canton - something which has worsened in the last few years with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment (particularly among those of Chinese descent) since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sharing these incidents out in the open can actually change their view of their experiences because other people can validate the emotions that they're maybe afraid to think about it,” she says. “For example, there’s the classic story of bringing a certain kind of food to school and getting made fun of, [because of] what you eat. It’s a story we hear all the time but I think some people haven’t processed how horrible it can be. These sorts of things can reveal a true sense of trauma that you've never unpacked.”

The importance of examining and processing trauma is also set to be a theme in Canton’s upcoming work, Hearts Stay Broken – a show she’s been working on for the last two years that tackles the subject of grief. Currently in development and set to premiere in 2023, Canton says the work will look at not only her own personal relationship to grief, but also the experience of collective grief as a community that has lived through Covid-19. 

“For me, I want the audience to feel like if they're not able to process something themselves, being a witness to somebody else processing it through a theatrical presentation of the stages of grief may help them learn something they can embody in their own lives. Because theatre can do that: we have an opportunity to suspend people's disbelief, and represent these narratives through the stories we tell.”

For Karunaharan, 2022 is set to be a busy one with an acting performance at Edinburgh International Festival in the next few months as well as a directing role in The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom premiering at Silo Theatre later this year. 

After almost two years of Covid-19 restrictions, he says he’s excited to get back to being on stage – and hopes people won’t forget the valuable role art played in getting us through some of the worst of the global pandemic.

“Art was deemed inessential during the pandemic, but it’s so essential," he says. "People express themselves through literature, people heal themselves through music… Artists have contributed to so many more aspects of our lives than most of us are aware of. Art provides comfort – it’s such an integral part of all our lives.”

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.

The power of art in exploring Asian identity

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.

For much of his childhood, Ahi Karunaharan grew up in Sri Lanka closely surrounded by family and friends. Living in a “massive old-school Sri Lankan-style house” with six or seven other families, he recalls how - as the youngest child of his parents at the time - he’d naturally assumed the position of “family clown”. 

But despite the seemingly light-hearted nature of the role, being the “family clown” assumed a lot of meaning for both Karunaharan and his audience – Sri Lanka at the time was engaged in a brutal civil war, sparked in large part by ethnic tensions between the country’s Sinhalese and Tamil citizens. The war would go on for the next 26 years, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

“It was the height of the civil war when I was living in Sri Lanka, and safety was really paramount because there was constantly warfare outside our door,” he says. “So storytelling, creating worlds, being in my imagination, and entertaining family and friends was a way to protect myself and to heal myself from what was happening out there at the time.”

As fighting progressed, Karunaharan and his family moved to New Zealand in the early 1990s where his creative pursuits expanded into theatre. Despite expectations to follow a more typical migrant success pathway, such as through accounting or engineering, Karunaharan knew the creative arts was where he belonged.

“When I finished uni, I worked for a couple years in the corporate world and realised the arts sector was where I needed to be,” he says. “I wasn't really sure what I was expecting to do, I just knew that being in this creative space made me feel good and gave me a sense of belonging that I couldn't find anywhere else. Theatre and the performing arts was a comfortable space. It was a space where you could feel heard, where you could feel that knowledge, and I just wanted to keep that feeling going.”

Today, Karunaharan is an award-winning director, playwright, screenwriter, producer and Arts Foundation Laureate (2020) with dozens of works under his belt. In many ways, his earliest desires to entertain and to heal through the arts has continued, fostering his own wellbeing but also that of his community with works presented through a south Asian lens, for a south Asian audience.

Ahi Karunaharan. Photo / Ankita Singh

His 2018 stage production Tea, for example, not only explored themes of home and belonging from a Sri Lankan perspective, but also brought to the fore many from the Sri Lankan community not often seen on the main stage. Karunaharan is also the founder of Agaram Productions, a South Asian production house championing alternative narratives and otherness in an arts landscape that’s historically excluded diverse cultural voices.

As New Zealand’s Asian population continues to grow at a rapid pace (and is expected to account for just over a quarter of the total population by 2043) having spaces created by and for Asian creatives to flourish is more important and necessary than ever. As a 2020 survey of Asian New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the arts found, a majority of respondents agreed that the arts contributed positively not only to their “sense of self, nationhood, and understanding of others”, but also to their personal wellbeing and mental health as well.

