Extracted with permission from Crafting Aotearoa: A Cultural History of Making in New Zealand and the Wider Moana Oceania, edited by Karl Chitham, Kolokesa U Māhina-Tuai and Damian Skinner, and published by Te Papa Press.
Auckland during the late 1980s was a hotbed of Polynesian empowerment that slapped me in the face upon my return to Auckland after many years away. I had left as a child still playing in the dirt, travelling first to the far reaches of the United Kingdom, then returning to spend my adolescence in Christchurch and over the ditch and far away as a model.
My cultural heritage was often ignored as I passed for a range of exotic others. As I travelled, it was something I carried with me through my close relationship with my Sāmoan grandmother, who had busy hands and a house full of love with plenty of woven mats and siapo (Sāmoan barkcloth) at the ready.
On the streets of central Auckland, I saw many ’nesian faces, though I did not see this reflected in the mainstream media of the time. Unless we made headlines on the news — couched as unwanted overstayers, poverty stricken, violent and uneducated, or as “wanted” on Crimewatch.
Our community was positioned within the frame of a bicultural agreement made between a settler community and tangata whenua, pushing Pacific Islanders to the margins of mainstream New Zealand. The Pacific Island community was changing: second- and third-generation New Zealand-born Islanders were not content to remain invisible or to see ourselves consistently portrayed in a negative light.
As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, central Auckland became a meeting place for a range of ’nesian communities that spread throughout the city. We met in the clubs, at warehouse parties, hip-hop gigs, art galleries: Pacific artists, musicians, jewellers, fashion designers, writers, dancers and activists mingling with Māori and Pākehā, all contributing to the burgeoning street culture that was developing its own native flavour.
Some, like me, had travelled and returned home inspired from the experience of living in major cities. We knew the beauty of our cultural heritage, but we weren’t from the islands. We had a different experience from our parents and grandparents. We often sat outside our own Pacific Island community, not feeling comfortable in the churches, or at the cultural festivals, where culture was relegated to shine once a year and then put back in the cupboard. Our lack of language and anger at the acculturation made an uneasy pact with our elders.
I was still working in the mainstream fashion industry, mainly as a fashion stylist, coordinating shoots and casting models. This is where the true scope of racism in New Zealand was apparent, and it played out in magazines and on our TV screens. The ’nesian body was not welcome, nor was anything that adorned it — unless it was “in fashion”, doomed to disappear when the next trend arrived. The New Zealand mainstream media did not reflect the world I inhabited.
Feeling totally frustrated, I was determined to change this status quo. I also wanted to find a place for our arts and culture other than the cultural festival or museum. I found this place in the pages of the newly formed alternative magazines, most notably Planet, Stamp and the university-run Monitor.
At the same time, I was developing a Pacific fashion show for the Auckland City Council’s new large-scale Pasifika Festival, so I was working with a diverse range of Pacific designers and craftswomen. The first show had an audience of more than 2000 people who had come from all over Auckland, despite little coverage from any mainstream media.
Planet and Stamp commissioned fashion shoots to celebrate these landmark events. Working with an unknown young Sāmoan photographer, Greg Semu, and the more established Kerry Brown, we presented strong, dark-brown faces, mixed-race faces, big bodies, bigger hair — bodies wrapped in tatau and lavalava. The stunning carved mother of pearl koru and tiki of George Nuku; the Pacific Sisters’ harakeke earrings mixed with tapa, leather and feathers; fans by Tuvaluan mamas; rito (Rarotongan processed coconut fibre) weaving by the Pacifica Mamas — all this combined with mainstream designers Levi’s, Workshop, Standard Issue and Zambesi.
These magazines let us dictate what and how we saw our place in Aotearoa — urban, multicultural, funky, political, brown and proud — and often paid the price as many shops refused to sell the magazines they thought were only for “brown” people. They let me weave craft onto the pages of fashion, art onto bodies, mixing the cultural with commercial designers from High Street.
They did not tell us we were inauthentic; we were not a mere trend; and they let us celebrate our part in the niu (literally meaning “coconut”, and used to describe the new Pacific) cultural landscape of Auckland. As a creative community, we found a platform to reveal that New Zealand was indeed an island in the Pacific. It was during this period that the term “urban Pasifika” was coined.
We had arrived.
Rosanna Raymond is a founder of the Pacific Sisters Collective, has held distinguished artist residencies and has work in many private and public collections including Museum für Völkerkunde, Germany, Auckland Art Gallery, and National Gallery of Victoria, Australia. In 2017 she was the Honorary Research Associate at the Department of Anthropology and Institute of Archaeology at University College London and was also awarded a Chester Dale Fellowship at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.
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