A group from Cultural Conversations participate in the Diwali Festival in Nelson. Photo by Tim Cuff.


Cultural Conversations community hub, Nelson


As staff and residents of a retirement village in Nelson prepare for an event to celebrate cultural diversity, 23-year-old Shakeela Shakeel and 19-year-old Sharia Kahn add a special touch to the excitement, applying intricate henna tattoos to the hands of those taking part. 

Alison, who’s in her 80s and has never left New Zealand, joined the queue early for the artwork to be applied by Sharia, from India, whose eyes focus on the detailed patterns from behind her niqab. At the next table, 90-year-old Pam, originally from the UK, marvels at the skillful design evolving on her delicate skin, chatting to artist Shakeela about the area she’s originally from in Pakistan. 

Henna painting at Cultural Conversations, Nelson.

Henna painting at Cultural Conversations, Nelson. Photo by Tim Cuff.

It’s exactly this kind of interaction Tanya Nock hoped for when she first conceived the concept of Cultural Conversations in 2019. “People coming together through the arts can be transformative,” says music teacher Tanya. “I saw an opportunity to create a space where people can meet and build a shared sense of belonging, where everyone feels welcome and where they can learn new skills and express their creativity and individuality.” 

When the call for help came from the retirement village, Tanya knew immediately the two young women would be keen to get involved, sharing the passion for their artworks. 

Shakeela is grateful she was introduced to Cultural Conversations shortly after arriving in Nelson mid-2023 as a refugee. She quickly joined the sewing group that meets in the former shop that’s now the organisation’s hub, and as a result has not only made new friends which helped with her transition into the community and culture, she also has an outlet for the colourful jewellery she makes. 

It was after the March 2019 terror attack in Christchurch that Tanya first saw a need for a bridge to connect ethnicities and cultures. “There were so many messages saying ‘This is not us’, but I knew people would be surprised by just how much people of colour have to deal with.” 

Born in Devon in the UK with an Indian mother and an English father, Tanya was raised in a predominantly white area, so has always known how it feels to be ‘different’. 

Cultural Conversations Tracy INP

Tanya Nock first conceived the concept of Cultural Conversations in 2019. Photo by Tim Cuff.

When she moved to Nelson in 2003 there were just five other Indians. “It took a few years to feel like part of the community, so I made it my mission to help make this better,” says the mother of two, who has a music degree specialising in ethnomusicology. 

The first community-connecting Cultural Conversations event was as part of the 2019 Nelson Arts Festival, coordinated in conjunction with Padma Naidu. It involved ten days of three communities – Sri Lankan, Bhutanese and Colombian – sharing cultural traditions including dance and language. 

The next year, with funding secured through Creative New Zealand, Cultural Conversations was able to create a base, setting up a colourful meeting place in a vacant city centre shop. With that came the ability to host events to enhance appreciation for cultural diversity and build relationships between migrant and refugee communities, and other locals.

“The aim was to promote empathy and understanding by bringing people together to collaborate, learn, share cultures, experiences and uplift each other.”

Now a charitable trust, Cultural Conversations is a place where those who feel a sense of otherness lead the way. It’s also served as a location for donated items to be collected for refugees.

One regular gathering, the sewing group ‘Global Stitch Up,’ draws women from diverse backgrounds and helps with gaining independence and empowerment. As well as sharing skills, money raised through sales of the creations goes back to the Trust to help support the organisation.

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Participants at a jewellery-making workshop at Nelsons' Cultural Conversations. Photo by Tim Cuff.

The calendar of events at the base, which now has a prominent spot in the city’s upmarket Morrison Square precinct, also includes workshops in jewellery making, dance and singing, as well as performances from visiting artists. Music from around the globe emanates from within; the walls double as art space for creators to exhibit their works. 

Performances coordinated by some of those who become involved are often taken to the wider community. A dance display for the city’s large Diwali event not only involved two generations from India but included a Canadian migrant who’d become involved in the practice sessions at the centre. A workshop beforehand to prepare props for the dances included the Indian community members, as well as immigrants from Britain, Uganda and a Kiwi who’d travelled widely through India and welcomed the opportunity to get back in touch with the culture.  

“It’s really good to have multicultural festivals and events for us all to enjoy, but what we’re doing at Cultural Conversations is mixing ethnicities. It’s more than just performing on a stage and then going home.”  

A surprising number of conversations across cultures were sparked when Covid social distancing was still an issue. Cultural Conversations took online initiatives to create talking points through four documentary interviews called Courageous Conversations. In one, Columbian refugee Miguel Nunez shared how as a small child he slept with a knife under his pillow for safety. After the broadcast, the conversation continued when viewers recognised him in the supermarket where he worked.

A number of podcast interviews have since followed and a documentary produced this year by Tanya about cultural diversity in Nelson has been awarded at a regional film festival. 

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Nelson primary school teacher Amy Johnson with her mother-in-law Salome Anderson, originally from Niue. Photo by Tim Cuff.

A more recent addition to the centre’s events are te reo Māori lessons, which Tanya herself has keenly taken part in and which has also proved a barrier breaker. “We have 15 different ethnicities at these and rather than being a support group, it’s something we’re all learning together. We’re all on the same level and it makes communication more relaxed, and people are less nervous to speak.

“Relationships are the most important thing here and everyone is welcome, it doesn’t matter where they’re from,” says Tanya. “We’re looking at making real changes in lives, to do something that really helps address inequities and can also help preserve culture for generations. It’s a place of aroha where we’re raising mana for people.”


Story by Fiona Terry for the Summer 2023 issue of AA Directions Magazine. Fiona Terry is a Nelson-based freelance writer who regularly contributes to AA Directions Magazine.

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