Catching up with the Kava Club – ( an interview with Leilani A Visesio )

Kava Club is a Pacific and Māori arts collective based in Wellington which holds monthly arts events in the capital for artists and community. Kava club creatives work across different artforms including music, dance, theatre, inter-arts, film, visual arts and multidisciplinary. The events take place all over the city at various venues, from art galleries to open spaces to bars and the street. I like to think of them as my peeps in Wellington. They look like me, sound like me and are interested in the same things I am interested in. I also love an excuse to get together with good folks to eat island food. They have gatherings called chop suey hui that explore themes relating to our lived realities. Themes like ‘$25 and a dream’ and “Ten Guitars – celebrating Pasifika & Māori Musika”. They’ve even let me, an islander from the bogan outlands drop some knowledge at a couple of gatherings. Here we talk with one of the originators, Leilani.

Hey you the chop suey crew

Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

My name is Leilani Angela Visesio. I was born in Tamaki Makaurau, later we moved down to Welly and moved around a bit until we settled in Strathmore, where my Mum and brothers still live in a 3 bedroom state house overlooking the airport and Lyall Bay from one side of the hill and behind them Breaker Bay. My Mum came to Aotearoa in 1966 when she was only 20 years old because she had a broken heart. The love of her life contracted tuberculosis and she nursed him until he passed. She continued her training as a nurse when she settled in Wellington at Bowen Hospital but had more babies besides me and momentarily stopped as life started to get in the way of her career. She’s my inspiration.

What inspires your community organising?

In Samoan culture we have a concept called ‘tautua’, where you serve your family, village and so forth. If you are a leader then ‘to lead is to serve’. My first exposure to activists on the fringes outside the mainstream was when I was a member of a Wellington punk band called Loosehead , I was in my mid 20s. I encountered anarcha fems amongst other things and met cool people like Lyn and Ross, Kieran aka Mr Sterile Assembly. Then I had my tangata whenua mates like La, Carmen and Marz who were all pretty staunch in their Maoritanga. I joined a takataapui kapa haka group called He Manu Ano for a bit and so forth. I watched my mum and her interactions with our immediate community as I was growing up. Anything she had to give to somebody who needed it, she did it – without question or expectation of reciprocation. If she thought something or somebody was being ethically fucked she’d call it. Even if it meant losing a friendship over it. She could not stand injustice.

Is there a crossover between your DJ work and community organising?

Definitely! I’ve been doing it for 20 odd years now and it’s a tool in my bag of tricks that I’ve always used for community. I was a founding member of Box Events (now Box Oceania)and we use to do parties and would choose a non-profit to give the proceeds to. I thought it was a good way to one-up capitalist gay stream and privileged queers, but also to challenge other Box members, rather than complaining about the lack of spaces for brown queers, and the lack of creativity in the queer scene we can create things for ourselves. My Mum comes from a place where butter and bread are considered a luxury, so I think what it’s instilled in me is this unwavering belief that you can create something out of essentially nothing.

50 Shades of Brown at 17 Tory Street
50 Shades of Brown at 17 Tory Street

How did the Kava club come about?

Partly me challenging Herbee to focus his energy outside of his job at the time, because I know it was hard for him dealing with the institutional racism where he was and partly me being a hustler, but it really started to develop with other people present at our very first meeting at 17 Tory St in the city about two years ago. Kava Club began to be fleshed out of ideas that had come from people who had turned up to an ‘open meeting’ we held.

What do you love most about working with the Kava club crew?

Not having to always take the lead, hearing other people’s ideas and opinions on stuff and just genuinely catching up when we haven’t seen each other in aeons. Also, seeing what everybody is doing with their own art practice or community engagement. They’re like family.

February 2015 - The Brave at Hannah Playhouse.
The Brave at Hannah Playhouse.

How do ya’ come up with the different themes?