“There’s real power in seeing someone who looks like you, who's had experiences like you, being represented [in the arts],” says Rosabel Tan, founding editor of The Pantograph Punch and director of Satellites, a programme showcasing work by contemporary artists of the Asian diaspora in Aotearoa. “That feeling of being ‘seen’ and feeling that jolt of recognition… it can really make you feel less lonely and more connected to the world, and give you a stronger sense of belonging in this incredibly powerful way.”

“That's been the seed that's blossomed into work like Satellites, which has been about creating a space for Asian diaspora artists to really be their full, messy, complicated selves, and to not necessarily be confined to just their cultural identity or only represent some decorative element of their identity,” says Tan. 

“I really believe in how creative expression can have a gentle way of planting itself in your mind. It gives you permission to be more.”

Rosabel Tan. Photo / Ankita Singh

For theatre-maker and performer Alice Canton, providing spaces for alternative voices and narratives has also been crucial to her work. As an artist of Chinese descent, Canton has often explored themes around representation and identity, most notably with her award-winning work OTHER [chinese]. The live, documentary theatre show is built around workshops for members of the Chinese-identifying community to tell their stories, thereby painting a complex, multifaceted picture of what it means, feels and looks like to be Chinese in Aotearoa today. 

“Hearing all these different stories is incredibly moving, and it’s so wonderful seeing how participants change even from just attending the workshops,” says Canton. “You hear a whole spectrum of things you typically question in yourself, but because it's in a workshop, you're actually questioning with others. So it can be quite full on but in a really powerful way, which I think is amplified because it's a shared experience.

“It's really wild when someone shares an experience and then 10 other people are like 'that's literally how I felt as well but I've never been able to put my finger on it!’”

Sharing these experiences can also have a cathartic effect, especially when it comes to processing traumatic events such as racist bullying, says Canton - something which has worsened in the last few years with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment (particularly among those of Chinese descent) since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sharing these incidents out in the open can actually change their view of their experiences because other people can validate the emotions that they're maybe afraid to think about it,” she says. “For example, there’s the classic story of bringing a certain kind of food to school and getting made fun of, [because of] what you eat. It’s a story we hear all the time but I think some people haven’t processed how horrible it can be. These sorts of things can reveal a true sense of trauma that you've never unpacked.”

The importance of examining and processing trauma is also set to be a theme in Canton’s upcoming work, Hearts Stay Broken – a show she’s been working on for the last two years that tackles the subject of grief. Currently in development and set to premiere in 2023, Canton says the work will look at not only her own personal relationship to grief, but also the experience of collective grief as a community that has lived through Covid-19. 

“For me, I want the audience to feel like if they're not able to process something themselves, being a witness to somebody else processing it through a theatrical presentation of the stages of grief may help them learn something they can embody in their own lives. Because theatre can do that: we have an opportunity to suspend people's disbelief, and represent these narratives through the stories we tell.”

For Karunaharan, 2022 is set to be a busy one with an acting performance at Edinburgh International Festival in the next few months as well as a directing role in The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom premiering at Silo Theatre later this year. 

After almost two years of Covid-19 restrictions, he says he’s excited to get back to being on stage – and hopes people won’t forget the valuable role art played in getting us through some of the worst of the global pandemic.

“Art was deemed inessential during the pandemic, but it’s so essential," he says. "People express themselves through literature, people heal themselves through music… Artists have contributed to so many more aspects of our lives than most of us are aware of. Art provides comfort – it’s such an integral part of all our lives.”

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.
Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program

The power of art in exploring Asian identity

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.

For much of his childhood, Ahi Karunaharan grew up in Sri Lanka closely surrounded by family and friends. Living in a “massive old-school Sri Lankan-style house” with six or seven other families, he recalls how - as the youngest child of his parents at the time - he’d naturally assumed the position of “family clown”. 

But despite the seemingly light-hearted nature of the role, being the “family clown” assumed a lot of meaning for both Karunaharan and his audience – Sri Lanka at the time was engaged in a brutal civil war, sparked in large part by ethnic tensions between the country’s Sinhalese and Tamil citizens. The war would go on for the next 26 years, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

“It was the height of the civil war when I was living in Sri Lanka, and safety was really paramount because there was constantly warfare outside our door,” he says. “So storytelling, creating worlds, being in my imagination, and entertaining family and friends was a way to protect myself and to heal myself from what was happening out there at the time.”

