17 Mar 2016

Lost cultural art forms revived by Female Pacific artists

12:03 pm on 17 March 2016

Indira Moala, RNZ International - indira.moala@radionz.co.nz

Female artists from around the Pacific region are reviving lost cultural art forms and reinventing creative traditions that have existed for generations.

Fiji tattoo

Fiji tattoo Photo: RNZI / Indira Moala

They are among the many artists, experts and academics who have travelled from across the globe to attend the 12th Pacific Arts International Symposium being held in Auckland this week.

From the first day of the symposium, the irregular tapping of the 'au ta - an instrument used for tattooing in Samoan culture - could be heard like a constant hum throughout events center.

The live tattooing ceremony of Yolande Ah Chong, took place in the middle of the center with supporters observing as she received her Malu, a Samoan tattoo covering both thighs, given to honourable women.

Samoan tattooing.

Samoan tattooing. Photo: RNZI / Indira Moala

On the other side of the room was another female model being tattooed by Papua New Guinean Artist Julia Page'au Gray.

Together with other Melanesian female artists, Ms Gray has been working to rediscover the practise of female tattooing, an art form now dead in some parts of Melanesia, such as Fiji.

She hoped it could one day be revived.

"The women in all Melanesian cultures have been the most hard-done by. We've been silenced. But we're now at a point where we can take that back, own our marks and empower our women so they have a voice," she said.

"When a Fijian woman picks up the tools and starts to tattoo, then you will have your revival."

Among the work on display was a 6 meter long tapa cloth created by Tongan artist Tui Gillies and her mother Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows.

Tapa design

Tapa design Photo: RNZI / Indira Moala

Their innovative designs took a turn from tradition and for the first time included coloured pictures of village life, never before seen on traditional tapa cloth.

Tui Gillies and her mother Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows.

Tui Gillies and her mother Sulieti Fieme'a Burrows. Photo: RNZI / Indira Moala

Ms Gillies explained that the art form, which is no longer practised in her mother's village, is dear to her.

"I actually grew up in a bedroom and my whole room was covered in my grandmother's tapa cloth. Like, she had made all this tapa and it was completely - it was like a tapa womb," she said.

"It felt natural to me, like it was a healing cloth. It was very warm and it just felt right to go with tapa cloth."

Other examples of innovative work included dresses made from bilums, a traditionally woven bag in Papua New Guinea, used for carrying babies and food.

Designer Florence Jaukae Kamel admitted that changing a custom tradition was not received well at first, by her own people.

Florence Jaukae Kamel

Florence Jaukae Kamel Photo: RNZI / Indira Moala

"They think the idea was like, I was insane or something. Like, 'what's happened to Florence? what is she trying to do? get in something that we carry a food and baby in?,"

"It's kastom (custom), you know. Its hard, you can't do it. But I just did it."

Her dream of seeing her garments featured on a runway in a western country came true in 2014 when she had the opportunity to collaborate with design students from the Parsons School of Design in New York and the London Fashion University.


HoodilumLDNY Photo: RNZI / Indira Moala

"The bilum did went out there and when they asked me 'ah Florence, you got something to say?

"I said 'Look, I never went to a Fashion university, I was never a fashion designer I was just somebody who rowed from the village," said Ms Jaukae Kamel.

A dress called "The Highlands Bride", made out of bilum.

A dress called "The Highlands Bride", made out of bilum. Photo: RNZI / Indira Moala

"But bilum has come from the rainforest of Papua New Guinea out into the runway of New York and I'm so proud of it."

The symposium co-ordinator, Bethany Edmunds, pointed out that the artwork has unraveled interesting connections to each part of the region.

"Material culture is rich in evidence of connections that go beyond the written histories,"

"Through artforms and making practises, you can start to trace some of those lineages that go out beyond just Aotearoa or just Hawaii and start to make those connections."

The final presentations for the International Symposium end this week at the Mangere Arts Center in Auckland.

Papua New Guinea bilums.

Papua New Guinea bilums. Photo: RNZI / Indira Moala