#WĀHINEWEDNESDAY: Te Manaia Jennings

Harnessing art to encourage courageous conversations about mental wellbeing


  • Hamilton
October 21, 2020 Abigail Uttley

Talented artist and Rotorua local, Te Manaia, believes in the power of the creative arts to ignite conversations around mental health. Her paintings focus on the theme of empowering women, and the process of painting, in turn, empowers Te Manaia. 

When Te Manaia was in high school, she remembers it was her family, rather than her teachers, who taught her how powerful the mind is, which was instrumental in helping her understand her struggles with mental health. Now, in her current work, Te Manaia is a passionate advocate for more mental health support and understanding, especially for young people, and is big on promoting the power of a positive mindset. ‘My work demonstrates to women that if you push through adversity, you become strongeralways.’ 

We were honoured to hear more from Te Manaia about her passion for art, storytelling, and enabling honest conversations around mental wellbeing. She is truly a gifted, authentic, and courageous young woman, inspiring positive change in our community through her creative talents.

You’ve acknowledged the power of Art as a tool to inspire important conversations. How do you believe Art achieves this, and what sort of conversations do we need to be having?

I believe there are two ways in which Art can open conversations; it can either be through the message of the art, or by the journey of the artist. The artist must be open to the dialogue first of all, and then be brave enough to depict this uniquely on canvas. In my case, I was both. I did not always view art as a meaningful tool to open conversations; however, through my journey I realized the power it held. The power of art was especially evident to me as it enabled me to overcome difficulties (especially mental health struggles) in my own life. This in itself allowed me to share the power of creative arts with others. And it eventually opened up opportunities for me to have conversations around mental health, as my work often related to my personal wellbeing journey. 

As a result of my life experiences, I began to consistently paint women who depicted strength within their expressions, and then I associated meaningful stories to complement these portraits. Through this, I wanted to instill a sense of hope and possibility in the viewers; but as we all know, Art is subjective, so it's difficult to always achieve what you desire, but the intention is always there when I create my art. 

My artwork’s message is highly connected to my own journey as I want people to see the strength within themselves, regardless of what it is they might be going through. I hope through my art, and my openness with my struggles and how art has helped me along my journey, that others will feel encouraged to partake in meaningful conversationsespecially around mental health.

Mental health is such a large aspect of our Hauora, and looking after it and understanding the power of our mind is of great importance. What’s your own journey with this?

As I have grown into myself, I have become more comfortable and more informed on what mental health is. I have come to acknowledge that for most of my life I have had severe anxiety and on-and-off depression. My mental health challenges were highly heightened by the adversities I have had to face, including my medical condition, which is a physical deformity that affected my body image and self-esteem hugely.  To add to this, is the pressure of living in a world that puts a lot of emphasis on looking and being a certain way. 

My mental health journey has allowed me to become a more introspective person and without going through this, I would not be half as passionate as I am to strive to help normalize conversations around mental health, and help people live happier and more fulfilled lives. 

In your work you have especially promoted the power of having a positive mindset. What are some tips and words of wisdom you have for those striving to attain that? 

In life, I believe mindset is everything, as it dictates the way our life plays out in every form. As someone who has suffered with mental health issues, I do understand how difficult it is to maintain a positive mindset! 

A few things I do, both for my mental health and overall happiness, include being mindful of what I consume and expose myself tothis especially applies to food and social media. I also practise physical and mental exercises, such as yoga and meditation. Furthermore, setting goals for myself and asking myself what my ‘why’ is, keeps me going through many different hardships. Setting little to-do lists also allows me to feel in control of my day as once I get things done, I feel more empowered to do more. Lastly, having gratitude for everything in my life is so important! I believe when we are truly grateful for what we have, we get more from lifeI did a video of this on my Instagram if you would like to check it out :)

You use your paintings to tell a story; what stories do you tell and what is the power in doing so?

Throughout my pieces there's a recurring theme of empowering women. I think this is because I partly paint for myself, and through colour, intent, and story I try to instill a sense of hope and possibility within my pieces. I see myself within the women I paint, and often I create pieces to showcase someone overcoming something challenging or difficult. I try to also find inspiration from the strong wahine around me, including my grandmothers, aunties and mothers. 

Your heritage plays a large role in your art; how do you express and weave this through your work?

I take great pride in being a ori wahine. My culture is so rich, and I feel it's important to recognize a part of its beauty through my art. I am still learning ways to do this, but I try to embed the moko kauae and ori designs within my art as much as I can. These designs have stories that are so profound and historic, and they mean a lot to me and my heritage. I try to translate these stories to relate to the story I want to tell for the wahine in my paintings. 

I take great pride in being a Māori wahine. My culture is so rich, and I feel it's important to recognize a part of its beauty through my art.

Have there been any significant moments for yourself or those who have explored your art, that you could share with us?

In 2016 I painted my great-grandmother who had passed away. This portrait of her was the first portrait I had ever done, and it got selected to be exhibited in the Riddoch Art Gallery in Mt Gambier, Australia. My nan (my great-grandmother's daughter) visited Australia and stayed with us during her battle with cancer. During this time, we thought it would be a fun idea to surprise her with the painting of her mother, and her reaction was so heartwarming as she started crying tears of joy when she saw it! Seeing something, which I had created, impact someone so deeply made me realize the power of Art. Although it may not have been significant to anyone else, it sure was to my nan. This made me realize that I could create this within my own work, whatever form it took. 

As an artist, is there somewhere, something, or someone, within this line of work, that you would love to visit, see, or ‘meet and greet’?

There are a few artists, who are not alive today, that have hugely inspired me. I would love to have met Frida Khalo and visited her house; she is so iconic, inspiring and fascinating.  Her work holds such depth and equal amounts of pain and beauty that was so uniquely portrayed, especially for her time. I would also like to visit the Milan institute in Greece, as I studied through their programme, and this has hugely influenced my art and the way I create it. They are an amazing, inspiring family who are pioneers that foster growth within artists around the world, as their style of art is fairly fresh and new. They also generously encourage, admire, and value artists and their work around the world, which is so heartwarming. Also, Greece is just beautiful!

As a Rotorua local, are there any hidden gems, cafes, trails, exhibitions, or markets that you can recommend for us to visit when we are next in town?

Yes, absolutely. Rotorua is such a touristy place (if that's a word lol)! I would recommend a lot of fun activities including skyline skyrides, ZORB, Agroventures and all the hot pools. All these places are such fun for all ages, and I seem to never get sick of going! If you're looking for a more scenic and relaxing environment, I would recommend the lakes, The Redwoods – Whakarewarewa Forest and Te Puia. Also my fave place to eat defs has to be Abracadabra. 


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