As fighting progressed, Karunaharan and his family moved to New Zealand in the early 1990s where his creative pursuits expanded into theatre. Despite expectations to follow a more typical migrant success pathway, such as through accounting or engineering, Karunaharan knew the creative arts was where he belonged.

“When I finished uni, I worked for a couple years in the corporate world and realised the arts sector was where I needed to be,” he says. “I wasn't really sure what I was expecting to do, I just knew that being in this creative space made me feel good and gave me a sense of belonging that I couldn't find anywhere else. Theatre and the performing arts was a comfortable space. It was a space where you could feel heard, where you could feel that knowledge, and I just wanted to keep that feeling going.”

Today, Karunaharan is an award-winning director, playwright, screenwriter, producer and Arts Foundation Laureate (2020) with dozens of works under his belt. In many ways, his earliest desires to entertain and to heal through the arts has continued, fostering his own wellbeing but also that of his community with works presented through a south Asian lens, for a south Asian audience.

Ahi Karunaharan. Photo / Ankita Singh

His 2018 stage production Tea, for example, not only explored themes of home and belonging from a Sri Lankan perspective, but also brought to the fore many from the Sri Lankan community not often seen on the main stage. Karunaharan is also the founder of Agaram Productions, a South Asian production house championing alternative narratives and otherness in an arts landscape that’s historically excluded diverse cultural voices.

As New Zealand’s Asian population continues to grow at a rapid pace (and is expected to account for just over a quarter of the total population by 2043) having spaces created by and for Asian creatives to flourish is more important and necessary than ever. As a 2020 survey of Asian New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the arts found, a majority of respondents agreed that the arts contributed positively not only to their “sense of self, nationhood, and understanding of others”, but also to their personal wellbeing and mental health as well.

“There’s real power in seeing someone who looks like you, who's had experiences like you, being represented [in the arts],” says Rosabel Tan, founding editor of The Pantograph Punch and director of Satellites, a programme showcasing work by contemporary artists of the Asian diaspora in Aotearoa. “That feeling of being ‘seen’ and feeling that jolt of recognition… it can really make you feel less lonely and more connected to the world, and give you a stronger sense of belonging in this incredibly powerful way.”

“That's been the seed that's blossomed into work like Satellites, which has been about creating a space for Asian diaspora artists to really be their full, messy, complicated selves, and to not necessarily be confined to just their cultural identity or only represent some decorative element of their identity,” says Tan. 

“I really believe in how creative expression can have a gentle way of planting itself in your mind. It gives you permission to be more.”

Rosabel Tan. Photo / Ankita Singh

For theatre-maker and performer Alice Canton, providing spaces for alternative voices and narratives has also been crucial to her work. As an artist of Chinese descent, Canton has often explored themes around representation and identity, most notably with her award-winning work OTHER [chinese]. The live, documentary theatre show is built around workshops for members of the Chinese-identifying community to tell their stories, thereby painting a complex, multifaceted picture of what it means, feels and looks like to be Chinese in Aotearoa today. 

“Hearing all these different stories is incredibly moving, and it’s so wonderful seeing how participants change even from just attending the workshops,” says Canton. “You hear a whole spectrum of things you typically question in yourself, but because it's in a workshop, you're actually questioning with others. So it can be quite full on but in a really powerful way, which I think is amplified because it's a shared experience.

“It's really wild when someone shares an experience and then 10 other people are like 'that's literally how I felt as well but I've never been able to put my finger on it!’”

Sharing these experiences can also have a cathartic effect, especially when it comes to processing traumatic events such as racist bullying, says Canton - something which has worsened in the last few years with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment (particularly among those of Chinese descent) since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sharing these incidents out in the open can actually change their view of their experiences because other people can validate the emotions that they're maybe afraid to think about it,” she says. “For example, there’s the classic story of bringing a certain kind of food to school and getting made fun of, [because of] what you eat. It’s a story we hear all the time but I think some people haven’t processed how horrible it can be. These sorts of things can reveal a true sense of trauma that you've never unpacked.”

The importance of examining and processing trauma is also set to be a theme in Canton’s upcoming work, Hearts Stay Broken – a show she’s been working on for the last two years that tackles the subject of grief. Currently in development and set to premiere in 2023, Canton says the work will look at not only her own personal relationship to grief, but also the experience of collective grief as a community that has lived through Covid-19. 

