Combining art and domestic violence work


December 12, 2020

Irka is a programme facilitator at Shine, national domestic abuse charity. I’ve met Irka through domestic violence counselling that she facilitates with children and whānau. She is absolutely amazing and I was so stoked to interview her about her journey: from her childhood stories of being a political asylum seeker, moving to UK and Aotearoa, teaching photography and design to kids and now working with kiddos in vulnerable situations.

Watch/listen or read her interview below - whatever is your jam 🍯

When you were a kid what did you imagine yourself doing when you got older?

I wanted to be someone that was in power and can make changes but, you know, there was another part of me that really liked art so I was a little bit confused about that. You've actually just made me remember something: when I was in Chile and we were about to leave, we had a leaving party at my primary school and I remember bullet holes in the concrete of the school and things like that, there was a lot of turmoil and yet we were having this party... I remember my hair was white white white then and as a gift I got given a doll with blonde hair and blue eyes. I was really upset because I really wanted the brown doll with the curly black hair but it was very much “no, you have this one because you look like that” so that was at six years old that I started kind of thinking, hmmm i don't like what's going on here...

What happened when you left Chile?

It was around 1974, just after the military coup - my father was part of a political party then. When the military took over, there were lots of people that ended up in the stadiums killed and tortured. They came looking for my father but he was already gone so I was left in South America with my mother, two younger brothers and two younger sisters. All I can remember is leaving in a bus with the six of us. I remember sneaking a peek through the window and all I could see was a steep downfall and we were up some mountains. We ended up in this big cave where the buses would all arrive and they would meet us. So we went into Peru for about 9 months and were given political asylum in the UK. It was just a total change of lifestyle. A lot of people couldn't handle it, they had to go back or move somewhere else. They had lots of mental health issues because of living in one country and then having to transform that into a different sort of culture and be with different people not knowing English; yeah it was pretty horrible...

Do you think all of that kind of shaped you and your want to contribute?

Yeah, it did! Looking back all of it shaped the way that I think now and what I’d like to do now. Somebody asked me yesterday “how long have you been doing social work” and I said - well, forever, because I can link it back to other parts of my life. When I left London and came here 30 years ago, I started fresh with basically a handbag. I re-educated myself. I went to Whitecliffe and continued with my art and then I went into photography, fine arts and graphics. Then I went into teaching secondary school kids but just going mainstream wasn't good enough for me. I wanted to do Steiner education so I went through Steiner for about six years and I taught digital photography and data there.

How did you transition from that into family violence work that you're doing now?

In between study at Whitecliffe, teacher training and working as a teacher I also did counselling training. I've always had this theory that you shouldn't put all your eggs in one basket, you should have lots of things and then you can always do something else. So it was just me and the kids so I had time. I wanted to see how I could best use my time. I'm still quite curious about time and how we spend it… So I started doing drug and alcohol counselling and at the same time I was doing narrative therapy counselling so I gave one up for the other. Narrative therapy was brought about by a different group of people that looked at things in a more creative manner and you could take different avenues for that. I found that it fit better with the work that I was doing with children. So while I was doing all that training and doing different things I had a supervisor and she was a clinical advisor for Shine. She wanted me to come on board and start doing work with children there. I did that as contract work for about 10-12 years after school and on weekends which means that I could still do 9 to 5 jobs somewhere else and develop a career.

Do you mostly work with kids now?

It has been children most of my life but, you know, when working with children you have to work with a parent and it's been mainly women, a lot of men as well but mainly women. It's more about education and empowerment. I like to see it more as empowering - a father or a mother or a child to actually be able to move forward somehow.

If families undergo domestic violence, what other services are available to them out there?

You have things like support with financial assistance such WINZ or grants from other places that have funds. A lot of people don't know how to get hold of funding to support them with certain things so we can help with that. If there's anything that could be perceived as mental health, we don't make those kinds of evaluations, but we have other people that do that so we're basically bringing people together from other agencies to be able to support that. Things like family safety and security; all the things that everybody would like.

In 12 years of you working in domestic violence, has anything drastically changed - improved or gotten worse?

I wouldn't say worse and I wouldn't say dramatic changes either, it depends on who you talk to. There could be people that have been in this industry for a long time and you talk to them and something that they've been really passionate about hasn't shifted as quickly as they would like. I'm thinking in regards to the strangulation policy that came through, for example. That was a huge achievement and that was in the pipe works for a lot of years. People that probably don't even work in the sector anymore.

