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FAFSWAG is a Pacific Art Collective based in South Auckland. Their sub-group Witch Bitch, comprising of Sione, Manu, and Pati, brought their exhibition Statuesque Anarchy with curator Tanu to Enjoy Gallery, Wellington. Salote and Laura sat with them on the floor of the gallery to chat about their intersectional experiences of being young, Pacific, artists, LGBTQI+, and living in the diaspora. There were no fixed questions, and lots of laughter that made transcribing hella difficult but heaps fun. You can read Salote’s review of their exhibition in the Visual Arts section.
Sione: My name is Sione Monu and I’m of Tongan descent. I was born in Auckland and grew up in Australia. I recently moved back to Auckland to be a full-time artist. I work in multidisciplinary art. I majored in painting but I mostly do drawings and illustrations. My first time doing activation or performance art was when I met these two [Manu and Pati].
Manu: My name is Manu Vaea. I’m Tongan too. I do mostly illustration work and poetry. I want to call myself a visual artist but I haven’t done it in a while; it’s mostly performance work and it’s mostly angsty performances. We’ve been doing things since the beginning of 2016 and that’s been really fun. This is my first time being a part of an actual exhibition. I’m in my first year of Visual Arts at AUT.
Tanu: My name is Tanu Gago and I’m a visual artist, but I work in the interdisciplinary realm. Lately I haven’t been making a lot of art. I’ve just been producing and supporting the artists from the FAFSWAG collective to make the most of their creative opportunities, and to secure creative opportunities that would benefit their practices. I formally trained as a filmmaker and hated it and I was like — I never wanna make a film again! My friend suggested I try visual art. I didn’t know what that meant but, in 2009, I started just messing around and working in video installation and I really enjoyed it. I took up photography and for the last few years I’ve been learning how to trick people into thinking that I’m a photographer.
Pati: I’m Pati Solomona Tyrell and I’m an interdisciplinary artist, mostly working in lens-based mediums and performance. I’m originally from Waikato but am now based in Tāmaki Makaurau. I’m the Samoan in Witch Bitch and also the co-founder of FAFSWAG [alongside Tanu]. Witch Bitch came about at a drink up.
Sione: In Australia I would have thoughts about decolonisation and be thinking about pre-colonial practices, but I never actually said it out loud until I met these two [gestures to Pati and Manu]. It felt really magical.
Tanu: I can tell, sometimes, when I walk into the room and people are like oh god, the decoloniser. They don’t wanna drink with me ’cause it just gets too real for them. Or they’re just like — “I’m sorry okay! I’m sorry for my ancestors.” Yeah, not sorry enough. If you were really sorry you’d buy me a drink.
Manu: We were all just really drunk and I was looking at exploring mindsets of young queer Pacific men.
Tanu: If we look to the literature to define our place as the third gender or occupying the liminal space between men and women, there’s nothing there. It’s all being demonised and removed from literary texts.
Manu: Terms like “fakaleiti” or “fa’afafine” did not exist in Polynesian vocabulary or vernacular and they’re all colonial terms that were handed down to us as a way to suppress and to shame. Fakaleiti and fa’afafine weren’t their own individual thing: these words mean “in the manner of a woman”, as opposed to being our own separate entity and having our own autonomy and our own definition. We still continue to used “fa’afafine” and “fakaleiti” because it’s all we have now.
Pati: That’s the sad part of the research. We’re removed from the literature. We don’t even exist.
Tanu: We take what we do have in terms of our knowledge to reinsert ourselves into the narrative.
Manu: I’m trying to touch upon that knowledge that we feel inside of us; taking it out, and fleshing it out. For those of us who’ve lost a huge chunk of our history, this is the opportunity for us to write that, and to recreate and to affirm our culture and our place within the va.
In one of our activations at Studio One – Toi Tū, a German anthropologist critiqued one of our activations as being overt and talking about things that have already been said, we’re singing a broken record, and we just need to cut it out. And like, who the fuck are you?