“For me, I want the audience to feel like if they're not able to process something themselves, being a witness to somebody else processing it through a theatrical presentation of the stages of grief may help them learn something they can embody in their own lives. Because theatre can do that: we have an opportunity to suspend people's disbelief, and represent these narratives through the stories we tell.”

For Karunaharan, 2022 is set to be a busy one with an acting performance at Edinburgh International Festival in the next few months as well as a directing role in The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom premiering at Silo Theatre later this year. 

After almost two years of Covid-19 restrictions, he says he’s excited to get back to being on stage – and hopes people won’t forget the valuable role art played in getting us through some of the worst of the global pandemic.

“Art was deemed inessential during the pandemic, but it’s so essential," he says. "People express themselves through literature, people heal themselves through music… Artists have contributed to so many more aspects of our lives than most of us are aware of. Art provides comfort – it’s such an integral part of all our lives.”

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.

For much of his childhood, Ahi Karunaharan grew up in Sri Lanka closely surrounded by family and friends. Living in a “massive old-school Sri Lankan-style house” with six or seven other families, he recalls how - as the youngest child of his parents at the time - he’d naturally assumed the position of “family clown”. 

But despite the seemingly light-hearted nature of the role, being the “family clown” assumed a lot of meaning for both Karunaharan and his audience – Sri Lanka at the time was engaged in a brutal civil war, sparked in large part by ethnic tensions between the country’s Sinhalese and Tamil citizens. The war would go on for the next 26 years, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

“It was the height of the civil war when I was living in Sri Lanka, and safety was really paramount because there was constantly warfare outside our door,” he says. “So storytelling, creating worlds, being in my imagination, and entertaining family and friends was a way to protect myself and to heal myself from what was happening out there at the time.”

As fighting progressed, Karunaharan and his family moved to New Zealand in the early 1990s where his creative pursuits expanded into theatre. Despite expectations to follow a more typical migrant success pathway, such as through accounting or engineering, Karunaharan knew the creative arts was where he belonged.

“When I finished uni, I worked for a couple years in the corporate world and realised the arts sector was where I needed to be,” he says. “I wasn't really sure what I was expecting to do, I just knew that being in this creative space made me feel good and gave me a sense of belonging that I couldn't find anywhere else. Theatre and the performing arts was a comfortable space. It was a space where you could feel heard, where you could feel that knowledge, and I just wanted to keep that feeling going.”

Today, Karunaharan is an award-winning director, playwright, screenwriter, producer and Arts Foundation Laureate (2020) with dozens of works under his belt. In many ways, his earliest desires to entertain and to heal through the arts has continued, fostering his own wellbeing but also that of his community with works presented through a south Asian lens, for a south Asian audience.

Ahi Karunaharan. Photo / Ankita Singh

His 2018 stage production Tea, for example, not only explored themes of home and belonging from a Sri Lankan perspective, but also brought to the fore many from the Sri Lankan community not often seen on the main stage. Karunaharan is also the founder of Agaram Productions, a South Asian production house championing alternative narratives and otherness in an arts landscape that’s historically excluded diverse cultural voices.

As New Zealand’s Asian population continues to grow at a rapid pace (and is expected to account for just over a quarter of the total population by 2043) having spaces created by and for Asian creatives to flourish is more important and necessary than ever. As a 2020 survey of Asian New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the arts found, a majority of respondents agreed that the arts contributed positively not only to their “sense of self, nationhood, and understanding of others”, but also to their personal wellbeing and mental health as well.

“There’s real power in seeing someone who looks like you, who's had experiences like you, being represented [in the arts],” says Rosabel Tan, founding editor of The Pantograph Punch and director of Satellites, a programme showcasing work by contemporary artists of the Asian diaspora in Aotearoa. “That feeling of being ‘seen’ and feeling that jolt of recognition… it can really make you feel less lonely and more connected to the world, and give you a stronger sense of belonging in this incredibly powerful way.”

“That's been the seed that's blossomed into work like Satellites, which has been about creating a space for Asian diaspora artists to really be their full, messy, complicated selves, and to not necessarily be confined to just their cultural identity or only represent some decorative element of their identity,” says Tan. 

“I really believe in how creative expression can have a gentle way of planting itself in your mind. It gives you permission to be more.”

Rosabel Tan. Photo / Ankita Singh

For theatre-maker and performer Alice Canton, providing spaces for alternative voices and narratives has also been crucial to her work. As an artist of Chinese descent, Canton has often explored themes around representation and identity, most notably with her award-winning work OTHER [chinese]. The live, documentary theatre show is built around workshops for members of the Chinese-identifying community to tell their stories, thereby painting a complex, multifaceted picture of what it means, feels and looks like to be Chinese in Aotearoa today. 

