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15 Dec 2023

Reflections from Creative Waikato Board Chair Sam Cunnane: The art of listening and connecting

You’d be hard-pressed to find many people at the moment who would argue with you if you said that there are a lot of things people disagree on currently. Reflecting on this has left me pondering artworks and protest signs; what makes them similar and how they differ.

When I think of the successful art works I have made (although to be fair, it’s been a while since I turned my hand and mind to that), or the works that I have guided students in the making of, or the works that have maintained my enduring interest, all have elements of subtlety, often ambiguity. They don’t give you everything up front on first listening or watching or viewing. In a way, they build a relationship with you, giving a little of themselves, asking you to invest a bit more of yourself, then in turn giving you more.

By and large, protest signs aren’t intended to develop a connection like that, but instead aim to get their message across quickly, with power and immediacy. They are less about building a relationship with their audience than sharing a message directly and clearly. Literally, they are more black and white in their approach.

Art works and protest signs have an important role in our current world. However, we need both. In an increasingly fractured world, it’s all too easy for us to retreat behind our protest signs, or our keyboards, and fail to engage with each other with the subtlety and care that enable us to build relationships that endure.

Now, let me be clear, I am not in any way suggesting that injustice, whether it is happening here in Aotearoa, or in Gaza, or any place in between, should not be called out. And I’m also definitely not saying that we should not raise signs and banners in protest – we should.

However, when trying to formulate a response to the injustices that are happening throughout the world, I find myself unable to see a way through using any approach other than seeking to build connections, whakawhanaungatanga. Only by listening to each other and establishing respect-based relationships can we together build a way forward, a way that not only preserves, but also enhances, the humanity, the mana, of all parties involved.

I recently managed to catch a brief snippet of a RNZ interview with Ana Heremaia, Jo Walsh and Felicity Brenchley from Ākau studio, who noted:

“I think that might be our superhero skill: we’re better at listening than we are at talking.”

These may not be the kind of heroes we want at this time, but I think they’re probably the kind we need.

By Creative Waikato Board Chair Sam Cunnane

Artwork by Lucie Blaževská as part of the Kotahitanga collection