19 May 2024

Bringing an indigenous house of storytelling alive in Ōtautahi: Juanita Hepi

From Culture 101, 2:20 pm on 19 May 2024
Juanira Hepi and Ngaio Cowell at Te Whare Tapere. Sculpture by Riki Manuel.

Juanira Hepi and Ngaio Cowell at Te Whare Tapere. Sculpture by Riki Manuel. Photo: supplied

Te Whare Tapere in the Christchurch Arts Centre is neither a European-style gallery or theatre. As a space principally by Māori, for Māori, it is, says co-founder artist Juanita Hepi, “a multidisciplinary, indigenous house of storytelling.”

Te Whare Tapere was the name given by Māori before the arrival of the European to such community houses of storytelling, dance, music, puppets, games and other artforms.

This week that concept comes further to life with a performance week Te Whare Tapere Live, from 21 to 25 May, featuring an array of waiata, storytelling, sharing, and performance at the art centre’s new performance space Altiera. 

Included is a night of extracts from Whiti Hereaka’s play Te Kaupoi that Hepi is performing in: “a tense political drama set in the near future where Māori bear the brunt of blame for civil unrest and are labelled “terrorists”.

True, you couldn’t get more European than the architecture of the grand old restored Christchurch Arts Centre, making the presence of Te Whare Tapere as a counter arguably all the more apt. A carving by Riki Manuel guards Te Whare’s entrance.

The centre is host to a wide range of important community and arts initiatives in Ōtautahi, and currently in a battle with Christchurch City Council for funding recognising its community work . 

Te Whare Tapere was founded in September 2023 with Hepi and fellow artist Ngaio Cowell. They opened the space with the walls coloured by soils from Redcliffs, Rāpaki, Tuahiwi in north Canterbury, and even a hangi pit used in the Arts Centre for Matariki celebrations. Local artists, rangatahi and tamariki wrote their names and aspirations on the walls.

Hepi is a multidisciplinary storyteller. She holds a Masters of Māori and Indigenous Leadership with Distinction, is a graduate from Toi Whakaari, the NZ Drama School and has performed with The Court Theatre, Auckland Theatre Company, Bats and Shakespeare’s Globe.