“Hearing all these different stories is incredibly moving, and it’s so wonderful seeing how participants change even from just attending the workshops,” says Canton. “You hear a whole spectrum of things you typically question in yourself, but because it's in a workshop, you're actually questioning with others. So it can be quite full on but in a really powerful way, which I think is amplified because it's a shared experience.

“It's really wild when someone shares an experience and then 10 other people are like 'that's literally how I felt as well but I've never been able to put my finger on it!’”

Sharing these experiences can also have a cathartic effect, especially when it comes to processing traumatic events such as racist bullying, says Canton - something which has worsened in the last few years with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment (particularly among those of Chinese descent) since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sharing these incidents out in the open can actually change their view of their experiences because other people can validate the emotions that they're maybe afraid to think about it,” she says. “For example, there’s the classic story of bringing a certain kind of food to school and getting made fun of, [because of] what you eat. It’s a story we hear all the time but I think some people haven’t processed how horrible it can be. These sorts of things can reveal a true sense of trauma that you've never unpacked.”

The importance of examining and processing trauma is also set to be a theme in Canton’s upcoming work, Hearts Stay Broken – a show she’s been working on for the last two years that tackles the subject of grief. Currently in development and set to premiere in 2023, Canton says the work will look at not only her own personal relationship to grief, but also the experience of collective grief as a community that has lived through Covid-19. 

“For me, I want the audience to feel like if they're not able to process something themselves, being a witness to somebody else processing it through a theatrical presentation of the stages of grief may help them learn something they can embody in their own lives. Because theatre can do that: we have an opportunity to suspend people's disbelief, and represent these narratives through the stories we tell.”

For Karunaharan, 2022 is set to be a busy one with an acting performance at Edinburgh International Festival in the next few months as well as a directing role in The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom premiering at Silo Theatre later this year. 

After almost two years of Covid-19 restrictions, he says he’s excited to get back to being on stage – and hopes people won’t forget the valuable role art played in getting us through some of the worst of the global pandemic.

“Art was deemed inessential during the pandemic, but it’s so essential," he says. "People express themselves through literature, people heal themselves through music… Artists have contributed to so many more aspects of our lives than most of us are aware of. Art provides comfort – it’s such an integral part of all our lives.”

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.

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Creativity, evocative visual storytelling and good journalism come at a price. Support our work and join the Ensemble membership program

The power of art in exploring Asian identity

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.

For much of his childhood, Ahi Karunaharan grew up in Sri Lanka closely surrounded by family and friends. Living in a “massive old-school Sri Lankan-style house” with six or seven other families, he recalls how - as the youngest child of his parents at the time - he’d naturally assumed the position of “family clown”. 

But despite the seemingly light-hearted nature of the role, being the “family clown” assumed a lot of meaning for both Karunaharan and his audience – Sri Lanka at the time was engaged in a brutal civil war, sparked in large part by ethnic tensions between the country’s Sinhalese and Tamil citizens. The war would go on for the next 26 years, claiming more than 100,000 lives.

“It was the height of the civil war when I was living in Sri Lanka, and safety was really paramount because there was constantly warfare outside our door,” he says. “So storytelling, creating worlds, being in my imagination, and entertaining family and friends was a way to protect myself and to heal myself from what was happening out there at the time.”

As fighting progressed, Karunaharan and his family moved to New Zealand in the early 1990s where his creative pursuits expanded into theatre. Despite expectations to follow a more typical migrant success pathway, such as through accounting or engineering, Karunaharan knew the creative arts was where he belonged.

“When I finished uni, I worked for a couple years in the corporate world and realised the arts sector was where I needed to be,” he says. “I wasn't really sure what I was expecting to do, I just knew that being in this creative space made me feel good and gave me a sense of belonging that I couldn't find anywhere else. Theatre and the performing arts was a comfortable space. It was a space where you could feel heard, where you could feel that knowledge, and I just wanted to keep that feeling going.”

Today, Karunaharan is an award-winning director, playwright, screenwriter, producer and Arts Foundation Laureate (2020) with dozens of works under his belt. In many ways, his earliest desires to entertain and to heal through the arts has continued, fostering his own wellbeing but also that of his community with works presented through a south Asian lens, for a south Asian audience.