A lot of women experience strangulation or choking and there wasn't actually a policy that supported women and enforced prosecution. So pretty much as soon as that policy came through and it was in legislation, it was like BAM there were prosecutions instantly.

Another thing is we've got wonderful lawyers at work with us but sometimes we need specific little things that maybe a family lawyer can't do, like immigration issues. Then trying to find one that can do this specific thing; it's very long-winded sometimes and for me - not quick enough. I want to do it right now for my clients so I decided that I'm going to study for another year or two and I'm going to go with the legal executive training so I can still do that while I'm working. It's not quite the lawyer or quite the judge but it's going in that direction, to be able to say “well I actually studied this and I know where you can go” rather than have to search for the right services.

How do you find taking care of yourself and of your own mental and emotional state?

You know often people will say to me “oh that's so sad” and I mean some stories are heartbreaking but in general it's a really good thing because you're doing things that are helpful and seem to be helpful so it moves us forward so I see it as a plus-plus.

When I finish work, there is usually some very loud music in the car and I try to stop off and do something else first. So I'm either doing some art somewhere or I'm going to the gym but I always do something else before I go home. I was made aware of that 20-odd years ago. Because I wanted to study in this field but I didn't want to go home to my children with these issues that I was working with and that was my primary question when I started studying this area. What can I do so I don't take it home?

Working with kids and with their parents that are in quite tough situations, is there anything that you are still learning from them?

Always. Always. I remember everyone that I've seen, I've lost count of how many children I've seen but I remember them all. The best part of it all is that everyone has something unique to offer and everyone has a low point at some point in their life or many low points but there are many high points as well.

I remember meeting this little girl for the very first time and she found it very difficult to talk so I found that she talked only by whispering. It just came about. It's not something that I planned,  so I whispered something and she started whispering to me and I would whisper back and that's how we developed that relationship. Then she started talking and she had some really sad stories to tell but that's where she found space to do it.

Another little boy hid behind a mattress, I still see it so plainly in my mind. This was years and years ago. I asked him where he wanted to talk and he said, in his bedroom, and he hid behind the mattress there and that's the only way he would be able to talk about the things he wanted to talk about which was very sad yet again.

Some kids will draw and draw and they won't say very much but the drawings tell me exactly what's going on and then that gives me the space to be able to converse with them in a manner that they can speak. It's about them sharing stories that are personal to them: their journeys and it's about me finding a way to be able to talk to them at the level that they are.

Domestic violence is such a problem, nationwide & worldwide. From your perspective what can we or how can we shift society towards any changes?

What I found when I started looking at all these things was that it was just too big, far too big and I thought, well can one person do all of this? No. Can one person do a little part of this? Yes, but only with support. We can't do this work alone. I can't change something within this field on my own. We need community support, we need people in other positions that can make other changes. I found that was really overwhelming so I really had to go like “This is what I can do and what I'm doing is enough.”

Holding people accountable for their behaviour and I mean that in a really broad spectrum is a huge thing. I find that women and children here in New Zealand are just the innocent part of it and are held accountable for somebody else's behaviour and that's wrong. I would like to see, and I think there's huge aspirations out there for agencies to be working with the whole family whatever that family looks like, I think when you've got the buy-in of the whole family to make some positive changes then you're making huge social changes. You're looking at behavioural things, at the way that you grew up, your values, your ideas, you're looking at the impact of the economy, you're looking at financial impact, you're looking at drugs and alcohol, you're looking at mental health... there's so many things. One person or even one group of people cannot make a change so we all need to have the same buy-in to be able to make those changes. I think that's the only way that I can pretty much cope with the work that I do…

So that's where I am now and now I've got another big block that I'm kind of putting together: I've never had an exhibition here in New Zealand, only through art school, so I want to have an exhibition in February next year. All the work that I'm going to do; it's got three categories all of which are informed through the work that I do with children and women in domestic violence and pretty much if you look at that my whole life. I've got some woodwork pieces, some metal work and the other one is jewellery. So the last two years I've spent time after work learning jewellery and learning how to weld. When I started welding it was just all men and they all wanted to help which is great. I learned heaps. In the jewellery, it’s all women apart from a couple of men. So that actually really kind of stuck out there. I thought I'm going to put all of this together with the exhibition. I also want it to come from a perspective of Shine and I want to have an element of charity with it as well. So yeah it's so exciting!

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