BY all accounts the opening of Ihipera Mahuika's first solo exhibition was a resounding success. There were speeches, there were friends and whānau out in droves, and there was kai. Lots and lots of kai.
The feedback and aroha were awesome, says Ihipera, and she's earned it. To get to opening night, Ihipera first had to take control of the voices, shouting from the pulpit of a long-term mental illness (paranoid schizophrenia), that were dominating her life.
“I'd always heard the 'good' voices – ones that connect me to who I am – that I refer to as my 'gift',” says Ihipera who is Ngati Hamoa/Ngāti Porou. “But then the negative ones got too loud.”
To help her drown out those voices, Ihipera was admitted into psychiatric in-patient unit Te Whare Awhiora after her first psychotic episode at the end of 2007. In 2011 she was referred to Kenepuru Rehabilitation in Wellington, where she spent a couple of years addressing her addictions to marijuana and alcohol. Then from 2014 she finally dealt with her addiction to cigarettes when she accepted help from Tūranga Health's community-based Whānau Ora Mental Health Team.
Depressed, unmotivated and sick of having her life derailed by negative voices, Ihipera worked hard to get back on track with both her support team and whānau working together to help her manage medication, keep clinical appointments, live a healthy lifestyle, and work her way back to her independence . . . and her art.
“When she came to us in 2014 the voices were still dominating to the point where she couldn't really live independently and could not follow her life's passion,” says then Tūranga Health community support worker, Kay Walker, who together with colleague, Stella Rihari, worked closely with Ihipera and her whānau.
“So before her discharge four years later it was our role to help her get back in charge. Ihipera's strength was that she was determined to get out of – and stay out of – the dark places she had been so worked hard on every aspect of her care, including developing her own strategies to cope.”
After discharge there is always a plan to make sure whānau have wrap-around support so they can flourish in the community while knowing that, if anything goes wrong, Tūranga Health is always there, Kay says.
“With the support of both Tūranga Health and whānau, Ihipera managed her own journey back to wellness and to her art. I think she is amazing.”
Coincidentally, Ihipera's mum Maria Samoa also works with the Tūranga Health mental health team. As her mother, it was not appropriate that they work together but Maria was close by as her daughter developed, both as a person and as an artist. “We are so proud of our girl,” Maria says, “and so privileged to have the support of Kay and Stella, who still make special time for her, even though she has been formally discharged. The team has supported me as much as my daughter.”
Ihipera's solo exhibition My Journey: Gifted Voices, was in two parts; the earlier pieces she did while working in the studio at the Toihoukura school of Māori art (where she had previously studied); the newer ones were created in her own studio at Tautua Village, a new creative space to support Māori and Pacific youth.
“When I was at Toihoukura, (Associate Professor) Steve Gibbs taught me how to put my life on canvas, and (then tutor) Mike Tupaea helped me develop my contemporary Māori/Pasifika style,” she says. “So these works represent my life up until now.”
And Steve says the Toihoukura whānau welcomed seeing Ihipera's return – even though she had completed her certificate.
“This was a good example of how engagement in art, in particular painting, creates an important aspect of healing,” he says. “The tragedy is that, for artists, real life can get in the way and disrupt that engagement, but Ihipera showed the commitment, sacrifice and discipline crucial to being a working artist.”
Ihipera says she draws strength from both her father's Ngāti Porou (Māori) heritage and her mother's Ngati Hamoa (Samoan), but while she has spent plenty of time at her father's Tūrangawaewae at Whakawhitirā (East Coast), she is yet to have travelled to Samoa.
“Especially because I use a lot of those Samoan patterns in my art, it is a big goal for me to get there,” she says.
“Working with Kay and Stella, and the Tūranga Health team showed me how I can reach my goals, and even today I know they will always have my back.”
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