Ahi Karunaharan. Photo / Ankita Singh

His 2018 stage production Tea, for example, not only explored themes of home and belonging from a Sri Lankan perspective, but also brought to the fore many from the Sri Lankan community not often seen on the main stage. Karunaharan is also the founder of Agaram Productions, a South Asian production house championing alternative narratives and otherness in an arts landscape that’s historically excluded diverse cultural voices.

As New Zealand’s Asian population continues to grow at a rapid pace (and is expected to account for just over a quarter of the total population by 2043) having spaces created by and for Asian creatives to flourish is more important and necessary than ever. As a 2020 survey of Asian New Zealanders’ attitudes towards the arts found, a majority of respondents agreed that the arts contributed positively not only to their “sense of self, nationhood, and understanding of others”, but also to their personal wellbeing and mental health as well.

“There’s real power in seeing someone who looks like you, who's had experiences like you, being represented [in the arts],” says Rosabel Tan, founding editor of The Pantograph Punch and director of Satellites, a programme showcasing work by contemporary artists of the Asian diaspora in Aotearoa. “That feeling of being ‘seen’ and feeling that jolt of recognition… it can really make you feel less lonely and more connected to the world, and give you a stronger sense of belonging in this incredibly powerful way.”

“That's been the seed that's blossomed into work like Satellites, which has been about creating a space for Asian diaspora artists to really be their full, messy, complicated selves, and to not necessarily be confined to just their cultural identity or only represent some decorative element of their identity,” says Tan. 

“I really believe in how creative expression can have a gentle way of planting itself in your mind. It gives you permission to be more.”

Rosabel Tan. Photo / Ankita Singh

For theatre-maker and performer Alice Canton, providing spaces for alternative voices and narratives has also been crucial to her work. As an artist of Chinese descent, Canton has often explored themes around representation and identity, most notably with her award-winning work OTHER [chinese]. The live, documentary theatre show is built around workshops for members of the Chinese-identifying community to tell their stories, thereby painting a complex, multifaceted picture of what it means, feels and looks like to be Chinese in Aotearoa today. 

“Hearing all these different stories is incredibly moving, and it’s so wonderful seeing how participants change even from just attending the workshops,” says Canton. “You hear a whole spectrum of things you typically question in yourself, but because it's in a workshop, you're actually questioning with others. So it can be quite full on but in a really powerful way, which I think is amplified because it's a shared experience.

“It's really wild when someone shares an experience and then 10 other people are like 'that's literally how I felt as well but I've never been able to put my finger on it!’”

Sharing these experiences can also have a cathartic effect, especially when it comes to processing traumatic events such as racist bullying, says Canton - something which has worsened in the last few years with the rise of anti-Asian sentiment (particularly among those of Chinese descent) since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Sharing these incidents out in the open can actually change their view of their experiences because other people can validate the emotions that they're maybe afraid to think about it,” she says. “For example, there’s the classic story of bringing a certain kind of food to school and getting made fun of, [because of] what you eat. It’s a story we hear all the time but I think some people haven’t processed how horrible it can be. These sorts of things can reveal a true sense of trauma that you've never unpacked.”

The importance of examining and processing trauma is also set to be a theme in Canton’s upcoming work, Hearts Stay Broken – a show she’s been working on for the last two years that tackles the subject of grief. Currently in development and set to premiere in 2023, Canton says the work will look at not only her own personal relationship to grief, but also the experience of collective grief as a community that has lived through Covid-19. 

“For me, I want the audience to feel like if they're not able to process something themselves, being a witness to somebody else processing it through a theatrical presentation of the stages of grief may help them learn something they can embody in their own lives. Because theatre can do that: we have an opportunity to suspend people's disbelief, and represent these narratives through the stories we tell.”

For Karunaharan, 2022 is set to be a busy one with an acting performance at Edinburgh International Festival in the next few months as well as a directing role in The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom premiering at Silo Theatre later this year. 

After almost two years of Covid-19 restrictions, he says he’s excited to get back to being on stage – and hopes people won’t forget the valuable role art played in getting us through some of the worst of the global pandemic.

“Art was deemed inessential during the pandemic, but it’s so essential," he says. "People express themselves through literature, people heal themselves through music… Artists have contributed to so many more aspects of our lives than most of us are aware of. Art provides comfort – it’s such an integral part of all our lives.”

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
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