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10 Dec 2018

‘The Art of Belonging’ provides a creative expression of social connection

As part of The Selwyn Institute’s series of conference and experiential events focussing on loneliness and belonging in older people, art therapy students from Whitecliffe College of Arts and Design recently teamed up with guests of The Selwyn Foundation’s community-based Selwyn Centres, to create a range of artworks that express what belonging means to them and how it feels to truly belong and feel part of the Selwyn Centre they visit weekly.

The completed works were unveiled at the ‘Art of Belonging’ exhibition during the Selwyn Institute’s Ageing & Spirituality Conference last month, which explored the fundamental human need to belong from different spiritual and cultural perspectives.

Selwyn Institute Director, Hilda Johnson-Bogaerts, says that the purpose of the creative art project was to produce authentic works of art that expressed and reflected the idea of belonging. Meaningful engagement and giving individuals a purpose in life, she says, are two ways in which loneliness can be kept at bay. “Loneliness is an epidemic sweeping the world, and it affects one in five older adults. The ramifications for health and wellbeing, especially for older people, are significant.

“People have a need to connect with others to achieve a sense of engagement and purpose. When a creative endeavour such as art is added to the mix, the possibility for authentic and meaningful interaction increases.

“We therefore offered guests of our Selwyn Centres the opportunity to work with Whitecliffe’s art therapy students, and to combine their creative talents to express what it means and how it feels to ‘belong’ when they visit their local Selwyn Centre.”

Participants were able to choose which creative media to work with, whether painting, photography, weaving, sound or movement. The project by the Royal Oak Selwyn Centre at St John’s Anglican Church focused on the creation of a Korowai. In Māori culture, a Korowai is a type of cloak that signifies prestige. Also, in the New Zealand Curriculum for primary schools, the concept is used in a classroom to teach children about belonging.

The inspiration for the Royal Oak Korowai began with a collection of letters written by guests about what coming to the Centre means to them and expressing their feelings about their Selwyn Centre experiences. This evolved into making the actual cloak, where calico fabric was stretched over chicken wire and adorned with cut-out hand outlines of the guests, creating a garment that looked strikingly like a hug or two arms gathering guests together for their weekly catch-up at the Centre.  

One of the art therapy students who worked with the Selwyn Centre guests – Ayaka Shima, who’s from Japan – expressed her own interpretation of the creative outcome: “Many hands with many smiles, with each hand having a history.  This hand has the ability to touch a friend’s shoulder gently and share warmth.  These same hands became feathers on the Korowai.  It contains us and will welcome new people.  We are here together.”


The project by the Whangapāraoa Selwyn Centre at St Stephen’s was inspired by the idea of ‘having a yarn’ and used the material to bind individual contributions into a collective whole.  The process began with people sharing words about belonging, which were then expressed in written thoughts, poems and stories. These were then captured in frames and displayed as part of the exhibition. Guests were also encouraged to bring the outside in, with elements that reflected living in Whangapāraoa including objects from local beaches, gardens or creations brought from home.  One of the guests mentioned that, whilst the objects were not valuable, they were more about the memories and sense of belonging they evoked. The common thread of connection was the final binding of all the elements with brightly coloured yarn. 

The artwork by the Waiuku Selwyn Centre at St Andrew’s was a response to an image taken by a photographer who is also a Selwyn Centre guest.  This inspired the Whitecliffe student to then take a series of photos and to create some poetry around them.  These photos evoke the sense of belonging that comes from attending the Selwyn Centre and the reason why the guests come back every week. 

Hilda Johnson-Bogaerts says the results were stunning and clearly reflected the individual and collective contributions of all the people involved.  “Belonging to a Selwyn Centre means many things: friendship, connection, playfulness, enjoyment and much more.  Most of all, it’s about connecting with people in a caring, warm and positive environment.”

Selwyn Centres are community drop-in centres for older people, run by The Selwyn Foundation in partnership with Anglican parishes.  For further information, visit the Selwyn Centre page.