Portrait of Shannon Novak by Pati Solomona Tyrell.

Artist Shannon Novak weaves LGBTQI+ activism into his work through celebrating diversity in community. We talked to him about his Safe Space Alliance project that’s getting started in Auckland at Britomart.

What is the Safe Space Alliance, and what made you want to set it up? 

The Safe Space Alliance aims to help identify, navigate, and create safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community worldwide. The idea came from recent projects I had done in smaller town New Zealand like New Plymouth, Tauranga, and Nelson where I consulted with the local LGBTQI+ community to find out what some of the key issues were they were facing. One common theme was around safety – or feeling unsafe to be LGBTQI+ in public. On further research around wider New Zealand and beyond, this theme kept popping up with mention of a lack of clearly identifiable safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community.

The key words there are “clearly identifiable”. Many spaces/organisations/businesses/schools in New Zealand are in fact safe, and may even have LGBTQI+ policy in place, but do not visually indicate they are safe. This is where the Safe Space Alliance idea emerged. I wanted to create a nonprofit organisation to help spaces visually indicate they are safe through displaying a “Safe Space” logo. I also wanted there to be some robustness to it, so developed a set of terms and conditions the space must agree to in being a safe space.



What does it mean for someone to feel unsafe in a space? Because it’s possible that a lot of people don’t quite understand this. 

A safe space is a space where the LGBTQI+ community can freely express themselves without fear. So to feel unsafe in a space, is to feel as though you can’t freely express yourself as a member of the LGBTQI+ community in that space for fear of violence, bullying, and/or hate speech against you. This prevents people in the LGBTQI+ community from things like holding hands (this is a major one), sharing a kiss, talking openly about LGBTQI+ content, and/or looking at LGBTQI+ content on a mobile device (e.g. LGBTQI+ dating apps).

How has the response been to the establishment of the alliance? 

I launched the Safe Space Alliance in Nelson late last year as a concept. I didn’t think anyone would pick it up or it would go anywhere but Nelson City Council took interest and adopted it with a number of organisations in Nelson following suit. Word then spread (I have yet to do any promotion!) and other councils/organisations/businesses around the country expressed interest. The response has been overwhelming - to the point I can barely manage it alone! It’s a good thing though - as it really does highlight a growing wave of genuine, active, and emphatic support for safe spaces for the LGBTQI+ community around the country. It is now moving into Australia, and beyond.

A number of Britomart businesses are joining the alliance. What does it require of them? 

That’s right, and I’m very grateful for the support displayed by Britomart as a business community. To join, simply read and agree to the terms and conditions, fill out the quick online membership form, and display a Safe Space logo in your space. You will be emailed a range of Safe Space logos with black, white, and transparent backgrounds. You can print one or more at a scale/in a format that suits your space (it could be a small sticker or large poster). It’s completely free to join as I don’t believe people should have to pay to be a safe space and/or show support for the LGBTQI+ community. I can also provide/direct you to guidance/resources/local training if desired. Ultimately I look for organisations that are “genuinely” interested in supporting the LGBTQI+ community through helping to create visually identifiable safe spaces.

What else are you working on at the moment?

I am working on a number of projects in addition to the Safe Space Alliance which I direct. I am an artist and LGBTQI+ activist. My art focuses on contemporary LGBTQI+ issues through a variety of formats like large colourful window installations (for example the Westpac air bridges), sculpture, and painting. I have a group show at the Suter Art Gallery in Nelson called “Sympathetic Resonance” ending 9 Feb. I have another group show coming up at the Gus Fisher (not far from Britomart) 15 Feb - 2 May called “Queer Algorithms”. I am working with Auckland Council on a large sculptural project. I have a two-person digital work displaying on the Digital Stage at Aotea Centre 11-29 Mar. Then the rest of this year is preparing for shows next year and working with organisations to develop artistic interventions in store/building that celebrate the LGBTQI+ community. I will also be working as part of the Conversion Therapy Action Group (CTAG). I co-founded CTAG with four others (including young MP’s) with an aim to make conversion therapy illegal in New Zealand (yes, it’s still legal here!). Conversion therapy is the process of changing an individual’s sexual orientation (e.g. gay to straight), gender identity, and/or gender expression.