BY JENNIFER CHEUK
The conversation around mental health is progressing in Aotearoa, but unfortunately there are still undertones of stigmatisation. Atawhai is a festival that hopes to bring together a community of artists, writers, humans to decrease the stigmatised mindsets around mental health. Roughly translating to ‘care’ or ‘showing kindness’, Atawhai supports artists with “lived experiences”. The festival seeks to broaden our sense of community and produce positive engagement around the discussion of mental health. There is a sense of discomfort that still pervades conversations about mental health. However, with more movements such as Atawhai taking place, we can create an artistic community that will openly support a diverse range of issues .
Gemishka Chetty, the production manager of Atawhai, is working to make mental health a “more inclusive, personable issue” that everyone can relate to. Gemishka, although young, has already established herself as a known artist who gives a voice to minorities. She intends to “assist in allowing important messages to become visible to a wider audience, with the aim of de-stigmatising, supporting and celebrating difference”. As a young creative, Gemishka became involved in Atawhai to increase awareness around issues that she had personally experienced, saying, “I related to the issue because it wasn’t just me it was my friends who struggled with this and I don’t want to lose people, I don’t want to lose my friends, I don’t want to see the statistics rise in NZ.” Framing the festival around the arts allows for a genuinely “interactive and immersive” environment. This festival is not a cold, informative lecture about mental health, it is a celebration of art and people and communities. It is the nuanced difference between being talked at and talked to.
Atawhai creates a space for people to be comfortable about mental health, but it is more than just that. Mental health is not the sole purpose of this festival. Atawhai is not about claiming improved awareness, it is about doing it, about “bringing artists, bringing audiences together…to say: ‘hey, let’s look after our whanau, let’s build a stronger community'”. Creating a stronger community is the first step towards lowering the statistics. It is impossible de-stigmatise mental health if we do not bring people together, if we do not create a space where we can ask ‘are you okay?’ or ‘can we help?’. Gemishka really feels that establishing a more supportive community is a crucial stepping stone to progress.
Unfortunately, society has shifted towards a more reclusive and self-oriented outlook, enforcing the idea that mental health is a private problem, to be unspoken of and solved by oneself. Atawhai will change this. “We are making a community out there for you, don’t be afraid to reach out,” Gemishka comments. Through the arts industry, Gemishka hopes to see people express their stories and experiences. She says, “I think the only way to get rid of that judgement and stigmatisation is to really just say it out in the open. The more people start saying it the less judgement there will be.”
Gemishka concludes the interview with a message for our readers: “Really know that you are not alone, there’s always a space to say you’re not okay, you are never alone. And if you ever want to talk you [can] come talk to us. We’ll be there”.
Atawhai is a festival hoping to bring greater positive awareness to mental health in Aotearoa. Started by Borney and Changing Minds, the 4th iteration of this festival will be held between the 17th September to 27th October. Check it out here!
JENNIFER CHEUK is an English/Communications and Linguistics major with a passion for graphic novels and sophisticated picture books. She likes eating grated cheese and watching niche films. Can be found cartooning and writing on Instagram: @selcouthbird.
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