Tanu: You wouldn’t know because you’re not living in the context, so how can you comment based on what you’ve read from your peers who, like you, are cisgendered, European, privileged. These people who are so removed from our cultural experiences get to frame our lives. That is not right. We’re the people living these realities.
Manu: It does get really frustrating. I was talking to another islander who was studying anthropology and criminology, and those other ologies, and we came across the subject of religion and our beliefs. They referred to their ancestors as pagans — [the deepest inhale from Salote] — as savages, as cannibals—
Pati: As if cannibals were bad…
Manu: Cannibalism was a warring practice and it wasn’t practiced among the public. It was used as a way to achieve the greatest insult that you could put on another person, which was to shit them out.
Tanu: The problem is that Western cosmology and epistemology dominated critical thought. It devalues any kind of indigenous critical thought processes, because those epistemologies and cosmologies aren’t acknowledged. The arrogance of colonisation comes through like a fucking cold winter’s breeze, saying NO YOU’RE WRONG, this is how you do it — go put some clothes on, remove any kind of physical design from your body, and come and pray with me.
Manu: Across our research we found that in Samoan and Tongan culture we had these rituals called pō me’e and pō ‘ula. They were meeting festivities where men and women would gather and dance promiscuously in hopes of attracting another person. I think the whole idea of being comfortable in our own bodies is one that a lot of islanders have lost; that comfort around being sexual beings and viewing it as natural is gone.
Tanu: Shame has been internalised. Shame and fear have been internalised by our people in the most destructive ways. Especially with queer brown bodies. They’re always sitting on the surface and so we have no choice but to address them immediately. We talk about them in a way that gives us authority, and not shame, over our body.
Manu: In our art, we want to deconstruct and chuck that shame out the window. I did a conference talk earlier this year on youth suicide in Pacific communities. Right after the conference finished, a member of the public, an old Samoan man, one of the matua, stood up and told all of us off. He told us that the reason that Pacific kids are killing themselves isn’t because of the culture of silence and the culture of shame that exists within PI communities. It’s because we don’t listen to our parents, we don’t go to church, we don’t place our lives in God’s hands, and the consequence of that is our kids are killing themselves. We sat there, and were baffled, and THIS is the culture that we have to deconstruct and we have to work towards breaking down. It’s fucked.
Tanu: The literal cost of not doing this work is human life. Unless we’re prepared to chuck it all in and talk about these things, there are gonna be young people who won’t see themselves in a way that’s positive, and like that they shouldn’t exist, or they shouldn’t be here. The conversations these artists are having might be the starting point, but everyone has to come to the table.
We spend so much time reminding people, if your son’s a fafa and he likes wearing high heels and a dress, just love him [laughs]. That’s it. You don’t gotta do anything else, or complicate it. You don’t have to sit him down with a therapist or anything. But some of us have understanding families that will support and sit with us. People can’t believe that we’re together [gestures to Pati] and that our families support us.
Manu: Half of the time, religion’s not even a factor as to why parents are bothered about their kids. It’s like face, like saving face, and it goes back to that culture of shame.
Sione: When my family members would talk about this stuff, and were against it, none of the verses of the Bible came up. They just felt it was bad, and shameful.
Manu: It’s dealing with crusty islanders who want to know everything about what your family’s doing so they can talk shit at their bingo nights. It’s damaging for everyone. I’ve known so many woman who can’t even go and get cervical checks because their mothers say no, because “if they break your hymen, how are we gonna go explain that to your husband.”
Tanu: Taboo and shame are killing our people. And I don’t wanna die. There’s this expectation to deliver family-friendly shows for us. But family-friendly doesn’t serve anyone, except those people who are happy to have their bite-sized meals and not talk about anything real. And the consequences of not talking about the real issues, the political stuff, is that when it comes to talking about something like, say, Free West Papua, and the systematic killing of trans people, they have no idea how to go about it. So we gotta start our people young — talk about real shit now.