Pasifika Arts In America

While in Aotearoa(New Zealand) for a month and a half, I was grateful to be in a place of what I call the Pasifika Arts mecca. As a Samoan artist born and raised in America, reshaping the way I think about art and navigating our culture through America makes you think.

There is a photo from the early 1900's of my great grandmother and her "Malu" tatau (samoan womens tattoo) it gives her family photo more visuals of our family story by the patterns that run up and down her legs. Done by Sua Suluape the master tattooist aka in Samoan as the tufuga ta tatau, the "tatau" was a coming of age, a ceremonial stage at women and mens lives, its where the word "tattoo" comes from. It is one of the catalyst for a culture boom of tattooing body art all over the world. The photo of my great grandmother is a moment of time documenting Pasifika arts for the futures to come. Maybe Suluape and my grandmother didn't know, but by having that photo exist it meant that in some sense it was a showing of Pasifika arts/artists and with that image and those patterns it has made a worldwide subculture of tattooing whether the world, Suluape and my grandmother knows it or not. From a ceremonial practice on the little island of Savaii called the tatau to the tattoo all over the world.

This isn't a blurb about tattoos but more about the subtlties of arts, Pasifika arts. Times when folks like Suluape or my grandmother never heard the word "arts" but know what a Pe'a tatau is make me think about how to navigate Pasifika arts in America. This maybe me being a photographer but you have to think how a second it takes to take a photograph is able to document and create something bigger than that actual second seems.

It's been a little next to a month since I've come home to the Bay Area from Aotearoa (New Zealand) on a artist residency with the Pacific Arts Trust Tautai, because I have learning disability of focusing in class settings and learn better in experimental settings I've never been to school for any arts. The only training I've had is with the experience with my family and friends, and really that's exactly what Suluape and my grandmother did. Natural subtleties to normal life that they didn't know how powerful they would be in creating culture and history of Pasifika arts.

Theres a couple things growing up in the hood that I was taught by my family and friends, mostly untrue perspectives on who we are and have to be as Pasifika people in America. We have a word to describe people who want to be white or act a too American assimilated, its called "fia palagi". I guess proximity can play a role in how a country's cultural norms are shaped, and the advantage of New Zealand being a Pasifika arts mecca is because its also know as the Pacific hub and it's history with people of color is much different than America.

And so with our American history, with our country's cultural norm with Pasifika people in the states it is only normal when I tell my little cousin I'm a artist and he replies "whats the name of your rap album". Because art for any person of color is considered "fia palagi" to a good majority of folks. The number of Pasifika artists I know in the states is only a handful. A couple reasons maybe the manufacturing of an American dream, and what it means to be successful in this country. I don't want to be rich and famous for the art I produce but I hope that whenever I die it sparks a Samoan kid growing up in the hood to consider the beautiful moments in her/his life that are worth leaving behind for Pasifika's sake.

I spent the last week in Aotearoa with my family in Wellington, my mother's brothers, sisters, cousins, aunties, uncles sitting me in the living room to talk to me. My aunt had already told me over dinner parts of our Matai(chief) line history. My other aunties spent hours pounding cacao beans for my mom while telling me stories about her childhood in Moamoa. Moments impossible for me to have in America. And so while all my uncle and aunties congratulated me on going out to New Zealand for school, I had to break it to them that I was there on an art residency. And it was obvious by their faces and the moments I spent with them that it would be impossible to explain what that meant because they're not too fond of english ways or language, and only through photography and the moments that pass while they are here I can explain better. With saying that, I probably am speaking metaphorically in another language because Pasifika arts in America doesn't have as much of foundation as in Aotearoa unless you are looking at art in the way my grandmother and our ancestors saw it, it is the subtelties of ourselves that I hope Pasifika people in the states can realize the power of how important they are to arts, to our elders, to our history, to Pasifika even in a place so far away.

About Jean Melesaine

Jean Melesaine is a photographer, writer, and editor with Silicon Valley De-Bug. 

This article is part of the category: Aotearoa Chronicles 
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Great Article Jean!

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