Art Not War

It’s really spontaneous sometimes or somebody may have an idea they’ve been working on for a bit and need other people to help develop it. Or somebody has a firm idea and we all support it…it changes all the time but I love how Kava Club is 100% most of the time open to whatever.

Native Shit

Ya’ll won a Wellington Airport Regional Community Award could you tell us a bit about that?

We won up and coming new group, I think because we are ‘Arts’ based some of us felt a bit shallow in comparison to some of the other community groups but hey we worked our butts off and what we do is important. One of the main goals from our inception was to create ‘brown’ spaces in the inner city where Māori / Pasifika artists, students and community can hang, while providing a platform that allows us to inspire and teach each other. I think we’ve achieved some of those goals, and some of them changed due to Kava Club being a developing entity, growing organically as we mosey along. We really did want more youth on board but what’s happened is that they come and go which is cool too, currently Kava Club is a core group but we’re always open to new people joining. I guess it’s healthy.

photo credit: Mishelle Muagututi’a

What sort of projects are you working on at the moment?

I’m happy to be supporting an initiative led by Kassie called Paiaka. Paiaka is a community project starting up in Te Whanganui-a-Tara this year that aims to connect people with the whenua, with knowledge and tools, and most importantly, with each other. It’s cool to see younger people trying to refine the art of resistance and what that entails.

Kava Club is also currently working on a Creative NZ funded six month program which will take us into 2017. We recently just finished doing a reading of a play called Fale Sa for actor/director Nathaniel Lees which was a first for us, considering none of us are trained-actors, it was a pretty cool exercise. It deals with christianity and pre-missionary beliefs, and I look forward to seeing it debut in the not too distant future.

Luisa Tora, Ana Te Whaiti and Molly Rangiwai McHale are bringing down an exhibition to coincide with Pride next March, 2017. I’m helping fellow Kava Club member Jamie Berry to host and support those guys. Luisa talks about that exhibition in the Pasefika issue of Fightback. Plug, plug lol, there’s also an interview with Teanau in it hahaha. Oh and that’s the first time I’ve put the ‘editor’ hat on. I’ve got a few other things on the back burner for the new year also which I can take my time developing and for 2018 I will be putting on a ‘new’ hat but I’m not allowed to talk about it beyond that lolz.

How are our struggles connected? How do we build solidarity?

I recently watched a documentary on Gully Queens in Jamaica. The transphobia and homophobia there is mind-blowing but there was a guy in there advocating on behalf of the gully queens who was a rich queen, and he was asked by the interviewer why was he doing it because he was financially okay and deemed socially acceptable by society by Jamaican standards, and he said the Gully Queens were the touchstone of how far the LGBTQI movement had progressed in Jamaica and that as long as the Gully Queens were treated like scum then rich queens like himself are not and never will be truly free.

Isn’t solidarity something that is inherent in people of colour around the globe?  I have my culture and who I am to always guide me it’s interesting to see how everybody relates with each other and helps each other out on things that matter to them. Sometimes I think it’s a bit bald headed and clinical the way some groups work but I guess they can’t help that because of who they are.

Can you tell us about a moment of solidarity (between communities of colour in Aotearoa) that inspires you?

I find this hard to answer because one, I’m partly not aware of all the groups that are out there and two I’ve never visibly seen many communities of colour working together for eg ‘upping the refugee quota’, but first and foremost my go to is well what do tangata whenua think and feel about an issue, and I let that be my guide on whether I can put my hand up to help or whatevs. Somebody mentioned to me ‘Standing Rock…’ but all I’ve seen is people saying they support the movement, I haven’t actively seen groups working together towards a specific goal. The last cool thing for me was the Polynesian Panthers and Bastion Point, just cool to see Pacific peeps not buying into the bullshit and supporting our natives here.

Panthers @ Coconut Grove 2016
Panthers @ Coconut Grove 2016

How can people connect with the group?

Come to one of our monthly Chop Suey Hui events, PM us on FB, email us Most of us are quite approachable lolz.