True Colours

Shannon Novak aims to create safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community through his art and activism. We talk to him about his latest show.

Shannon Novak aims to create safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community through his art and activism. We talk to him about his latest show.

Aotearoa artist and activist Shannon Novak is focused on creating a world where the LGBTQI+* community can live without fear. Through his work, he actively seeks to help reduce anxiety, depression and suicide rates for the LGBTQI+ community worldwide.

Shannon founded the Safe Space Alliance, a global LGBTQI+ led non-profit organisation that aims to help people identify, navigate and create safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community. It started as
a project in Nelson, spread to other New Zealand cities, then extended across the globe. Museums and galleries have joined from around the world, including the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (New York City), Institute of Contemporary Art (Boston), and Museum of London.

Shannon has developed work for institutions, festivals and public spaces both in Aotearoa and around the world, including China and the USA. His talents span painting, photography, installation and sculpture, and the art is often found in non-traditional exhibition spaces. Therefore, it’s no surprise that his latest exhibition Mānawatia Takatāpui / Defending Plurality not only fills the atrium of the Tauranga Art Gallery, and spills out to the street, but also appears in a variety of locations around the city (including Our Place — end of this story).

Here, Shannon tells us more about the background to the exhibition and what he hopes to achieve, plus talks about how our whole community can be involved and lend its support.

Shannon Novak, Fluid Flag, 2021 (in foreground), Paul Darragh, Vogue, 2021.

What’s the idea behind the current exhibition?

This exhibition Mānawatia Mānawatia Takatāpui / Defending Plurality makes space for the
LGBTQI+ community and centres BIPOC (black, indigenous and people of colour) marginalised
by sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression and/or sex characteristics such as Takatāpui*. It amplifies the voices of those who are marginalised and creates a safe space
where the LGBTQI+ community will feel welcome. Studies show that LGBTQI+ people experience disproportionately higher rates of anxiety, depression and suicide often through violence, bullying and/or hate speech, so the exhibition seeks to reduce those rates by growing awareness and support for that community.

The show explores past and present stories from the LGBTQI+ community — challenges and triumphs, acknowledging that although Aotearoa is relatively progressive in relation to LGBTQI+ rights, there's still much work to be done. There's also a nod to a brighter future — a feeling of hope.

Tell us about some of the artworks in the exhibition

The exhibition is split over two floors. The ground floor is covered in bright colour that moves
up both stairways in the gallery and out the door onto the street. It is designed to assert a sense
of safety, to celebrate and help bridge the divide in understanding between worlds. Upstairs
is a selection of work from the LGBTQI+ community in Tauranga and wider Aotearoa including paintings, photographs, poems, stories, film and sculpture. The elevator has been transformed
with colour representing a newly developed version of the rainbow flag. The skylights are covered with transparent vinyl, turning them into colourful, stained glass windows.

The show debuts Fluid Flag, which I created this year. I feel it best represents my own identity
within the LGBTQI+ community. Fluid refers to people with dimensions of self that continually change. These dimensions may include (but aren’t limited to) sexual orientation, romantic orientation, gender identity and/or gender expression. I experience fluidity in all these dimensions.

Shannon Novak
What about the associated artwork around the city?

I often develop exhibitions like solar systems. The gallery becomes the sun or hub of the show,
with satellite artworks in spaces outside the gallery, circling the sun like planets. They are all linked and all feed off the central hub. By extending the show out into the wider community, the greater the reach of the show’s message around supporting the LGBTQI+ community.

The Tauranga Art Gallery has a map of all the satellite spaces so you can visit them. The artwork you’ll find at each venue will vary from quite small, subtle artworks, like a flag, to larger community created projects, like murals. Spaces may be added over the duration of the show (and beyond), and I welcome any ideas and suggestions from readers big or small.

How do you see the exhibition helping the wider community to connect with
the LGBTQI+ community?

Primarily through raising awareness and education of some key challenges and triumphs the LGBTQI+ community face present day. The show provides an opportunity to learn about what
it’s like being part of the LGBTQI+ community in Tauranga and beyond, and provides a safe
space to ask questions you’ve always wanted to ask but been afraid to do so.

The show also links to the Safe Space Alliance nonprofit I direct and encourages spaces to
apply to be a safe space for the LGBTQI+ community and be listed on the online searchable directory. Anyone anywhere in the world with a genuine interest in creating safe spaces for
the LGBTQI+ community can list a space at no cost. All spaces are welcome regardless of size, location, and category/industry. It could bea café, a dairy, a retail outlet, a hotel, a community space, a corporate office — anything!

*LGBTQI+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer or questioning, intersex,
and the plus sign represents other people marginalised by sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and/or sex characteristics.
*Takatāpui is a traditional Māori term meaning ‘intimate companion of the same sex’. It has been reclaimed to embrace all Māori who identify with diverse sexes, genders and sexualities.

Mānawatia Takatāpui / Defending Plurality, 17 July–10 October 2021. To register your space
on the safe space directory, visit safespacealliance.com
If you or someone you know needs support, contact RainbowYOUTH (there’s a drop-in center in Tauranga), ry.org.nz or contact OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 outline.org.nz