17.09.19

Manuha’apai Vaeatangitau: Life in the Arts – An Abridged Telling

I am a queer femme Pacific Islander. A fact important to note as I sit in a position where I can broach the matter of my truth through such public platforms, an opportunity not afforded to many in my community. I must acknowledge that this being a short article, I am only scratching the surface on art and creativity: my experiences with it, that of my family's, and its impact. What I hope is that this encourages talanoa, especially within Pacific queer femme circles who are often silenced by their wider communities. In service to our voice and our assertion as an intrinsic part of the Pacific, I'll share what I can.

I think of how, at first, my perception of art was that it was freeing. It allowed me to exist outside of my context. I am number four out of five children–a leiti from South Auckland–whose immigrant parents hustled knuckle and bone to ensure our survival. A story not too dissimilar from others that nonetheless came with daunting realities. Belonging to the diaspora and living in a low socioeconomic environment, I'd observe how art and creativity would persistently be weaved into the fabric of our lives. I watched my family utilise it as a means to connect with one another, time and time again. It showed off just how innovative we've become in navigating this new world. How transformative art can be in its ability to sharpen our senses, yet simultaneously soften the load of day-to-day life. I have come to realise the role art plays in not only the survival of my family and I,but also in the survival and succession of entire generations of history, culture, and knowledge.

However, as a line of work, art itself was out of the question. To be an artist meant to forgo your potential as a breadwinner. A jab at why your family even endured all they had. Although these sentiments were never lost on me, I knew that harnessing my creativity could, at the very least, allow for more than just survival. The amount of talent for art that exists and that I've inherited through my family deserved more than to remain as a mere primal notion. I was surrounded by painters, illustrators, designers, dancers, musicians, and poets all throughout my youth. I also watched life force its hand, as most relatives relegated their passions to drunken nights around a guitar or a birthday banner that needed painting. In no way am I alluding to this being shameful, I'm only stating this to highlight how experiencing a society that would only have us survive rather than flourish inhibits our ability to realise the expanse of our potential. I wanted to see that potential fulfilled and reinvigorated with the mana it rightfully deserved.

While still easier said than done, I've at least found a masochistic delight in discomfort, or maybe I have become accustomed to it. I don't know. Having started my art practice immediately after graduating high school, I've since had the great opportunity of exhibiting and performing around the world. However, for as exhilarating as it has been, I can attest to it being equally tumultuous. Lacking a lot of tact, I was unable to safeguard myself throughout the projects I cycled through. I'm an interdisciplinary artist working between different mediums constantly, and at the time, found myself spread thin. I felt that for all I had prescribed art to be, it did more to strip me of my resources financially, physically and emotionally. This forced me to re-evaluate my relationship with it. Had it stopped being freeing? Was it no longer a catalyst for connection, an innovative means of survival? Only through learning to release my expectations of art having to amount to anything could it become a mode of healing. It could exist -if, briefly- outside those functions.

Art isn't for the faint of heart. It reminds me that to exist requires bravery and was instrumental in the ways I've changed internally. I've since developed the resilience and tenacity of an iron bull. I'm softer in many ways too. Transformation is what creativity allows for; an experience I hope I've captured.

Manuhaapai1