Artist and curator Etanah Falagā Talapā writes about moving from the edge to stand here with more conviction.
We’re collaborating with Creative New Zealand to bring you the ground-breaking Pacific Arts Legacy Project. Curated by Lana Lopesi as project Editor-in-Chief, it’s a foundational history of Pacific arts in Aotearoa as told from the perspective of the artists who were there.
The call to write a piece for the Paciﬁc Arts Legacy Project enters my inbox in the middle of a fresh job switch from my youth work at Naenae Clubhouse to a curator role at Enjoy Contemporary Art Space. My ﬁrst group art exhibition in Naenae is up in the air at the moment as our second Level 4 lockdown interrupted once again. I feel compelled to use this opportunity to gather my thoughts on how the heck I arrived here.
No legacy to read here from me. Finding my position in the world as a thinker and doer of art is part of an unwritten manual. I’m asking all the time, should I go this or that way? Should I hone down art management or travel to do an art residency? Should I stay in Welly or move up to Auckland? University is ﬁnished, now what? I've dabbled here and there, picking up life lessons, lifelong friendships and skills along the way. The pursuit to create and seeing how far I can take it has, I feel, kept me living on the edge – whatever that is – for quite some time. A feeling closely described by one of Teresia K Teaiwa’s favourite proverbs: “The top of the cliﬀ isn’t the place to come and look at us; come down here and learn of the big and little currents, face to face.”
“The top of the cliﬀ isn’t the place to come and look at us; come down here and learn of the big and little currents, face to face.”
That edge where your parents aren’t sure what you’ll make in your home studio but trust you anyway. That edge has taken me across many beautiful and many more uncomfortable spaces. I needed something familiar after ﬁve years of university and interning at an art gallery. I got tired. I tried to push through. I knew I was burning out. Tired of being in the uncomfortable, of the unknown. At 24 I went back to familiar grounds, to one of my favourite homes, the rolling hills of Te Awakairangi, the Hutt Valley.
What was only two and a half years back home felt like a lifetime – I knew as soon as I landed a role at Taita Clubhouse, after being at Tauranga Art Gallery as an intern, that this would be temporary so I made the most of it to enjoy my time with family and community. I unpacked from my ‘ato all that I had gathered from being on that edge – the good and bad. Oﬄoading to our tupulaga there the places I’ve been fortunate to see, diﬀerent people I’ve met, uncomfortable spaces I’ve endured, things I could’ve done better, opportunities that I couldn’t have imagined, and the things people should never compromise about themselves when in pursuit of their dreams. In return, Taita and Naenae re-grounded me. I reconnected with old faces, family friends and my ﬁrst teachers. I reconnected with myself, and through that reconnected with art again. The simplicity in a brush stroke or stitching fabric. I forgot what it was like to play, to feel the textures without having a hand-in date or a brief to go by but playing for the sake of play. Working alongside our tupulaga inspired the idea of purity and possibilities.
At 24 I went back to familiar grounds, to one of my favourite homes, the rolling hills of Te Awakairangi, the Hutt Valley.
I think the feeling of living on that edge planted its seed from a young age. My parents would take me to my villages in Afega and Saʻanapu almost every summer and end-of-term holiday. Mum literally positioned me at the edge of family gatherings, events and ceremonies, telling me to record everything on our home video camera. Mum was a Sāmoan language teacher at Porirua College at the time, so of course she wanted every detail captured for her students in Aotearoa. Tape ﬁnished? Insert another one and another. Camera dead? Replace the battery. All done? Use the second camera. Start the process again. I was too young to understand what Mum was really doing at the time.
Some things I miss doing in Sāmoa are shopkeeping Grandma Fala’s tiny fale ʻoloa at Tuanaʻi with my cousins, and watching her and her workers process koko to sell. Every time I smell koko I'm taken right back to that hot dining room, 5pm sunset ray hits, news playing in the background, copying Grandma scooping hot koko from the silver ‘ulo, pouring it into the plastic bags, sealing then patting it to set. This is where my legacy really lies. I’m grateful to my parents and grandparents for showing me how beautiful and rich everyday life in Sāmoa is, even if our people there consider some things mundane. I’m grateful for my parents instilling the importance of my gagana Sāmoa from a young age. My older sisters often remind me how my fa‘a Sāmoa was better than my English even though I was born in Aotearoa. I acknowledge the staff and founders of the A‘oga Amata in Naenae and every other Sāmoan a‘oga amata, kōhanga reo and Paciﬁc-centred kindergarten that continues to keep our different gagana alive.
Every time I smell koko I'm taken right back to that hot dining room, 5pm sunset ray hits, news playing in the background, copying Grandma scooping hot koko from the silver ‘ulo
Back here in Aotearoa, I was literally raised by the village. I moved across houses of aunties, uncles and family friends. I shadowed my older sisters, Miriama and Nadia, believing their lifestyle and friends were mine too. Without realising it, they too challenged me from a young age to live on the edge, dropping comments like “Mum and Dad would never let us do that on our own”, “You're lucky you get to do x and y at a young age”, “Travel now while you still have time”. They cared so much about me exploring outside of our own, reassuring me – “Don’t worry, go do it, I’ll talk to Mum and Dad.” To them I owe many of the experiences I’ve been fortunate to have.
Understanding the power of art as a tool came when I experienced it with friends in high school. No one took our Brown behinds on ﬁeld trips, it was just our pure teenage wish to kaʻa and enjoy each other’s company. Before we even knew what we were doing, our conversations on diﬀerent art and events helped me be aware of myself and my surroundings, how someone’s artwork and worldview was diﬀerent to ours, and embracing the things we know to be true because of our shared upbringings. It brought us closer. This closeness is what I hope our measina can do for our people as we move forward, to bring us closer together as this world continues to pick apart everything that keeps us separate. The Pōneke art scene is small, but hella vibrant. There's always something happening in every corner of the streets throughout the year – art fairs, protests, fundraisers, festivals, live performances, public installations and programmes. You don’t have to go far to see something diﬀerent.
it became more about the art – I saw the deepening of relationships between diﬀerent generations take place
Pasiﬁka art and toi Māori practices, I think, are gradually growing in Te Whanganui-a-Tara, including over the waters at The Dowse Art Museum. We’re seeing more of our Brown selves in many diﬀerent spaces even beyond the art sector, which is happening slowly but I believe that’s the future. Earlier this year we took our tamaiti from work to see The Most Dedicated: An Aotearoa Graﬃti Story at The Dowse. Some of them were too young to know the context of the 1990s. They think they know this contemporary graﬃti art because it’s all around their neighbourhood. For the staﬀ members, it was a walking-home time capsule, encouraging them to share their own stories, what their tag names and where their spots were back in the days. Importantly, they shared their struggles as youth in the 90s as all the little ears tuned in to listen. It was at this moment I knew what I wanted to live for: I felt exactly how I did with my high-school friends at that moment – just now looking with fresh eyes from the edge and this time feeling ok to stand from this position. As our youth’s eyes lit up, wanting to hear more of their rangatira stories, it became more about the art – I saw the deepening of relationships between diﬀerent generations take place. That’s what the art did for them in that space and time, and that’s where I want to live to serve from.
There’s a transliteral meaning of ‘talanoa’ (to talk), ‘tala’ meaning open and ‘noa’ meaning knot. The exchange of words, stories and questions untied an intangible knot, creating meaningful moments and identifying within the rangatira that they too have stories that’ll be someone else’s measina one day. There is trouble ﬁnding those safe pockets to talanoa with our young and older generation today. The climate for them is too loud, too noisy, too heated, misinformed sometimes, yes, and on digital steroids.
Brown Te Whanganui-a-Tara artists are rising. I can feel it. But then I’m slammed from a conversation with a new friend from Tāmaki, who noticed something immediately that I already knew, asking me, “Where are you guys? Where are you Brown artists?” I replied, “If you really want to ﬁnd us you have to look harder. We're here, just in smaller pockets, and spread thin up and down the creative sector.” And maybe even further, to say too mellow to care to catch a fame wind. It made me think about how really small our pockets are. I know there’s more work to be done.
I think one way, moving forward here in the capital, is to cross paths more with our Brown creatives who are in diﬀerent ﬁelds – industrial, engineering, textiles, visual art, writing, performance, digital, ‘traditional’ art, handcraft, UX design, food and more. In 2018 I spent some time with Lagi, who ran her small business in Te Awakairangi ki Tai (Lower Hutt). If you're from Te Whanganui-a-Tara you know how iconic the Paciﬁc Island fabric store Lagi ran with her husband Jeﬀ is. My relationship with her came near the end of her 30-year career in the biz. Her resilience I keep close with me, as with all the women in my life and those gone before me. Lagi’s many lectures to me and my best friend come to the fore again, telling us, “You young ones need to ﬁnd how to bring your own youth, our people, together! The competition is hard. Our lot wants to go for cheaper.”
There’s a transliteral meaning of ‘talanoa’ (to talk), ‘tala’ meaning open and ‘noa’ meaning knot.
University did two main things for me – forced me to ask a whole heap of questions and introduced me to Tautai. Tautai is that ʻaiga you don't know you need until you're in studies. They are the organisation I wish my friends and I had access to in high school. I also discovered the tail end of a beautiful space on Tory St, the Kava Club collective. There’s something about stepping near the end of something magical that rucks me up when it's gone. It’s like I arrived a little late. It makes me want to do something about this restless feeling.
In my community, I recently became aware of the need to bring our people together. The group exhibition Taeao Fou (a new morning) brought together ﬁve artists: Winona Folau, Sophia Coghini, Lionel Taito-Matamua, Kainaki Lemisio and myself. Free from any institutional, organisational or marketing pressures, we gave ourselves the freedom to present existing or new works. The support to cover material costs came from the Naenae Activation Fund. I thought – after all this time away from the village – sharing our ideas at our educational institutions, starting businesses, reshaping our relationships with siapo, inventing and/or using new technologies, exploring one’s own position in this world through art, how can we take all this talanoa back to the village?
I think I came into this new role as Curator at Enjoy Contemporary Art Space partly because of knowing this edge for so long. It sucked me up, spat me out and I’ve found it again, standing here with a bit more conviction.
I just want to put my head down, let my art, my work, my people do the untying of knots.
The more I’m reading into everyone else’s beautiful Pacific arts legacies, the less I’m feeling afraid to lean into or even eventually crush this edge. To rethink it as a gift rather than a burden. I don’t really want to talk more, unless I really feel the urge to – I just want to put my head down, let my art, my work, my people do the untying of knots.
Momoli atu le agaga faʻafetai ia te oe Lana Lopesi ma le Pantograph Punch mo lenei ‘avanoa. La manuia tele le tōfa saʻili ae ola pea matou le tupulaga.
This piece is published in collaboration with Creative New Zealand as part of the Pacific Arts Legacy Project, an initiative under Creative New Zealand’s Pacific Arts Strategy.
Lana Lopesi is Editor-in-Chief of the project.
Series design by Shaun Naufahu, Alt group.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.
The Pantograph Punch publishes urgent and vital cultural commentary by the most exciting new voices in Aotearoa.